Each time you take a photo, that image is copyrighted. Assuming that you can prove that you took a specific photo, then misuse of that photo could lead to monetary compensation. But the truth is that most intellectual property lawyers won’t touch your case unless the image has been registered with the US Copyright Office. A copyright protects forms of “authorship” (as opposed to trademarks and patents which protect marks and inventions), and registration confers significant legal benefits to the photographer, namely that you can claim statutory damages of up to $150,000 per image infringed.
A non-registered image isn’t eligible for statutory damages, however, the infringed party can seek actual damages and “disgorged” profits (which in some cases can exceed the statutory limit). The amount of compensation can vary in size, and based on a judge’s interpretation of “willfulness” of the infringer.
For example, if a nefarious publisher uses your unregistered image of a grizzly bear in a magazine, you might be able to claim a few hundred dollars (i.e. not enough to pay the lawyer). But if the image is registered, you could get up to $150,000 in statutory damages.
Statutory infringements are assessed on a per image basis, with a single award available even if there are multiple infringements. If the nefarious publisher uses the grizzly bear image in a brochure and an ad, you’re only eligible for $150k in statutory damages, not $300k.
Additionally, if the nefarious publisher grabbed your images from a single magazine, or single website, there is also only one statutory damage available. The essay of grizzly bears ripped from your website and used in an ad is still only eligible for $150k.
Registration has a huge benefit, so make sure you register your images regularly.