How to write good captions in photojournalism

Photos and captions. These two are inseparable in almost every type of visual media that we have. Of course, yearbooks are no exception!

As Fusion’s Customer Happiness Specialist, I have received quite a number of emails about how to put captions on the page. If you don’t know much about journalism or publishing design, I understand how tricky it can be.

But no worries now! In this blog post, I’ll give you useful tips for writing and designing beautiful photo captions in your yearbook. Here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll learn:

How to write smart photo captions
– How to use photo captions to intrigue your readers
– What’s considered a credible photo caption
– A few tips for writing your photo captions

How to design them nicely on your pages
– The basics of photo caption design
– A few tweaks to customize your photo captions

Being part of your stories, your captions must be readable and informative.
Ready to learn more about this? Then let’s get started.

Open a book, a magazine or browse any website on your favorite device and tell me what you see: images with captions. Well, as images are part of the storytelling process, their captions need to be just as relevant to bring additional value to the table. Even if an image is worth a thousand words , a few words in a caption won’t hurt your story (unless you don’t follow our tips). In fact, they should always tell more than the photo alone does. Here are a few tips you should try to optimize your photo captions:

01. How to use photo captions to intrigue your readers

When flipping through the pages of a publication, we tend to stop on nice photos. Sometimes, a photo catches our attention and we read the caption to know a little more about it. What we generally want to know is: What happened? Who is involved? When did it take place? Where did it take place? Why did that happen? How did it happen? And if the caption is good enough, we might want to read the full article. In the end, photo captions are a way for you to hook your readers and have them read the full article. Here are a few tips to make your captions intriguing:

– Make sure your caption completes your photo. A simple description of the action wouldn’t be enough. Give them something more they can’t see in the photo. It’s a great way to catch their attention and activate their curiosity.

– Don’t forget to describe important details that are not visually obvious. For example, it’s always interesting to remind the context in which the action of your story occurs (location, time of the year, etc.).

In this example from the New-York Times, we view a specific action, but the journalist added some important context in the photo caption. Together, the photo and its caption say a lot more.

How to write good captions in photojournalism

02. What’s considered a credible photo caption

If people are not convinced by what you wrote, they’ll just stop reading your article and will go to the next one (if you’re lucky). That’s why you need to check your facts, triple check the grammar and spelling of your text (especially the name of the person you’re talking about). If you don’t do that, your entire story might lose credibility. Here are the things you should consider:

In this example from National Geographic, the journalist took advantage of the caption to add historical facts.

How to write good captions in photojournalism

03. A few tips for writing your photo captions

Like for any publications, there are a few good practices you should be aware of:
Avoid repeating information that is already in titles or subtitles.
Use present tense. As a photo, you capture a moment.
Try to keep it short.
Don’t begin your caption with a , an or the . You don’t have much room, so make sure every single word is worth it!
Don’t use terms like: “is shown,” “is pictured,” “and looks on,” or “above.” Same than before, you don’t have enough room for that.
Use a conversational tone to increase readership. It makes readers feel like you’re addressing them personally.
When identifying members of a group, write “from left,” not “from left to right.”
When describing a scene, be as precise as you possible.
Name people only if it’s important to do it.

Here are a few other examples to help you:

Special Tip

If you’re not 100% confident, start with this cool formula we’ve spotted in this article :

[noun] [verb] [direct object] during [proper event name] at [proper noun location] in [city] on [day of the week], [month] [date], [year]. [Why or how.]

Then, remove any information that is not 100% relevant (it depends on your photo of course).

Things You’ll Need

  • Sports photo
  • Computer or typewriter

Sports photo captions draw readers into dramatic athletic moments. Good captions are accurate, compelling, brief and timely. They must be published right away, so the caption writer has only a few hours or less of turnaround time.

The caption might be the entire story. If the picture is good and there is not much space, the caption may be the only words the reader sees about the game.

Write the caption in this order, easiest to hardest: photo credit, body copy, and header or cutline.

Write the body copy, or what is happening in the photo. Explain why the photographer snapped that particular moment. Remember the Five W”s: who, what where, when and why. Most important are “who,” “where” and “when.” The reporter or photographer may be able to help with these details, but you are responsible to get them perfect. After accurately reporting the names, date and location, you will have very little space left. Use juicy present tense verbs describing “what is happening” and “why.”

Create the header or cutline. This is one to five words that will print in boldface to sum up the action. It might be complex, or as simple as “Safe!”

