How to remove a watermark from a photo (without Photoshop)

How to remove a watermark from a photo (without Photoshop)
A quick and dirty tutorial on how to remove watermarks from pictures and images. Photoshop optional.

You have a presentation in an hour and you still need a few pictures to help make your point. You’re sending art references to the design team and need to make sure everything is crystal clear. You urgently need to edit a picture that your company owns, but for some reason can’t access the original.

Whatever the reason, removing watermarks from a photo is something most marketing people will have to do at some point in their career. It just so happens that I’ve had to do it plenty of times, so I’ll show you what I do when I run into this situation.

STOP
If you’re here because you want to remove the watermark from a stock photo, just buy the damn thing and stop being cheap. Unless you’re a super-bootstrapped startup on its last month of runway, your boss will not mind spending $10 on an image if you really really need it!

Don’t forget about the value of your time: if you’re going to spend an hour+ deleting a watermark (that won’t turn out perfect anyway) then seriously consider ponying up the cash and do the right thing. You’ve got better things to do with your time.

How to remove watermarks

Watermarks are designed to be a pain to remove cleanly, so if you’re reading this tutorial, this means you’ve done the math and decided that removing the watermark is worth the time and effort!

Here’s your plan of attack:

  1. Search
  2. Search harder
  3. Open an image editor like Photoshop

Note that editing and Photoshopping is your last resort. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Search by Image

Quite often, you can get the unwatermarked version of an image simply by using Google Image Search or TinEye. Here’s a quick example.

If I download this image and use “Search by image” in Google Image Search, I can find a watermark-free photo in the results:

Done! Didn’t even have to open Photoshop.

Step 2: Search for alternate images

When working on a presentation, I’ll often get fixated on using a particular image. Problem is, I can’t find one in high enough quality or without a watermark.

That prompts me to ask: do I really need to use THIS image in particular?

Before you get ready to fire up Photoshop, take a second to step back and consider whether you need to use this specific, exact image. Can you be flexible and use another photo?

Here are some resources to help you find alternatives:

Flickr search
A great way to find high-resolution, professionally-composed pictures is by searching Flickr. Note that if your work will be available to the public (e.g. Slideshare, company blog etc), it’s best practice to tick the Creative Commons option in Flickr search, then provide attribution to the photographer somewhere in your work.

Stock.xchng
Another searchable database of high-resolution photos. In the above example, I’ve got an image of a pensive-looking, angry man. Checking out the search results for “angry man” on Stock.xchng – we can see there are at least a few worthy alternatives here that I don’t need to edit later in Photoshop:

Sometimes the fastest way to solve a problem is to think laterally. Consider alternatives unless you really must use a particular image.

Step 3: Okay, let’s start editing

At this point, you should have reached the following conclusions:

I can’t buy the original image.
I can’t find a non-watermarked version through image search.
I can’t find a suitable alternate picture.

Now you’re thinking: yes, editing the watermark out of this image is my best option.

Alright. The vast majority of the time, you’re going to run into two kinds of watermarks. Here’s what you should do for each of them.

Crop Out Simple Watermarks

Many pictures have simple watermarks that look like this:

And in most cases, your best solution is a simple crop. Depending on the placement of the watermark, you’ll lose a bit of the picture, but typically the spirit of the image will still remain:

The quickest and dirtiest way to do this is by taking a screenshot. Windows users can use the Snipping Tool while Mac users can press command + shift + 4 to activate the screenshot tool. Mac users, you can also save the image and crop it in Preview, in case you want to be a bit more precise.

And if you really want to use Photoshop, here’s how:

Look at the toolbar in Photoshop on the left side of the screen. Using the crop tool, click and drag the controls to show the area you want to keep, then press ENTER.

For Complex Watermarks: Use Content-Aware Fills

Photoshop (versions CS5 and later) has a feature called “Content-Aware Fill” that will save you lots of time. It’s far from perfect, but it’s fast and will get the job done 9 times out of 10. Remember, our goal here is quick and dirty – good enough to use – because we’ve got other stuff to do :)

It can turn photos with more complex watermarks like this:

Into something like this:

It’s definitely quick – this took about 3 minutes to do, as I’ll show you now.
The dirty part is debatable – it’s suitable to use in most cases, but anyone looking at the picture for more than 15 seconds will see that it’s been doctored in some way.

Here are the tools you’ll use:

1. Use Marquee and Lasso to select sections of the photo
A good plan of attack is to start with the easy parts first. Don’t select the whole watermark all at once, do it in stages so you have more control and can undo and redo without having to start over. Also, you may find that after editing the obvious parts of the watermark, the picture becomes usable and you don’t need to spend more time on it.

Marquee lets you select rectangular sections, while Lasso works freehand. Zoom in as needed. For this picture, I would use the Lasso and start here:

2. Go to Edit > Fill
After making a selection, go to Edit > Fill. You should see a dialog box like this. Just click OK and let Photoshop do its thing.

You may notice a few imperfections here and there; just undo then use the Lasso again, slightly changing the selection until you get a good result. Try to keep your selection as close to the watermark as you can.

Here’s a quick animation of how it works.

Rinse and repeat until you’ve removed a significant amount of the watermark and can get on with your day!

More Photoshop tips for marketing people

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David Fallarme

Hi, I'm David Fallarme. I've been doing marketing in companies big and small. I like learning new things, so I'll share what I know with you.


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