How and why you should caption your photographs

Sugar City, Colorado
Colorado and Adams, center of town. Sugar City, Colorado. (Daniel J. Schneider)

As a photographer, the temptation to rely on your photographs to stand on their own can be great. But in most circumstances, a photo is not fully dressed without a caption.

A well-written caption draws viewers into the situation, can explain critical background information, and provides otherwise unknowable facts such as names and dates.

Impetus

Recently, an article by Neal Rantoul on PetaPixel lamenting a preponderance of text in shows and portfolios made the rounds in the photographic community. It prompted a response from Mike Sakasegawa, also on PetaPixel, decrying the ubiquity of essays complaining about the state of the art.

Rantoul, rather than protesting the existence of the captions, is pointing out that they are often attached to mediocre photographs, and that the overall work leans too heavily upon the text:

“For most work there is absolutely no understanding possible without a written or verbal account of what the photographer is up to. I always have the sense that I am joining the telling of a story in the middle, trying to play catchup. For most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on.”

In his response, Sakasegawa takes issue with the act of complaining and defends modern photographs as an evolution of the art, pointing out that what we think of as classic photographs today would once have been dismissed. Sakasegawa’s main point, though, is that complaints about the next thing are locked in an infinite loop:

“If there’s anything that artists and art critics love besides the art they favor, it’s complaining about the current state of the art world. This is a long and storied tradition going back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, so there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the fact that it’s still happening now.”

Both points are, in my opinion, valid. Plenty of photographs I see these days are bland and uninspiring. The approximately three billion photographs being taken every day at present are mostly bathroom selfies, food photos, and those pictures you take at the grocery store to ask your friend or partner which kind of jelly or toilet bowl cleaner they want.

The portion being made with purpose for documentary or artistic purposes are a fraction of a snippet of a fragment of a trifle of the whole. And of those, many will fail. Plenty of mine do, and there is even a case to be made for making those photographs anyway. Even great photographers made bad photographs, doubtless more often than they made masterpieces — you just don’t see those ones on display.

Kyle Burks and his Ural
Kyle Burks, of Denver, returns from a test ride on his brand-new Ural Gear-Up sidecar motorcycle. The former Denver Zoo COO was attracted to the Ural’s combination of vintage styling with rugged construction and modern performance. [If you didn’t know all that, it’s just some guy on a funny-looking motorcycle, right?] (Daniel J. Schneider)

Situational

The ultimately unaddressed question raised above is whether you need captions on your photographs at all. If you research the question, you will find compelling arguments both for and against captioning. You will also find, however, that the type of photography in question influences the writers’ opinions greatly.

Some photos really don’t need captions. Commercial work, stock imagery, and most portraits probably don’t, for example.

Commercial and stock photographs are typically going to be used in an illustrative way, and often paired with a concept or topic that isn’t necessarily exactly what’s shown. Even if you provide a caption, it will likely go unused; a marketer or publicist will create their own circumstance, real or imagined, for the photograph to fit into.

Portraits are most often either pure art or pure documentation: look at this beautiful picture of a person (who could be any person), or, this is a photograph of this specific person and little more. The portraits of Don McCullin or Jill Greenberg versus those of Richard Avedon or Annie Liebovitz. (Note: A portrait can still be both technically excellent and of a specific person.)

When it comes to artistic photography, many pieces will do with just a title. Even if you just call a photograph Untitled, you’re sending a signal. Most of William Eggleston’s works are called that, and I feel like he was sending a signal about how the subject was meant to be obvious — as if he’s giving viewers a hint that they need not overwork themselves interpreting his intent.

For the rest of us, a simple title can consist of something subjective made up specifically to evoke something in viewers, a simple location or statement of obvious fact, or some combination thereof. As an artist, titling is mostly up to you.

Landscape photographers are usually content with a location, if perhaps a cryptic one, and occasionally a few brief words about what’s happening. Ansel Adams often stuck to naming the subjects (“Aspens,” “Bridalveil Falls”), and sometimes indicated something special like a storm or the moon, in his titles, though he’s often quoted as saying, “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.”

But there are times when an explanation of context can establish a photograph’s value in ways it can’t on its own, even if it is a good photograph.

So now we’ve made the case for the photograph standing alone, or with minimal explanation, which is often desired in the art world. For those times when a work is more than a single statement — when it is documentary — you’ll often find you need more.

Robert Adams and Stephen Shore both typically use relatively simple titles for their individual photographs, but craft a wider narrative supported by the photographs with detailed and eloquent introductions and essays in their published monographs — an approach I’ve found I like a lot. Both are gifted writers, and may have contributed as much to the craft of photography with text as with image (probably not, though — their images are, to me, brilliant and often stunning).

Photojournalism, though, is where we get serious. A documentary photograph devoid of context, no matter how good it might be as a photograph, is unlikely to serve its purpose effectively. Pictures are simply not worth a thousand words when their purpose is to inform.

Photographs take on the form of pictorial reportage when a dedicated photographer utilizes a camera to do more than simply make pictures. Photojournalists use images to tell stories just as writers use words, marrying photographic skill with dedication to ethical reporting, and more than a handful of willingness to put oneself in harm’s way to tell stories that need telling.