Come up with a sample caption: Safe! Pirates first base player Sucharita Patel tags Tiger Daniel Chen in Tuesday’s Springfield Little League semifinals at Memorial Park. The Pirates defeated the Tigers 8-7. (Photo: Sally Smith)

Name anyone pictured the way we read, top row first, from left to right.

Even if there are no space limits, keep your caption short. Otherwise it’s not a caption; it’s an article The editor may tell you how much space you have. If you have to choose between writing too long or too short, write a few words too long. The editor can cut the story back, but cutting is just as hard for the editor. It’s better to get it right. Never write a caption without seeing the picture.

  • Name anyone pictured the way we read, top row first, from left to right.
  • Even if there are no space limits, keep your caption short. Otherwise it’s not a caption; it’s an article
  • The editor may tell you how much space you have. If you have to choose between writing too long or too short, write a few words too long. The editor can cut the story back, but cutting is just as hard for the editor. It’s better to get it right.
  • Never write a caption without seeing the picture.

This article was written by a professional writer, copy edited and fact checked through a multi-point auditing system, in efforts to ensure our readers only receive the best information. To submit your questions or ideas, or to simply learn more, see our about us page: link below.

After my post about Instagram engagement last week, I got a lot of questions about how to write an engaging caption. So here we go – your cheat sheet to writing “good caption.” Before we get into my tips and tricks, we have to get one rule out of the way…

The Photo

Rule #1: You MUST use a quality photo.

I’m talking about a photo that is crisp, clear, and nice to look at. Instagram is a visual app, centered around pretty pictures. It doesn’t have to be the best photo in the world, but just make sure the photo you’re using is a nice quality image. If you’re stuck on this part, check out my blog post on 5 Things No One Told You About Photography.

Characteristics of a Good Caption

A “good” caption will have at least one, if not more of these qualities. The most important thing to remember is that your audience needs to walk away from your caption with SOMETHING. They could walk away with a piece of inspiration, or a helpful tip, or they may learn something about you or your craft. Consider trying out some of these tips and tricks as you write your next caption:

  • Be vulnerable. You don’t have to share your deepest darkest secrets. But sit down and think about something that’s weighing on you, or something you wish you would’ve known. What advice would you give yourself? In this example, I was feeling a little down and when I started to write it out, I ended up giving myself a pep talk that could help others too:

If you contribute to production of a print or online publication that includes photographs or illustrations, you’re likely, at some point, to write captions. Here’s some advice about how to write good ones.

1. Caption copy must match the tone of the running text (the general written content, as opposed to display type such as headlines and captions). Determine whether captions should be formal or informal, or serious or humorous, or whether the tone can vary depending on circumstances.

2. Caption format will depend on various factors. Portraits (often referred to as headshots), or images of places or products can simply be captioned with a name: “John Smith,” for example, or “Deluxe Dual-Purpose Widget,” without terminal punctuation. (If the product caption is a description rather than an official product name, capitalize only the first word and proper names.)

Captions for photos or other images showing events or occurrences can consist of incomplete sentences (“Taking the Inchworm personal-transportation device for a test drive”), but it’s generally better to use one or more complete sentences. (“John Smith takes the Inchworm personal-transportation device for a test drive.”) Avoid eliding words, as in “John Smith takes Inchworm personal-transportation device for test drive”; write the caption as if you were speaking it aloud, not as if you were writing a headline or dictating a telegram.

Some publications use a lead-in phrase to establish the caption; these are either straightforward or may be conceptual and might be humorous and/or alliterative as well. They are often formatted in boldface and followed by a colon, and they generally are capitalized like headlines. (“Wiggle Wagon: John Smith takes the Inchworm personal-transportation device for a test drive.”)

3. A brief article can be formatted as a caption; it’s best to distinguish such special features with a box around the photo and caption and/or a different font treatment. (A headline is optional.) The extent of the block of type shouldn’t be less than the space taken up by the photo, and the caption should be broken up into paragraphs if it’s more than a few lines long, and perhaps divided into columns if the image is more than one column wide.

4. Use context to determine how thoroughly to identify photographic subjects. Because a person, place, or thing shown in a photo is almost invariably identified in accompanying running text, titles, affiliations, and other additional information, for example, are rarely required in captions. Subsequent photos of the same subject can be simplified (as when a person’s full name is used only in the first of several captions for photos featuring that person).

5. Avoid replicating content from the running text in a caption. The caption should allude to the running text’s topic, but the specific wording should at most paraphrase the running text.

