If you contribute to production of a print or online publication that includes photographs or illustrations, you’re likely, at some point, to write captions. Here’s some advice about how to write good ones.
1. Caption copy must match the tone of the running text (the general written content, as opposed to display type such as headlines and captions). Determine whether captions should be formal or informal, or serious or humorous, or whether the tone can vary depending on circumstances.
2. Caption format will depend on various factors. Portraits (often referred to as headshots), or images of places or products can simply be captioned with a name: “John Smith,” for example, or “Deluxe Dual-Purpose Widget,” without terminal punctuation. (If the product caption is a description rather than an official product name, capitalize only the first word and proper names.)
Captions for photos or other images showing events or occurrences can consist of incomplete sentences (“Taking the Inchworm personal-transportation device for a test drive”), but it’s generally better to use one or more complete sentences. (“John Smith takes the Inchworm personal-transportation device for a test drive.”) Avoid eliding words, as in “John Smith takes Inchworm personal-transportation device for test drive”; write the caption as if you were speaking it aloud, not as if you were writing a headline or dictating a telegram.
Some publications use a lead-in phrase to establish the caption; these are either straightforward or may be conceptual and might be humorous and/or alliterative as well. They are often formatted in boldface and followed by a colon, and they generally are capitalized like headlines. (“Wiggle Wagon: John Smith takes the Inchworm personal-transportation device for a test drive.”)
3. A brief article can be formatted as a caption; it’s best to distinguish such special features with a box around the photo and caption and/or a different font treatment. (A headline is optional.) The extent of the block of type shouldn’t be less than the space taken up by the photo, and the caption should be broken up into paragraphs if it’s more than a few lines long, and perhaps divided into columns if the image is more than one column wide.
4. Use context to determine how thoroughly to identify photographic subjects. Because a person, place, or thing shown in a photo is almost invariably identified in accompanying running text, titles, affiliations, and other additional information, for example, are rarely required in captions. Subsequent photos of the same subject can be simplified (as when a person’s full name is used only in the first of several captions for photos featuring that person).
5. Avoid replicating content from the running text in a caption. The caption should allude to the running text’s topic, but the specific wording should at most paraphrase the running text.
6. Captions should not use judgmental or facetious language or make assumptions about, for example, a subject’s state of mind. (Of course, a publication that features humorous or satirical content is an exception.)
7. If more than one person is featured in the photo, use directional or other targeting terms (for example, “left,” “standing,” or “holding aardvark”) only if the distinction between the photo’s subjects is not obvious. If you must use such wording, be consistent about style and format. Here are some alternatives (the first of which trusts readers to assume left-to-right orientation):
“Security guards Winken, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards Winken (left), Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards Winken, left, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards (from left) Winken, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
“Security guards (left to right) Winken, Blinken, and Nod stand watch.”
8. Avoid tired terminology. If, in a photo accompanying an article about a cash donation, a person is pictured pointing at an oversized mockup of a check, don’t write, “Charity Goodheart gestures at a giant check as Greedco chairman Rich Moneybags looks on.” (And ask yourself why your company or organization is publishing such a tired visual cliché in the first place.) Simply write, “Charity Goodheart acknowledges a donation from Greedco chairman Rich Moneybags.”
9. Fact-check all quantitative information such as spelling, names (of people, places, and things) and titles, and data, and double-check that you describe action or procedures accurately.
10. Don’t forget to include credits, and be consistent in style and format. Acknowledge the photographer or stock-photography source with the name alone; there’s no need to write “photo by” or the like. (However, if a photo is provided without charge by another source, credit, for example, “Courtesy Lookatthis.com.”) Distinguish the credit from the caption by using another font or point size and/or placing it vertically along the right-hand edge of the image.