Nothing moves faster online than an image. They’re catchier than text and quicker than video, easy to grab and share in an instant. Not only that, but imagery is also the rare form of communication that can transcend the language barrier — a strong image says just as much to someone in China as it does in the US.
For creative professionals who make a living from their imagery, these traits are both a blessing and a curse. It’s possible for your image to receive massive syndication overnight (Facebook worked with an interactive firm to create a series of visualizations of this phenomenon) but the original context often gets lost along the way.
So how can you make sure that you get the credit — and potential business — if one of your images goes viral? There’s no simple answer, but here are some of the strategies used on Facebook and other sites.
It isn’t the most creative solution, or the most visually elegant, but watermarking is still the most surefire way to make sure your attribution travels with your image. It’s easy enough to do — you can apply before export in most post-processing software. There are even apps (like Marksta, designed by photographer John McHugh) for watermarking on mobile devices.
But there are tradeoffs. Watermarks, particularly aggressive ones, diminish the appeal of the image. There’s also a lot of friction in watermarking, as you’re counting on the viewer to take the time to manually enter in your name or URL to discover your work. The conversion rates on that are typically very, very low.
2. Share from a service
There are a handful of services implementing technology to improve on the watermark, enabling better tracking and analytics for images on social media. The most interesting of these is Stipple. Instead of sharing a photo directly to Facebook, you share a Stipple link. As part of the process, you certify that you’re the owner of the image, and get access to analytics on who’s viewed it and where it’s traveled. You can also add custom tags, linking viewers back to your portfolio or enabling them to order prints.
There’s a ton of potential in the idea, but one huge limitation, at least on Facebook: Stipple images aren’t displayed in the same way as an image uploaded directly. They’re displayed smaller in the News Feed, they won’t show up in the Facebook photo viewer, and they’re much slower to load. And all that means you’re likely to get a lot less engagement.
Here’s a comparison. The top image is uploaded through Stipple, while the bottom is through Facebook directly:
(It’s worth noting, though, that Stipple’s integration with Twitter is pretty solid. If you do a lot of sharing there, it’s worth checking out for sure.)
3. Use image search engines
While we can hope Google will eventually be able to recognize a search query for “that image I took on the beach when the sun was setting,” that day is pretty far off. Until then, there’s Tineye.
Tineye is unlike a typical image search engine, in that you don’t search by query. Instead, you search by uploading a file that Tineye’s technology then analyzes. It compares your file to its database of images (some 2.6 billion strong!) and returns anything it thinks is identical.
It isn’t foolproof — Tineye’s better at indexing websites than social-media sites, and even cropping an image is sometimes enough to trick it into thinking it’s one of a kind — but this can be a very useful tool for tracking down at least some of the places where your images are spreading, and finding instances for which you need to request credit or compensation.
Tineye also features extensions for both Safari and Chrome to help make the process easier.
4. Be selective in what — and how — you post
In my mind, this is still the best approach to the problem. If your business depends on print or digital sales of files, it might not make sense to give them away for free on social media.
Consider limiting the resolution at which you upload. Sure, a full-resolution file will look better on Google+ or Facebook, but much of your audience is only going see the post in a news feed, anyway. Limiting the resolution won’t hurt their experience, and it will dramatically reduce the options for someone who wants to rip off your work.
Alternately, consider turning your social-media feed into a sneak peek or look behind the scenes of what you’re shooting. National Geographic‘s photographers on Instagram are great at this. Instead of using full frames headed for the magazine, they post snapshots from the places they’re visiting or hints of features in future issues. It provides insight into the creative process, and encourages the audience to seek out the final work.
I’d love to hear how you’re approaching this problem and other creative solutions you’ve seen. Leave a note in the comments or tweet me @DanielFletcher and I’ll round up your feedback to include in a future column.
Dan Fletcher is the former managing editor of Facebook, and has written for Bloomberg and TIME magazine. You can follow him on Facebook, on Twitter @danielfletcher, and on his blog at DanFletcher.com.