6. Captions should not use judgmental or facetious language or make assumptions about, for example, a subject’s state of mind. (Of course, a publication that features humorous or satirical content is an exception.)

7. If more than one person is featured in the photo, use directional or other targeting terms (for example, “left,” “standing,” or “holding aardvark”) only if the distinction between the photo’s subjects is not obvious. If you must use such wording, be consistent about style and format. Here are some alternatives (the first of which trusts readers to assume left-to-right orientation):

“Security guards Winken, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards Winken (left), Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards Winken, left, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards (from left) Winken, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards (left to right) Winken, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”

8. Avoid tired terminology. If, in a photo accompanying an article about a cash donation, a person is pictured pointing at an oversized mockup of a check, don’t write, “Charity Goodheart gestures at a giant check as Greedco chairman Rich Moneybags looks on.” (And ask yourself why your company or organization is publishing such a tired visual cliché in the first place.) Simply write, “Charity Goodheart acknowledges a donation from Greedco chairman Rich Moneybags.”

9. Fact-check all quantitative information such as spelling, names (of people, places, and things) and titles, and data, and double-check that you describe action or procedures accurately.

10. Don’t forget to include credits, and be consistent in style and format. Acknowledge the photographer or stock-photography source with the name alone; there’s no need to write “photo by” or the like. (However, if a photo is provided without charge by another source, credit, for example, “Courtesy Lookatthis.com.”) Distinguish the credit from the caption by using another font or point size and/or placing it vertically along the right-hand edge of the image.

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2 Responses to “10 Tips About How to Write a Caption”

  • Ken on May 04, 2013 10:01 am

Years ago, shortly after construction had begun on Euro-Disney outside Paris, the French president paid a visit to the construction site. The Economist published a photo of the president standing next to Mickey Mouse, and the caption read, in part, “French President Francois Mitterand (left) visits …”

Connie Oswald Stofko on May 04, 2013 6:59 pm

A basic mistake people often make is that they simply state what is in the photo. Tell readers something they don’t know. If you have a picture of a boy holding a fish, don’t say, “Jimmy Jones holds a fish.” Tell us where he caught the fish or how much the fish weighs.

Photo captions (“Cutlines”) are an underrated tool in the arsenal of the public relations professional. They aren’t complicated, yet highly effective in telling a story. Unlike a press release, photo captions play much more off of the beauty of brevity in catching people’s attention. It’s your job to tell a story from which people can relate, and as a result get them wanting to know more.

You may think of it as a bit picky, but consider for a second what it takes to make a message stick: a story that’s credible, concrete, simple, unexpected, and emotional. You aren’t writing a textbook. People don’t read photo captions for the information. They want to know who that woman is in the red dress who seems eager to make it across the street, or the man in the tailored business suite standing pensively beside the city hall office. Take it a step further, photo captions give your audience exactly what they’re looking for in the news: An eye-catching story in as few words as possible. It doesn’t take a genius to write a photo captions, as long as you know what makes one dynamic. Here are some tips for how to draft an interesting and effect photo caption:

According to the American Press Institute, photo captions should accomplish four things:

  1. Explain the action. Tell where and when.
  2. Name the principles. Don’t leave out anyone who’s in the picture. If their not important, crop them out.
  3. Tell why you’re running the photo. Go beyond the obvious. Try to pull the reader into the story.
  4. Note important detail. Explain all mysterious objects or circumstances. Allow for a longer photo caption if it will help the reader understand the story.

When writing, Keep these tips in mind: Use conversational language. Make it easy to read. Avoid cliches. Use present tense when describing action (Runs, running instead of ran or will run). Active voice reads stronger (Max is riding the bike” instead of The bike is being ran by Max). Take out needless adjectives and and adverbs (Ran fast, strong, skillfully, is running, or looks on). Don’t repeat information that appears in the headline or body. Remember to name the source of the photo and the date it was taken. Triple check the correct spelling of names.

Example of Bad Photo Caption: Young Ms. Riding Hood walking briskly to her grandmother’s cottage during a dreary fall morning. [“Yes, I can see that, but how young is she? Why is she walking briskly? Where is her grandmother’s cottage? It doesn’t look all that dreary to me.”]

Example of Good Photo Caption: Red Riding Hood, age 9, carries a basket of flowers in Fable Forest to attend to her sick grandmother in Yorkshire

The last two to four weeks of Yearbook (depending on your deadline) are wrapping up, possibly with so much left to be done! Spreads are still being built and lots of editing remains: Are photos spaced equally apart? Do pages have an eyeline? Is there a well-chosen dominant photo? The design elements which are to be consistent throughout your book—are they consistent? Are there any typos? Does every photo have a caption?

