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Caption Writing by Peter Southwick

By Peter Southwick

The caption style used by the Associated Press is a foolproof method for writing complete, informative, and clear captions for your photographs.

The goal of a good caption should be to provide information to accompany a photo that leaves no questions in the mind of a reader.  The caption does not need to be “well written” in the classic sense, but it should be clear and understandable.

Captions should follow this simple formula:

1.     The first sentence of the caption describes what the photo shows, in the present tense and states where and when the photo was made.
2.     The second sentence of the caption gives background on the news event or describes why the photo is significant.
3.     Whenever possible, try to keep captions to no more than two concise sentences, while including the relevant information.  Try to anticipate what a newspaper editor or reader will need.

Avoid “wordiness”; clear and simple is better.  Do not make assumptions that can’t be supported by fact.  Write only what you know.


July 29, 2004 – U.S. Senator John Kerry, left, raises his arms in response to an ovation from the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston Thursday night, after Kerry delivered a speech accepting the party’s nomination for President.  At right is vice-presidential nominee U.S. Senator John Edwards, and at left is Kerry’s wife Theresa Heinz Kerry.  Photo by Joe Photographer.

July 10, 2004 – Cab driver John Doe gestures as he discusses the anticipated traffic problems associated with the Democratic National Convention in Boston, as he waits for a fare at Logan Airport Saturday.  More than 25,000 visitors are expected in the city during the week of the convention.  Photo by Joe Photographer.

This handout was prepared as part of a Northern Short Course 2004 discussion entitled:
“Gaining Respect in the Newsroom” by Timothy Baker
Comments encouraged.

One of the surest ways for a photojournalist to gain respect in the newsroom, besides constantly producing quality daily photojournalism, it to write.  After all, almost every editor started as a reporter.  While no one expects an investigative piece on education reform, there is no reason why complete captions can’t be included with every image submitted.

Although captions are among the most well-read elements on a page, they are often overlooked by photographers and copy editors.  If you caption is as close to publication-ready as possible, there is a good chance that at least a key line, fact or phrase from your caption will be used.  (Few copy editors are looking for more work to do).  By getting your caption into print, you gain control of a key element of you photographic presentation.  Also, you can support the vision you had in your viewfinder when you made the shot.

Tips for Better Captions:

1.     Get full ID’s.  ID’s are the photographers responsibility! Period!  That includes correct spelling, titles, ranks and honorifics.  (If available, a subject’s business card is a great reference.)  Avoid depending on the reporter or others to get names for you.

2.     Use the proofing mark (cq) to indicate that the spelling is correct when it appears questionable.  For example, “Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw (cq) Jones…”

3.     Keep in mind that you are writing the caption for archiving and retrieval.  The caption is embedded with the image and the information it contains will be used to retrieve the image in the future, so include names, places and circumstances that might be useful in a search.

4.     Don’t state the obvious in a label caption.  Explain why something is happening or why the people are acting as they are.  What happened before or after the photo was made?

5.     Write your caption as if it were being used for publication.  When possible, avoid starting the caption with a name, since that often leads to a label caption.

6.     Include more info rather than less.  The reporter you worked with on the story may not be working when the photo is used.  Also important for archiving.

7.     Give time references where applicable.  Example: “By 2:30 a.m., all that was left was the debris.”  This also shows the reader you are shooting outside of business hours.

8.     Don’t attribute emotions to subjects unless you are absolutely sure.  You can’t read minds, so don’t put thoughts into a subject’s head or words into his/her mouth.  This is called visual ventriloquism and is very popular with pictures of kids and pets.

9.     Don’t assume.  Is everyone at the Gay Pride Parade gay?  Is everyone at the Unemployment Office unemployed?  There is a subtle but important difference between identifying “the line at the unemployment office” and “unemployed people waiting in line.

10.  Be absolutely sure of facts you use.  It is a ’53 Road Master or could it be a ’54?  Is the yacht a sloop or a ketch?  If you’re not sure, leave it out.  If you make a factual error, you’ll get letters from readers.  If you have any doubts about the facts you were given by a source, include a line in the caption about your concerns and why you are suspicious.

11.  Don’t make up white lies to try to save mediocre photos.  If it’s not THE home run swing, don’t say so.

12.  Mention any unusual photographic technique that was used.  Such as the use of special filters, extreme lenses, multiple or time exposures.

13.  Translate foreign words in signs or graffiti and state your source.  Knowing what a sign says may be important to the caption.  Watch for obscenities.

14.  When shooting aerials, proposed development sites and crime or accident scenes, include directionals.  Example: “The view looking west on 54th Street across 7th Avenue.”

15.  When photographing a handout provided by a family, try to ascertain the date it was shot and who shot it.  Make it clear that it is a copy of a photo so you are not credited.

16.  When freelancing, include the reporter or assigning editor, the story slug and your name (as you want the credit to read) and phone number with each image.

17.  Know what stylebook your copy desk uses and refer to it.

18.  Special warning: Joke captions have been known to find their way into print.