Photo Captions

Caption Writing Guide

Writers and editors hate to admit it, but captions usually are the second place readers turn when making their decision about whether to read a story — right after the headline. If they’re a main entry point for readers, we should put the same craft into writing captions that writers do into writing leads. Think of your caption as a frame for your picture. What will help the reader see it in its best light, understand the proverbial rest of the story?

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.

Do answer these questions

■ What happened right before or right after the photo?

■ What can help turn your picture into a story

■ What’s the history behind the event?

■ What’s the backstory on the subject of the photo?

■ Why is this story/photo important?

■ Why are we running this particular photo?

■ What does the content of the photo mean?

■ What needs to be explained?

■ Think of the WHY, not the WHAT.

Writerly issues

■ Accuracy: Double-check all information in a caption, just as you would in a story.

■ Tense: Use present tense when describing action, past tense when providing additional information.

■ Clarity/sound: Write short, clear sentences with strong verbs. Run-on sentences and dependent clauses don’t compete well for readers’ attention. Once you’ve written it, read your caption aloud, to yourself or to someone else. How does it sound?

■ Read good captions: Learn from the experts. Read the captions in magazines, particularly National Geographic, which has made caption-writing an art. Check out the captions in coffee-table books.

■ Time: Above all, build in the time to write good captions. It shouldn’t be an afterthought.

Failure to properly caption a photo according to Herald standards will result in a pay cut of 50% for said photo.