This week I sent a note to my graphic designer with a request to refresh my proof watermark.

The proof watermark is the one that covers but doesn’t obstruct images that are displayed for sale online. It exists as a polite deterrent to the very impolite practice of screen-shotting an image rather than paying the posted price for said photo. This is also known as stealing.

Stealing proof photos is an ancient practice that photographers justifiably abhor. Luckily for all of us these days, awareness is such that posting a proof photo is basically a public announcement that you’re cheap and lack any kind of class. And if you’ve missed that memo, you can count on quick public shaming to drive the point home.

I feel incredibly lucky that the riders who I photograph at competitions are aware that “using” images with the proof watermark is frowned upon, and I feel even more lucky that my community pretty much always has my back when an image of mine bearing the proof watermark shows up online. It’s a beautiful thing when I am tagged in such a photo, and I click through to find other riders rising up in my defense within minutes to call out the practice and shame the offender into taking the photo down, and/or returning to my website to buy the photo in three very simple clicks.

Because of the support of my customers, I rarely need to chime in and comment on the offending photo, but in the rare instance that becomes necessary, I keep a few versions of a pre-written message on file to politely and firmly point out to the offender their error. That note on my phone is called “MESSAGE TO THIEVES” and it has a 100% success rate. The excuse that you posted a proof photo because you were planning on buying the photo "later" just doesn't fly, trainer-who-shall-remain-anonymous.

So while it’s not a problem for me, as this year’s show season starts off in my area, I’ll make sure that my proof watermark is extra clear. Some photographers put their images behind a payment wall before the rider is allowed to view with the thought that the people unwilling to buy will just use your proof gallery as a quick study session on their form and duck out again, but I like to think that my images are high quality enough that the rider will choose a few keepers to buy while they are there. So far, I haven’t been proven wrong.

The other type of watermark that I hold near and dear to my heart is the team watermark. In show photography it’s pretty much impossible to work alone, and why would I want to when I have such a fantastic group of photographers who are excited to work with me day in and day out at horse shows? In addition to paying team photographers fairly (more on that later), I encourage recognition. Their name next to my logo on the photos they’ve shot for my company is literally the least I can do to call out their talents and give them a deserved shout out for their good work. It takes a moment of extra effort to place the watermark, and to me that’s a moment well spent.

I started doing this quite a few years ago when working at large competitions for others because I wanted that recognition on my own work. Since then it’s become more common to see a “[photographer name] for [company name]” watermark on images from all over. So excellent! While I’m not saying I started the practice, I’m not saying I didn’t. . . . Either way it’s heartening to see more openness overall in the industry in giving credit where credit is due to those who work so hard to capture beautiful, lasting moments.

This is a clear sign that the image you are about to screenshot is not, in fact, yours for the taking.