“Wait—every photo?” you ask.

“But if it’s a spread about Halloween, or a dance, everyone can plainly see what’s in the photo: someone in a Halloween costume, or someone dancing.”

“I don’t know! But they know who they are, and so do their friends, and at least they got their photo in the yearbook. People who aren’t their friends won’t care who they are.”

Maybe not. But maybe they will. Maybe there are names of people you’ve heard tossed about in school and you’re not sure who they are. Maybe someone in your school will be famous one day, and you’ll want to be able to identify them in the yearbook. Maybe years from now, you won’t remember the names of high school friends because you lost touch after high school. Or maybe it’s just a good journalistic practice to hone, to identify everyone in the photos.

But here’s the most important reason: People need to feel like they matter, like they are known. This is especially meaningful for the people in high school who feel invisible. When such a person flips through the yearbook and sees her name with her photo, when she didn’t know she was being photographed, when she assumed no one cared about her or knew her name, this suggests to her that her absence would be noticed and she would be missed if she was gone. For some people, this can be life-changing.

So, what do you do if you have photos un-captioned and you don’t know someone’s identity? Ask around. Ask yearbook staff, ask the secretaries, ask teachers.

If you’re short on time before your pages need submitting to get your ProofBook, ask the school principal or vice principal if they can post in the staff room some pages you’ve printed off photos of everyone whose name you don’t know. The staff can fill in people’s names.

Once everyone is named, the next most important part of captioning photos is describing what is happening.

“But we can see what is happening. They are playing soccer, or working in Chem class.”

Sure, but did anything noteworthy happen that game or that Chem class? Did the teacher make a funny Freudian slip during a lecture that he let become an on-going class joke? Did anyone accidentally make something explode? Was there an especially surprising goal made in a game? Did anyone spend over four hours making their Halloween costume? Did anyone sew their own dress for a dance or for Grad?

Cover as many of the Six Ws as possible: Who, What, Where, When, Why (and How).

Once you know who is in the photo, see if you can track them down and ask them to tell you the Six Ws of that photo, with as much detail as possible.

If you feel self-conscious approaching a group of students to ask them if anyone knows where you can find Adam Garbally or Jane Smee, perhaps your yearbook class or staff can devise a contest of sorts where the winner gets to decide what the teacher or advisor has to do that is embarrassing on the last day of school, and each yearbook member can pick their own idea. This way, you’ve got a fun icebreaker for when you need to approach a group of people.

“Hey, guys. Have you heard about the contest Yearbook is having to get Mr. Jones to embarrass himself on the last day of school? We are each picking a song for him to sing over the loudspeaker/a costume for him to wear and mine is [X]. To win, I need to identify as many people in photos as possible, and describe what’s happening. Do you know where I can find Ashley Fisher, Justin Wong, or Jack Mitchell?”

Just an idea. Perhaps there could be a prize instead, and no “ice breaker.”

Either way, once you have all of your information, you need to combine it succinctly into one or two sentences, three at the most.

Let’s imagine that these are your notes:

This could be reduced to:

“On October 3rd, 2013, at Oak Bay Secondary’s track & field meet, Sarah Fastrunner surprises with a first-place win by one second, beating out two other eleventh graders from Mount Doug: Madison Kindafastrunner (2nd) and Kara Superfastrunner (3rd).”

Other yearbook photo captioning How-to’s:

  • Write in the present tense, even though the action in the photo happened in the past. This is because a photo captures a moment and the idea is that as you are looking at that photo, you are in that moment and it’s happening now. After you have captioned the action in the photo, any additional information can be in past tense or future tense, as seems fitting.
  • Do not worry about trying to create jazzy, editorial, “interesting” captions. You really only need to be informative, as succinctly as possible. Trying to turn the captions into an opportunity to showcase creative writing skills will only annoy the readers. The best kind of journalistic writing—like technical writing and some copywriting—will appear almost as if it wrote itself, with no ego or personality shining through of the writer. When you’re done, someone else should have a hard time figuring out how to word it any other way because all the information there is necessary and there’s no editorializing.
  • Remember that captions should fall below the photos they are referencing, or sometimes are alongside, so there’s no need to state, “In the photo above” or anything similar.
  • Generally, in photos of five or more people, we don’t name every individual. They can be referenced as “Senior girls’ volleyball team” or “yearbook staff.” If it’s just a candid group of students, you need not caption them as “students just hanging out.” Remember, that captions should inform readers of info they can’t glean from looking at the photo; don’t state the obvious.
  • Remember that the font size should only be about 8 pt.

