Saturday, February 11, 2006

The art of writing a caption

A caption in its simplest form is the the title of an image but usually we mean a bit more. A full caption takes the form of descriptive text, usually a few sentences.

A good caption informs us about the things we cannot see and encourages us to look at an image more closely. There is a relationship of mutual benefit and dependence between a well written caption and an image. The caption can bring an image to life by providing context and meaning. It is also the link between the article/story/text and the image.

Magda Indigo has written a good description of a caption here. I agree with her dislike of "untitled". It does show a certain lack of imagination and is not particularly helpful to the viewer. Creating an image is all about trying to communicate something and the caption is vital to help the audience understand an image. It can hugely enhance the viewers experience.

A good caption is a piece of writing that should be concise, accurate, informative and as carefully crafted as the image itself. I cannot emphasise enough how entwined the image is with the words that support it. For photojournalists it's absolutely vital to get it right. A great caption can help sell an image and equally, a bad caption can kill an image completely. Above all keep it simple and check facts are 100 percent accurate.

When you write your caption you want to inform the reader of the who, what, when, where, why or how about the photograph. Your first sentence should be written in the present tense because you are referencing the moment in time when the image was made. Expanding on this in the following sentences you can use present or past tense. Explanations are best written in past tense.

If you're a novice then take a look at different national newspapers and magazines to get an idea of the structure they use and the variations in style. With a bit of study and application you'll soon be writing good captions.

By the way, the newspapers I've worked for give you no more than 20 minutes to write a caption and often less. It can get hectic when you're desperately uploading your images from your laptop, making picture edits and trying to write captions to send them through to the paper. Being able to touch type quickly may not be the first thing you think of as a requirement for being a photojournalist but believe me you'll need it.
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