Photo Captions

How to write better captions:

Visuals are typically the first thing the reader notices when looking at a publication. So, we know the importance of strong visuals. Yet do we know and respect the importance of the caption that goes along with each image?

Too often, the caption is put on the back burner due to the lack of know-how on the photographer’s part, or the idea that the photographer just wants to make striking images, not do the work of the journalist.

At this point, the image becomes just eye candy and fails to help the reader understand the importance of the image or the context that it adds to the story it goes with.

Not only are captions important to the reader, but they also ensure the historical significance of the recorded moment, and they add credibility to the reputation of the photojournalist as well.

The basic goal of each caption should be to help the reader understand the photograph better and its relevance to the news. Strong captions add to the stories and help direct the reader to want to consume more. In a way they can be seen as breadcrumbs to want to read the story.

Professional standards should always apply. Captions should be clear, accurate, and complete. They should be informative and written for impact.

The most important element is accuracy. Readers need to be able to trust the photographer and publication. Without accuracy the trust is diminished, and the reputation of the publication is automatically damaged. Once credibility is lost, it can take years to try to gain this back.

With training, you can become a stronger caption writer, and therefore a better journalist. Your reputation relies on your ability to take strong pictures and how seriously you take the role of being a journalist. Work on this now and you’ll find that with time this becomes easier.

Steps: Use the 5 Ws in your reporting. All of this information won’t necessarily make it into your captions, but it will help you with writing them.

  • WHO: Who is in your photo? Pro tip: Show the person or people you took a photo of your notepad so you can confirm the spelling of their name.
  • WHAT: What is going on in the photos? Pro tip: Is there a lot of chaos at this event? Have you photographed several people and might forget who you took photos of? Write yourself a note so you remember! You can write a quick note describing what they look like too.
  • WHEN: When did this event or moment occur? Keep dates. Pro tip: Sometimes the date is not used in the publication. Sometimes it doesn’t add to the story or context of the photo. It’s still important to have it though because it’s the only way to track the moment in history.
  • WHERE: Where did the moment or event occur? Is there a significance to the location that would add to the context? Pro tip: Always keep this in mind and keep in contact with the reporter you are working with. They might have more information on this and can help.
  • WHY: This is perhaps one of the most important parts to a caption. Humans are naturally curious, and we as consumers we read publications for the why. Pro Tip: This is advanced photojournalism. This is asking these questions yourself and making sure you yourself understand. Sometimes photojournalists go into assignments blind, not knowing the why, nor having curiosity themselves. Part of developing as a photojournalist is learning more about curiosity and opening yourself up to learning more.

More specifics tips to writing captions:

Formatting captions varies from picture to picture but generally the first sentence identifies the people in the image and the location at which where the images was taken. Clearly identify the people and locations in your images.

Double- and triple-check the spelling of everyone’s name. People who are photographed for publication will typically appear in a publication only a few times in their lifetime. It’s embarrassing to the photographer and the publication when names are incorrect. Again, it harms the reputation of the publication and photographer.

In the case of photographs of large groups of people, sometimes only notable or single people need to be identified in the image. This can be a case-to-case basis and depends on the content of the photograph. There are exceptions as well when no identifications are required at all. This needs to be discussed with your editor, however, and to cover yourself, when gathering information and photographing people, you should try to get the names of as many people as possible.

It is essential that the date and day the photograph was taken is added to the caption. Attempts to update photographs and run more current images, is always a better idea. In the case that an updated photograph is not available, the caption should be labeled as a “file photo.”

Providing context to the reader to help them understand the news value and importance of the image is always a good idea. This means the photographer needs to understand the significance themselves. Have you asked all the questions you need to ask? When adding this content, not a lot needs to be added.

Ask for quotes. Oftentimes the subject’s point of view or opinion adds great context and importance to the image. It can add impact. It also shows that you, as a photojournalist, have taken the time to connect with the subject.

Pro Tip: Ask for the telephone number of the person in your photo. You can tell them that you might have follow-up questions, and this will help you in making sure you have not made any mistakes. Most people want you to get your job right and they will be fine with receiving a follow-up phone call or text.

To watch for:

  • Do not editorialize or make assumptions in your captions.
  • If a photo is overly manipulated, label it as “Photo Illustration”
  • Do not add overly flowery language to your captions. Being descriptive can sometimes turn to opinion so be mindful of this
  • If there is no story to go along with your photo, you most likely will need to write a stronger, more thorough caption, or a copy block.
  • Don’t describe the obvious: Yes, you need to identify the PEOPLE in the picture, but you don’t have to describe the picture. Don’t tell me what I can already see. Tell me what I can’t see or understand.
  • That said, don’t interpret. Don’t try to interpret what you think is happening. You wouldn’t guess what someone is thinking, saying, or doing for the story. Don’t do it for the photo.
  • Don’t double up: Try not to say the same thing that’s being said in the headlines, factboxes and other display type. Sometimes that’s hard, because you don’t know exactly what the headlines will say. But you can make an educated guess. So a good guidepost is, DON’T write the caption off the lede or the nut graf, because the thrust of those is likely to be in the main hed and the deck.

-Carrie Pratt, Herald Advisor