May 14, 2015

caption-natgeoNational Geographic magazine’s Managing Editor David Brindley stopped by Poynter last week to give a Webinar on Writing Effective Photo Captions. Given the recent eye tracking study that showed people spend a lot of time reading photo captions, we asked Brindley to give us his top tips. (A video of this conversation is below.)

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Naturally, National Geographic puts a lot of emphasis on photo captioning, but it’s interesting to note that they have full-time staff dedicated to the task.

Brindley says photo captioners will interview the photographers and photo editors; they’ll even talk to people in the photo. If the image is of nature or an animal, they will talk to an expert in the field and get information on what is going on in the background. He says they often quote the experts in the cutline.

Find out what happened before and after the photo was taken to provide context

Look at the photo itself and find what is curious or interesting about that photo. Find out what the subjects were looking at or laughing about. Get the context, the story beyond the photo.

Tell a story without rewriting the accompanying article

People look at the photos sometimes and don’t read the stories, so National Geographic wants to tell them what is going on without repeating too much information that is in the accompanying article.

For example, the cover story in the May issue is on the intelligence of dolphins. If you only look at the photos, you’ll find a lot of information about the intelligence of dolphins and research about how dolphins communicate with each other.

To learn more about photo captioning from Brindley, check out the Webinar

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Seth Liss is the editor of He was previously the online managing editor of WAMU, a public radio station in Washington, D.C. Before that,…
Seth Liss

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