Telling the Whole Story: How to Write Photo Captions Well



You’ve probably heard the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It is true that when you open a yearbook, the first place your eyes go is to the pictures. A good picture does indeed tell a story.


However, it usually doesn’t tell the whole story. There are important details that can’t be seen in a picture, and that’s why you need a well-written caption.


Let’s answer four questions about captions. First, why are captions important? Second, what are the main parts of a caption? Third, what should you keep in mind when writing the caption itself? And fourth, how do you keep your captions consistent?


Why are Captions Important?

Studies tracking eye movement found that, when people look at photos with captions, nearly one-third of the time spent looking at the photo is actually spent looking at the caption.


A yearbook is a pretty unusual book; it’s a book that will be looked at when it’s received, but it’ll then be put on a shelf and not looked at again for five years or twenty years or more. And by then, memories of high school will probably have faded: What is this a picture of? Who are those people again? A well-written caption will answer those questions for the readers decades before they even ask.


What are the Main Parts of a Caption?

Photo Captions have a structure, and it’s pretty simple. A caption will typically have three sentences, and each sentence has a purpose:

  1. Sentence 1: A description of what’s happening in the photo, in present tense.

  2. Sentence 2: Extra information about the event, people, situation, etc., in past tense.

  3. Sentence 3: A quote from one of the people in the photo.


Sentence One: The Description

Player 11 catches a pass in a football game.

 

That’s a caption, but it’s not very good. It tells the reader nothing that isn’t already evident from the picture.


A good first sentence should use some of those W’s: Who, What, When, and Where. The job of the caption is to add something; for this picture, that would include:

Who is #11?

When (and perhaps where) did the game take place?

Who was the game against?

Who won?


Here’s a much better first sentence:

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald goes high to catch a pass in a September home victory against Polytech High.

 

There’s a lot more information there! We added a name, a date, a location, plus the other team and the outcome. And there’s even a little style (“goes high…”).


Notice that it is in present tense (“goes”). The “description” sentence of a caption should always be in present tense.


Sentence Two: The Extra Info

Sentence Two should give more information about the photo, the events surrounding the photo, or the person in the photo. It’s a chance to answer two more of those basic questions: Why and How.

Why is this photo important enough to include in the Yearbook?

How was this event significant at the time?


Here’s the same photo and the same first sentence, with a couple of possible second sentences; either one is fine.

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald goes high to catch a pass in a September home victory against Polytech High. Fitzgerald was the only sophomore to make the all-league team this year.

OR

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald goes high to catch a pass in a September home victory against Polytech High. This was the first time in three years that [our school] beat Polytech.

 

We added some information that is relevant to the picture and provides some context, even though it doesn’t describe the picture itself. That’s the goal of your “extra info” sentence.


Notice that this sentence is in past tense. Only the first sentence should be in present tense.


Sentence Three: The Quote

The third sentence is a good place for a quote, either from one of the people in the photo, or from someone connected with the event. Now, quotes can be surprisingly hard to do well. Here are some bad quotes:

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald goes high to catch a pass in a September home victory against Polytech High. This was the first time in three years that [our school] beat Polytech. “This was the first time in three years that we beat those guys,” said Fitzgerald, “so it was a good night for us.”

 

That’s not a bad quote...except that it’s redundant with what you said in the second sentence. Captions have very few words, so you can’t afford to be redundant. Here’s another example:

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald goes high to catch a pass in a September home victory against Polytech High. This was the first time in three years that [our school] beat Polytech. “We played hard,” said Fitzgerald. “I was proud of all the guys.”

 

Well, that’s boring. It doesn’t add much, so it’s probably not worth including.


Don’t put in a bad quote just for the sake of having one. If you don’t have a good quote, you can include another extra info sentence or just go with a two-sentence caption.


Now here’s a quote that's pretty good! But can you spot where we “cheated?

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald goes high to catch a pass in a September home victory against Polytech High. “This was the first time in three years that we beat those guys,” said Fitzgerald, “so it was a good night for us.” Fitzgerald was the only sophomore to make the all-league team this year.

 

So where’s the “cheat”? We used the quote as the second sentence instead of the third!


That’s not a problem. The order in which you put the “extra info” and the “quote” doesn’t matter, as long as you have both sentences and make them worth reading.


