How to Keep Your Photos Safe Online

This is a topic of discussion I've been seeing in the photography community since I entered it back in good ol' 2009. I've had my photos stolen for years, pretty much since the day I started putting things out on Flickr. If you want to see some examples of photos being stolen, take a look at the gallery above - people take them and use them as the background for their Youtube videos and get tons of views with no credit. Once someone stole a photograph of mine and put on the cover of their rap album. Another time someone posted one of my photos onto their children's health site (and I still don't understand that connection).

How to keep your photos safe online from Chciago photographer Katharine Hannah

There are tons and tons of Google search pages with my images attached to them that I didn't choose to be a part of, and there's something I want to break to you - your photos will likely get stolen. It's just the way that things are these days, where everyone feels entitled to photographs regardless of their affiliation to them - all you can do is be aware of that and do what you feel comfortable with to keep your photos safe online. 

With that said, there ARE a few things you can do to put your name - either literally or figuratively - onto your work that you spread online, so that you have at least a better chance of claiming ownership should you find the need.


While there isn't anything you can do to keep someone from ever stealing a photograph of yours (apart from never posting your photos online), there are steps you can take to keep your name attached to the photograph in an effort to keep ownership. One of those ways is by embedding metadata into your photographs in Photoshop or Lightroom. I used to be SO intimidated by metadata - when I had my work stolen by the rapper, he asked to show him the metadata to "prove" it was mine and I truly had no idea what that meant. Talk about embarrassing. But before you start getting worried, thinking that this is all technical, confusing, and it'll get way out of hand like I did at first, take a breath! I promise that metadata isn't that difficult to understand because all you really need to know are the basics. 

Some of those basics include:

  1. Copyright Notice (whether it's copyrighted or common use, etc.)
  2. Author's Name (that's you)
  3. Author's Contact Info (in case it gets lost in the world of the internet and someone wants to know who created it and contact you)

I recommend using basic metadata information at a minimum, but you can also get real fancy and add keywords and location tags to make your photos more searchable online! Another way of keeping your photos safe online is through watermarking.


Oh, the dreaded watermarking. A lot of photographers hate this (and with good reason), because they think it will distract from the image, it will mess with the composition, etc. I started using watermarks after the rap album situation, because I felt it was the best way to keep my work attached to me for the time being after I was worried he would steal more. I've done watermarks ever since that happened, and now, a bunch of years later, I'm choosing to stop. Why? I realized that I was spending a lot of time and effort watermarking in my workflow process and not seeing any results: I found that it wasn't deterring anyone from stealing my photos, and it wasn't marketing my photography services in the way that some photographers feel that it does. 

The final straw for why I'm choosing to stop watermarking? I read a comment from a client online who said that she specifically didn't hire a photographer she liked because the photographer watermarked their photos and they client thought that if she purchased photos from them that they would come with a watermark attached too. So not only was I not seeing positive results from using my watermark, I could very well have been pushing potential clients away instead. I think that if you're just starting out and unsure of your style, or want to develop more and find your footing, then why not watermark? Or if you find that watermarking works for you because it spreads your name around, or makes you feel safer posting things online, then go for it! But for me at this point in my photographic journey, watermarking just ain't suitin' my needs.

It's also worth it to note that if you photos ARE stolen, you should take into consideration how important it is for you to pursue some kind of action against the thief. Is what they're using the photo for earning them money? Are they defacing your artwork in a way you're uncomfortable with? So all in all, there are a few ways to make your photos just a little bit safer online, and you just have to decide which ones are worth your time and effort. :) It may take some trial and error to see which ones work best for you, so go for it! 

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Katharine Hannah

Katharine’s work has graced the walls of institutions such as The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Harold Washington Library of Chicago, and local galleries such as Dreambox Gallery, Siragus Gallery and Blick Art Materials. She has also been featured on websites such as the Huffington Post, Phlearn, Fstoppers, Tigress Magazine for Girls, Bitchtopia, and Golden Boy Press.

In addition to photography, Katharine has been a mentor and educator in the arts since 2013. She has worked with students in various organizations and projects over the last two years, including Hive Chicago’s PROjectUS initiative and Digital Youth Network’s Digital Diva’s and Chicago City of Learning programs.