Tips for photo captioning

A great photo caption is one element that separates amateurs from professionals. It can elevate an image, providing context, color and facts.

The following are tips for caption writing aggregated from different stylebooks, photography sites, and news organizations.

1. Make sure you get the details of the person, people you’re photographing. Being a photojournalist also requires you to report who, what, when, where and how.

2. Avoid stating the obvious and redundancies, using terms like “pictured here.”

3. Always identify the main people in the photograph. If more than one person is featured in the photo, use directional or other targeting terms. For example, “left,” “standing,” “holding the child.”

4. Whenever possible, use present tense; it will create a sense of immediacy and impact.

5. Be willing to allow for longer captions when more information will help the viewer understand the story and situation.

6. Quotes can be an effective device, be willing to use them when they work.

7. Do not editorialize or make assumptions about what someone in a picture is thinking or feeling: “an unhappy student…” or “a distressed victim…” The reader should be given the facts and allowed to decide for herself or himself what the feelings or emotions are.

8. Conversational language works best. Don’t use clichés. Instead, use strong verbs that illuminate the action.

9. Context is very helpful for viewer. The woman dressed “in a red dress,” “sitting on a white chair,” are helpful in orienting the viewer.

10. Understand how each publication’s formats it’ photos. Below are a range in publication and style.

For example:

AP stylebook caption: Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., delivers his policy on Iraq speech, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007, in Clinton, Iowa. Obama called for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. combat brigades from Iraq, with the pullout being completed by the end of next year. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall).

NY Times:  Smugglers sent migrants across the Rio Grande at a point where the water is too shallow for Border Patrol boats that might have turned them back safely at the midriver boundary between the United States and Mexico.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

National Geographic: T. J. Symonds, Nevada, 1979

T. J. was 17 when I met him in a cow camp. He hadn’t been doing too well at school and couldn’t stay out of trouble, so his dad sent him to the IL Ranch in Nevada to be a buckaroo. Here he’s got two slabs of camp-made bread slathered with peanut butter and pancake syrup.

Ruddy Roye on Instagram: April 3, 2014 “Working with idle hands” Twenty nine year old Jesse is a New Yorker looking for a job. Like so many unemployed New Yorkers, Jesse lives in a shelter. Her most precious possessions consists of a book entitled Noire, a bottle of glues itch the brand name Natty, a mirror, a comb, lipstick, along with a few receipts and old wrappers. Her body flowed together liked that of a track athlete shaping her big jacket and spandex. Her eyes sprinted around my car and unto the sidewalk to douse her curiosity. “Do you live here on this block, what do you do?” she asked. Jesse kept pulling out her mirror to fix one eyelash that kept ungluing itself from her lash. “I need $20 to get this fixed,” she muttered under her breath. She said that she was on her way to the library to research Nursing Aide jobs. She threw up her hands in the air with frequency whenever she spoke, bemoaning how bored she was and how difficult it was to find work in New York. “I need a job, I hate feeling like this. I have a nine year old that I need to help take care of.” She opened up to say that an accident a year ago made her send her son to stay with his father in Florida. His father had just been freed from prison after doing a stint there, but she could not take care of him while injured. “Right now I would do anything. I would take some cleaning job if it gets me out of the shelter, I just need work.” I stepped away to allow the mechanic to inspect my car and as soon as I returned she looked at me, smiled, reached towards my waist and said, “I could cut that for you,” half bashful, and half serious. “It’s ok, I am good,” blushing.


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