Mark Rhoads plays guitar
To bridge the gap while waiting for to complete his disability application process, Mark Rhoads, who has lost nearly all his eyesight, plays guitar for tips on the 16th Street Mall in Denver. [Or else, it’s just a shaggy guy with a guitar.] (Daniel J. Schneider)

Ideally, journalists of all types seek truth and to report it, shining lights in darkness and holding feet to fires, minimizing harm and hopefully spurring action, all the while maintaining the highest standards of accountability and transparency. It’s all the more important, then, that photojournalists’ images be truthful and accurate. To get there, they need captions.

Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner on a street in Saigon is a superb example of a photograph which, without the metadata a caption provides, could have been a photograph of any one of thousands of events in dozens of Southeast Asia conflicts over the last fifty years. It remains a striking and powerful image in the absence of a caption, but needs background.

Even with Adams’ caption, the motivations of the subjects aren’t completely clear — but they are a whole lot closer. Without those facts, this image ceases to illustrate a particular event and place it in the broader context of the larger event surrounding it — the Vietnam War — and becomes merely a photo illustrating the horrors of war in general.

Beyond the need for accuracy in establishing the value of newsworthy photography for the patrons of that reporting, a consistent practice of adequately and accurately framing the context of photo reporting is crucial to establishing and maintaining the credibility of not just the photographer and their publication, but the entire news media.

Further, an eye-tracking study commissioned by the National Press Photographers Association showed that well-formed captions drew viewers’ eyes, and were frequently read in their entirety. The study also found subjects’ eyes moving from caption to photo and back as the text illuminated the photograph bit by bit. So there’s value in terms of engagement with your work, which translates to viewers better absorbing it and remembering it.

Additional technical note: At least a simple caption, used as the alt text on images posted on the web, has value for the accessibility of your site.

TL;DR: You don’t always need a caption, but there are benefits to having them even then. Sometimes they are critical.

Sunset approaches under the I-70 viaduct
Light silhouettes the I-70 viaduct next to the Denver Coliseum, just before sunset on the closing day of the 107th annual National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in 2013. [This picture could probably stand with a lot less: “Sunset approaches behind the viaduct,” or something.] (Daniel J. Schneider)

Make it a good one

Now we’ve discussed the why, here comes the how.

A caption should establish context for the photograph, but it’s also a chance to tell the viewer why they should care. In publishing, marketing, storytelling, etc., we are generally obsessed with that question. So much of what we do, from trite slogans to preachy demonstrations, is designed to tell your audience why they should care about your product, your story, your work.

So answer the question. Just don’t forget that a successful caption should also explain those other Ws (and that pesky H): Who, What, Where, When and How. Note that those are pretty much in order of importance for most uses, with Why slipping in either as the first or last W, depending on context.

The temptation to over-explain context can be great once you decide to write a caption. Whole paragraphs might flow from your fingers, when merely a sentence is needed.

If we accept that the photograph is worth sharing in the first place — a good photograph, suited to its purpose as art, illustration or reportage — we can then begin to determine how much of the photograph can stand on its own and dedicate our caption to filling in only the necessary external details rather than gratuitously explaining the entire scene.

First, avoid stating the obvious. Second, avoid stating the obvious. Follow that link for a host of other valuable insights, particularly about things to avoid. If you’re using editorial photos to accompany a written story, you can also use captions as a way to add secondary detail to the overall story that would be difficult to incorporate smoothly into the narrative.

Don’t forget, though, to identify people and places. Two men shaking hands might be paid models, or esteemed foreign heads of state. A decaying cabin may be a disused hunter’s refuge, or the birthplace of an invention or personality of great historical import.

Above all, be sure you get everything right — and yes, spelling counts — because your credibility is still on the line here. Don’t overcomplicate the text with big words unless you can readily produce a passable dictionary definition from memory; misused vocabulary is an easy way to introduce errors.

A note on including technical details: Too many photographers post only technical details with their work these days. No matter how technically perfect a photograph may be, the lens and emulsion used, the f-stop and shutter speed, may be irrelevant to many viewers. If the photograph is meaningless due to a lack of context, why should even a fellow photographer be interested enough to care how it was produced? If, on the other hand, the photograph stands on its own entirely, is meant as an educational demonstration, or is adequately contextualized with a caption, I’ve no beef with including those details.

I take great care to write journalistic captions for nearly every photograph I publish. Even those that are only intended to demonstrate the capabilities of a camera I’m reviewing are still demonstrative of something and add to the collective knowledge of humanity. I don’t pretend they are important in that context — most wouldn’t even rate a footnote — but they are there and deserve to be explained. Think back to the four photographs above. Did you read the captions?

Kit Carson County, Colorado
Kit Carson County, Colorado. August, 2015. [I don’t want to say more about this photograph, and don’t think I should need to.] (Daniel J. Schneider)
  • What a useful post. A pet peeve of mine, one I seldom air, is the photo blogs that just show photos with no caption to tell me what I’m looking at. Even a thin caption is better than none.

    • Exactly. Only today I was disappointed by this: http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/07/alexandra-hootnick-the-sixth-day/ …I like the pictures, the premise, the photographer’s responses. But I want to know a little bit more about what’s actually happening in some of the photos. What is the boy with the hatchet chopping, for example? The photo is good, but without that crucial element it only creates tension and fails to tell me the story.