Lastly, maybe it’s too late in the year to get a caption on every photo. Your spreads are done and in such a way that you can’t add enough white space to squeeze captions in for every photo. Hey, don’t sweat it! Just do what you can for this year’s yearbook and next year, plan to make each aspect of yearbooking the best it can be.

    • To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles.
    • The Earth laughs in flowers.
    • Nature is the art of God.
    • Lightning is incredible.
    • Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift.
    • Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second
    • How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!
    • The shoreline at sunset is simply….beautiful.
    • Just living is not enough…One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.
    • Keep your love of nature, for that, is the true way to understand art more and more.
    • Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.
    • The bird is powered by its own life and by its motivation.
    • Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn.
    • Colors are the smiles of nature.

Inspiring Quotes for Nature Photography!

    • Nature never goes out of style.
    • How to write good captions in photojournalism
    • One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.
    • Every flower is a soul blossoming in nature.
    • When it Rains, Look for Rainbows. When it’s Dark, Look for Stars.
    • Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’.
    • Autumn, the year’s last loveliest smile.
    • Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
    • Sunset is still my favorite color, and rainbow is second.
    • Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.
    • In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
    • Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.
    • Peace is seeing the sunrise or a sunset and knowing who to thank.
    • In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
    • It always rains the hardest on people who deserves the sun.
    • The mountains are calling and I must go.
    • The sound of rain needs no translation.
    • If sky is the limit, then go there.

This weekend, you might have plans to go camping, bike riding, or to the local beach with your best friends. You’re prepping your camera now and deleting memes saved to your phone to make room for a boatload of sunset selfies and close-ups of your toes dipped in the sand. When you get home, you’ll likely post this fresh content onto your feed with one of these Instagram captions for photo-dump pictures.

Photo “dumps” are one of the latest trends on social media, and let users round up the memories they’re making during a day trip or cozy night at home in one place. Instead of selecting two or three high-quality photos in their camera roll — and subsequently figuring out where they’d fit in a layout of their upcoming feed — users are opting to tap “share” right away and post their summer moments as they’re happening, or soon after. On top of this, they’re caring less about editing their photos so the shadows and highlights are perfectly balanced, and the colors look IG-worthy.

It’s the perfect trend for a summer that’s spent more at home, due to these times, and definitely makes the most of the “Select Multiple” feature on Instagram. In the past, you may have used this cool feature to post multiple selfies when you couldn’t pick just one. But now, you can use it to round up your mems and “dump” them onto your feed, along with one of these captions.

1. “Weekend photo dump.”

2. “These are the memories I never want to forget.”

3. “Dedicating this post to the best day ever.”

4. “Enjoying the little things in life.”

5. “Would you look at this perfect weekend?”

6. “Life is what happens while you scroll through Instagram.”

7. “There she goes, romanticizing her life again.”

8. “Want to make some memories? Cool. Me, too.”

9. “Post more unedited pictures.”

10. “I’m just grateful that moments like these can exist.”

11. “Oh, to have these kinds of days every day.”

12. “Just another roundup of my week.”

13. “Photo dumps are like vlogs but in pictures.”

14. “Welcome to the best days of my life.”

15. “What’s been happening lately. “

16. “Excuse me, we have memories to make.”

17. “I’m just going to dump my entire weekend here, OK?”

18. “A casual reminder that life can be so lovely.”

19. “Swipe for lots of good vibes and tan lines.”

20. “Clearly, I couldn’t pick just one photo to post from this day.”

21. “I actually mean it when I say, ‘I love it here.'”

22. “Highly considering going to the craft store and turning these pictures into a scrapbook.”

23. “There’s a sweet surprise at the end of this photo dump.”

24. “This is what happens when you have a backyard photo shoot.”

25. “Everything I need is in this photo dump.”

26. “Which picture gives you heart eyes the most?”

27. “Summer moments captured circa yesterday.”

28. “I got my latest film roll developed, so naturally here’s a dump of what was on it.”

29. “Best friends who take a thousand pictures together, stay together.”

30. “And nobody checked their phone once.”

31. “Here’s some inspo for your next itinerary.”

32. “Should we do it all again next weekend?”

33. “Feeling so lucky and in love with my life.”

34. “‘You guys take too many pictures.’ Said no one ever.”

35. “Found something unexpectedly, and had to share it.”

36. “A sweet glimpse into my life.”