Writing great captions

Photo captions are journalism’s afterthought. That can be dangerous, because captions are often the first thing readers concentrate on.

Captions are the last thing on photographers’ to-do lists as they switch their minds from images to text. Captions, also called cutlines, are often the last thing editors think about before they hit “publish.”

Yet, to readers, captions are often read before the articles they accompany and this is what they read to understand our photojournalism. Weak captions disappoint them.

Because captions are rush-rush, last-minute and slap-dash, they often carry misspelled names (prominently) and contain other errors, or they are so meaningless that they are a waste of space and time.

Written skillfully, captions clarify, captivate, educate and they can even increase a package’s pull on the website.

When I have written books, which tend to be rich with photos, I set time aside for thinking about what they will say, crafting them and then editing them.

Rarely do people get credit for good captions, only criticism for the bad ones. No wonder we try to get them over as quickly as possible.

Here’s how to do them right.

First of all, give captions some time. You don’t need to put them first on your task list, but a paragraph of caption deserves as much time as a paragraph of story because it will get at least as much attention from your readers.

Good captions begin with the person who takes the photo. Just getting the names of the people in the photo is not enough. Add some reporting. Why are they doing what they are doing? Why do they do it that way and where did they learn that? What is the why and the how of the photo that might not be obvious from the image? This is critical content if anyone is to have a shot at writing a good caption. It is totally OK for the caption to tell something that is not in the story because a good photo IS a story.

Consider what you must say. Names of the people prominent in the photo are essential. Unnamed photo subjects are to be used as infrequently as unnamed sources. Names are an important part of the subjects’ identities and tell readers that we are covering actual human beings. You should NOT state the obvious about the photo. That is lazy and insulting. If you are showing a woman pointing at a sign, for heaven’s sake, don’t write “Woman points at sign.” The reader, who has just glanced at the photo and now wants to know more, will be disappointed if the caption simply states the obvious. This is why we need some additional information from the photographer or the story.

This is how to handle different situations:

  1. When there are several people in the photo. Identify the subject(s). There is no need to identify the fifth, sixth and seventh person if they are simply part of the background. They are like extras in a movie. Focus on the stars.
  2. When identifying several people, we do it as succinctly as we can, whether going from left to right or from the main actor to the others.
  3. Give stage directions (left, right, center) only as absolutely necessary. If we have a father and child, we generally do not need to say which is who. That should be obvious from the article or context. “Demetrius Ford called his father, Anton Ford, his role model.”
  4. If we have said that one of the two people is on the left, we do not need to say that the other one is on the right. “Barnum, left, and Bailey run the circus.”
  5. Sometimes gender helps us out. “Peter, left, said Paul and Mary are the heart of the act.”
  6. When there is nothing much going on in the photo and you do not have helpful information from the photographer, use your prominent caption to double down on an important element of the story: “Kelly said the fire destroyed a century of work” not “Kelly stands next to the burned-out studio.” That is obvious. Please never, ever, never write “poses.” “Stewart poses with his horse.” Posed photos, which are just fine to use as environmental portraits or the like, are so obviously posed we don’t need to say that.

Accessibility of still images

Some people really, really need good captions. These include people with vision impairments who use the web with digital readers that tell them what words are on the screen. A good caption can help them, but is only part of the job. To TELL these readers what they cannot SEE and which you do not want to spell out for sighted reasons, you need to complete the ALT tag field that goes with the image. In WordPress, this is a box on the image’s page in the media library. A good alt tag, which is invisible on the page itself, audibly says what the photo looks like. Because this is for people who are not seeing the photo, it is OK to do that quite literally, like this: “Woman in chef’s hat stirs soufflé.” If your image is not a photo, it can help to say that at the beginning of the alt tag: “Chart shows declining auto sales from 2010 to 2020.

Video blurbs

When people look for videos online, thy usually do it with a text search. This means, unless you writ on, no on will see your video unless they are watching you channel or receive an alert about it.

Plan for a blurb that goes about 100 words. That’s just a few sentences. Your blurb should tell what the video is all about, using as many keywords as you think people would use trying to find that content. Write it like a short story, using action verbs, as well as those nouns (keywords) that people will search on. Remember to include a link to related content back on our site.

Video accessibility

To make videos accessible to people who cannot hear, we add closed captions to the bottom of the screen.  They should carry spoken words exactly. When there are areas where no one is speaking, you can add closed caption to tell them what is going on. That might mean music, racing engines, cheering, applause and the like. To see how you’ve done, watch your video with the sound off and the closed captions on.

 There is not a practical way to add audio to a video to tell vision impaired people what is in the image without disrupting the audit track. There are some steps you can take when you shoot the video to make it more accessible to people with vision impairments. That includes using big images in the frame rather than many small images that might be difficult for a person with low vision to perceive.

However, it is kind to add a caption on the page where the video is hosted, telling them that this is a video. Otherwise, a visually- or hearing-impaired person will not know what is on that screen.