NOTE: since writing this post I have added an up-to-date guide to what to do if your photographs are stolen.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think watermarks are a bad thing per se, I just think we, as photographers, are not using them effectively.
This is the crux of the issue. Photographers use watermarks for different purposes.
Some use them to mark their "proof" or website images in such a way that if they are stolen they can be identified and billed for. These watermarks are often quite noticeable and often obscure the image in some way.
Others use a watermark, normally more discreetly, to mark an image as their work. This is normally done on an image which is deliberately shared by them in the hope that viewers of that image might come back to the source to see more.
Both of the uses outlined above are valid reasons for using a watermark. Indeed, I do both. However, I believe that the mistake people make is that they don't use different watermarks for different purposes.
Take social media use as an (possibly the best) example:
A person browsing Facebook sees an photograph with a prominent watermark across the middle of the image. The watermark reads something like, "© Joe Bloggs Photography". This open up three possible scenarios:
So, as the observer, how do we know which of these situations is relevant?
The answer is we don't, unless there is something in the watermark to indicate what has happened.
Recently a photographer's image was seen online by a member of a Facebook Group which aims to identify stolen images on social media and report the theft to the photographer concerned. The use of the image was flagged up because the watermark was across the middle of the image and appeared to indicate that the image was being used illegally. The group member did not know how to contact said photographer so they took a screenshot of the use of the image and posted it in the secret group in the hope that other members could let the photographer know. They did. Quite a few of them in fact.
As it happened the photographer in question had shared the image themselves and had left the watermark on the image as an advert for their work. Unfortunately, that wasn't obvious from the watermark used, and they spent the rest of the day saying, "thank you but I shared it, it hasn't been stolen" to all the other photographers reporting the sighting of the image on another person's timeline.
So, what's my point?
I believe that if you are going to watermark your images in each of these different scenarios, then it should be obvious from your watermark how it has been used.
Images on my website appear with a large watermark across the image. The watermark contains my logo and contact details.
If I share an image on social media I (nearly always) add a different watermark. This one is placed in a corner of the image so as to be less obtrusive and reads, "Shared by" along with my logo.
If someone purchases an image from my website as an electronic download they receive an un-watermarked copy of the image. This was a decision I made because of the way my website works, but I could easily have issued it with a third version of the watermark which read, "Purchased from" if I had wanted to. All of my images are electronically watermarked with my copyright and contact details as well (see box below).