Writing the Caption


Be interesting. The “Sentence 1-2-3” format can become boring and rigid, but it doesn’t have to be. Yearbook staff are in an interesting position, since they are part of their own audience. If they think their own caption is boring, their classmates probably will too.

Now, not all captions need to be poetic or whimsical, but a few of them could be!


● Yearbook staff are reporters, but they are also storytellers, telling the story of this year at this place. They should be encouraged to think in terms of story and how to tell it as best they know-how.

● Don’t be afraid to use a thesaurus to find more interesting words, but don’t go overboard. Students should use words that their classmates would normally use.


Be informed. For example, if you have a lab photo but you don’t understand chemistry, either learn enough to manage or find someone else to write the caption. Don’t fake it; it’ll show. A good caption may require you to get up from your desk and go do some research, ask questions, talk to people, and gather information.


Be quick. Try to write the caption (even as a first draft) as soon as possible after the photo is taken, while the details are still fresh. Writing captions for photos months after the event will likely require more work than doing it sooner.


"Be literate. Don’t be sloppy. "

Be accurate. A wonderfully-written caption isn’t useful if it doesn’t describe what’s actually happening in the picture.

● Also, there’s no worse feeling for a student than seeing yourself in a yearbook photo, but your name is spelled wrong or left out altogether.

● Be sure every one of those Who-What-Where-When’s are double-checked.


Be fair. Yearbook staff need to recognize their own biases: If a student hated this year’s theater production (they didn’t get chosen, maybe?), someone else should probably write the photo caption for the Spring play. Yearbooks are not a place to air grudges or score points.

● In fact, try to be as positive and upbeat as possible. Nobody wants to read — 20 years from now — about how awful their senior year was.

● Don’t assume you can read a “mood” just from a photo. A caption describing a “discouraged women’s soccer team” might be dramatic but not accurate; they weren’t discouraged at all, just tired. Solution? Ask the people involved how they felt at that moment...and that’s your chance to score a quote, too.

● Being funny in a caption is hard to pull off; what you find funny might be insulting to the person in the picture. Don’t hurt anybody’s feelings in their yearbook!


Be literate. Don’t be sloppy. Check your spelling. Check your grammar. Try to use active instead of passive voice when you write (“The woman saved the lion,” instead of “The lion was saved by the woman.”). As mentioned earlier, avoid redundancy (hey, didn’t I say that already…?)


Caption Consistency: Create a Style Guide

This is important for your whole yearbook, not just for captions, but it’s worth mentioning here.


A Style Guide is a rulebook you create for yourself that lays out style decisions in various situations, such as:


● Capitalization — Which words are capitalized and which are not:

○ Is it “coach Ron Moncrief” or “Coach Ron Moncrief”?

○ Is it “Senior Class” or “senior class”?


● How many people in a candid picture get identified? For example, if you have a candid photo of six women running cross-country, do you identify each of them, or just say “several cross-country runners endure the heat during a meet against Polytech High”? Is there a cut-off; such as, if there are four people or less, you name them individually, but if there’s more, you don’t?


● How do you present teachers’ names?

○ “Mrs. Gutierrez”

○ “Veronica Gutierrez”

○ “Mrs. Veronica Gutierrez”


● Do you include the “class year” of people in your pictures? If so, what format do you use?

○ senior Bev Martinez

○ Bev Martinez (Sr.)

○ Bev Martinez (`22)


● When describing events, are you going to use exact dates (October 13) or just the month (October)?


● Is slang allowed in your captions and text?


There are many more style questions to ask and, for most of them, there are no right or wrong answers. The point is consistency, so in all sections and all pages of your book, the text and captions should follow the same rules and the same formatting.


United Yearbook offers resources, curriculum, and on-site workshops on this and other topics. To learn more, contact us at info@UnitedYearbookPrinting.com or visit our website at www.unitedyearbook.net.

 

Dr. John Tuttle, Curriculum Specialist & Lecturer


Dr. John Tuttle is a lecturer for UYB’s in-class workshops, and also works with curriculum development, podcasts, and blog posts. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Biola University, where for ten years he was Director of Student Communications. For several years, Dr. Tuttle has also worked as an adjunct faculty member within Biola’s “great books” program.



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