Writing photo captions

byJohn SmockOct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics
Polaroid camera

Photo captions are often the first elements of a publication to be read. Writing photo captions is an essential part of the news photographer’s job. A photo caption should provide the reader basic information needed to understand a photograph and its relevance to the news. It should be written in a consistent, concise format that allows news organizations to move the photo to publication without delay.

Professional standards of clarity, accuracy and completeness in caption writing should be as high or higher than any other writing that appears in a publication. A poorly written caption that is uninformative or worse, misleading, can diminish the impact of a good photo and undermine its credibility as journalism. If readers can’t trust the accuracy of the simple information included in a caption, why should they trust what they read in the rest of the publication?

Writing captions

In most photo captions, the first sentence identifies the people and place in the photograph, and the date and location where it was taken. The second (and perhaps third) sentence should provide contextual information to help readers understand what they are looking at.

The exact format for captions vary from publication to publication, but a basic photo captions should:

  • Clearly identify the people and locations that appear in the photo. Professional titles should be included as well as the formal name of the location. SPELL NAMES CORRECTLY (check against the spellings in the article if necessary). For photographs of more than one person, identifications typically go from left to right. In the case of large groups, identifications of only notable people may be required and sometimes no identifications are required at all. Your publication should establish a standard for its photographers.
  • Include the date and day the photograph was taken. This is essential information for a news publication. The more current a photo is, the better. If an archive photograph or photograph taken prior to the event being illustrated is used, the caption should make it clear that it is a “file photo.”
  • Provide some context or background to the reader so he or she can understand the news value of the photograph. A sentence or two is usually sufficient.
  • Photo captions should be written in complete sentences and in the present tense. The present tense gives the image a sense of immediacy. When it is not logical to write the entire caption in the present tense, the first sentence is written in the present tense and the following sentences are not.
  • Be brief. Most captions are one or two short, declarative sentences. Some may extend to a third sentence if complex contextual information is needed to explain the image completely.

Here are a few examples:

  • New York City Police Officers check subway cars at Columbus Circle on Friday, Oct. 7, 2005. Security in the city's mass transit system has been increased following yesterday's announcement of a specific terrorist threat to the subway system. (AP Photo/John Smock)
  • A school bus is towed following a collision with a car on the Major Deagan Expressway (I-87) in the Bronx on Friday, Sept. 30, 2005. There were no major injuries reported among the 42 students and eight adults on board from St. Joseph School in the Bronx. (AP Photo/John Smock)
  • General Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan, addresses the audience at the Columbia University World Leadership Forum in New York on Friday, Sept. 16, 2005. In town for the United Nations World Summit this week, several heads of state are speaking at the university . (AP Photo/John Smock)
  • (L-R) New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Deputy Mayor for Education Denis Wolcott at PS 40 in Brooklyn on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005, announce the highest scores for New York City public school 4th graders on state math exams since standards-based testing began four years ago.
  • 9 Nov. - Cairo, Egypt - A woman displays her ink-stained finger after voting. Egyptians took to the polls today for the first round of parliamentary election. President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) have allowed several opposition groups, most notably the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood party, to be among the 5,000 candidates campaigning for more than 400 seats. Photo credit: John Smock/SIPA
  • 9 June, 2005 – Kabul, Afghanistan -- A child severely burned by a car bomb yesterday receives care at the Indira Gandi Institute of Child Medicine. Doctors are struggling with limited medicines to treat the growing number of child victims, whose injuries are often compounded by other medical problems such as poor nutrition that diminish a child's ability to heal. John Smock/SIPA.
  • Musician Phil Stewart uses software by Ejamming Inc. to play online with musicians (pictured on the screen) in other parts of New York City at the DigitalLife Expo on Friday, Oct. 14, 2005. The three-day DigitalLIfe Expo features cutting-edge technology for work, home and play. (AP Photo/John Smock)
  • Esquire magazine Editor-in-Chief David Granger, left, and Publisher Kevin O'Malley, right, pose with actress Jessica Biel at her unveiling as the magazine's 2005 'Sexiest Woman Alive' on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2005, in New York City. (AP Photo/John Smock)

Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Don’t be vague in your caption, and make sure names of people and places are correctly identified and spelled. Be accurate. A photojournalist is a journalist.
  • If a photo is manipulated digitally beyond sizing and color control, it should be labeled as a “photo illustration” in the caption, or in the photo credit. If unusual photo techniques are used, such as time-lapse photography, it should be noted. Explanations are also needed for special effects, such as the use of an inset or a picture sequence.
  • Do not use verbs or verb phrases such as “looks on,” “poses” or “is pictured above” when writing captions. They are obvious and boring.
  • Do not editorialize or make assumptions about what someone in a picture is thinking. For example, “an unhappy voter…” or “a fortunate survivor…” The reader should be given the facts and allowed to decide for herself or himself what the feelings or emotions are.
  • Do not characterize the content of a picture as beautiful, dramatic, horrifying or in any other descriptive terms that should be evident in the photograph. If it's not evident in the photograph, telling the reader won't make it happen.
  • “Wild Art,” standalones, and day shots are all terms used to describe photographs that are published independently of a written story. They often require a more comprehensive caption. Some publications even provide small headlines.

Collecting caption information

This is the news business, and time counts. Photographers often do research and collect the names and spelling of expected participants prior to the event — the internet can be very helpful with this. Some will often begin writing their captions in spare moments before or during an event. This expedites filing when the event is over. At well-organized events, press releases are provided that will include the names of notable participants.

However, the information required for a caption often isn’t available before a picture is taken. Gathering caption information during an event is difficult, and photographers do it in a variety of ways. Most photographers carry small notebooks (sometimes hung around their necks) in which to write the required info. Increasingly, professional cameras have small audio recorders built in that allow you to record required information. Other journalists at an event can also be a source for information. But, be careful: other journalists are often wrong.

Over time photographers develop techniques and timing to make collecting caption information easier. For example, at events where several photos are filed, photographers will often use the same general description in all of their captions, merely changing the significant names in the individual photos.

This article was first published on IJNet on August 14, 2008.

John Smock is a photographer, educator and story experimenter. Smock is the director of photography at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a freelance photographer based in New York City, and a former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via tangi bertin.