August 19, 2002

Photo captions are an integral part of newspaper storytelling, but they are often the most underdeveloped element in the mix of words, graphics, and photographs in a newspaper.

A poorly executed caption can destroy the message of a photo or the story package of which it is part. The reader/viewer expects nothing less than accurate, complete, and informative information, including captions.

Here are a few suggestions to follow when writing captions.

  • Check the facts. Be accurate!

  • Avoid stating the obvious. “Dennis Rodman smiles as he kicks a broadcast photographer in the groin.”

  • Always identify the main people in the photograph.

  • Don’t let cutlines recapitulate information in the head or deck or summary.

  • Avoid making judgments. “An unhappy citizen watches the protest…” Can you be sure that he is unhappy? Or is he hurting. Or just not photogenic. If you must be judgmental, be sure you seek the truth.

  • Don’t assume. Ask questions in your effort to inform and be specific. Be willing to contact and include the visual reporter.

  • Avoid using terms like “is shown, is pictured, and looks on.”

  • If the photograph is a historic or file photo, include the date that it was taken. Mayor David Dinkins, 1993.

  • A photograph captures a moment in time. Whenever possible, use present tense. This will creates a sense of immediacy and impact.

  • Don’t try to be humorous when the picture is not.

  • Descriptions are very helpful for viewer. The person dressed “in black,” “holding the water hose,” “sulky from chagrin,” or “standing to the left of the sofa, center” are helpful identifying factors. (Photographers must ferret out this kind of material.)

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

  • Use commas to set off directions from the captions to the picture. “Kachira Irby, above,…”or “Kennetra Irby, upper left…”

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

  • Conversational language works best. Don’t use cliches. Write the caption as if you’re telling a family member a story.

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Kenny founded Poynter's photojournalism program in 1995. He teaches in seminars and consults in areas of photojournalism, leadership, ethics and diversity.
Kenneth Irby

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