Writing Compelling Photo Captions: Learning the Purpose, Structure, and Specifics

Updated: Feb 12

We’ll talk about four main things today. First, why are captions important? Second, what are the main parts of a caption? Third, how do you actually write the caption itself? And fourth, what’s the purpose of a style guide for your captions?

There are many facets of putting a yearbook together, with event coverage and photos being at the top of the priority list. However, there is a critically important but often forgotten aspect of building a yearbook that we will be giving special attention to in this blog: photo captions.


A picture is worth a thousand words.

First, why are captions important? You’ve heard the old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but that’s not entirely true for yearbooks. 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 the reader of your yearbook may want to know, details that can’t be seen in the picture, and that’s why you need a caption. You know, studies have actually been done where they’ve tracked the eye movements of people looking at photos that had captions, and they found that people usually look first at the picture, then at the caption, then back to the picture, and then back to the caption in a very predictable rhythm. Nearly one-third of the time people spent looking at the photo was spent looking at the caption.


But it may get pulled off the shelf ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years from now. And by then your memories of high school probably will have faded quite a bit, and looking at those pictures you wonder: Who are those people? Who was she again?

There’s something else to keep in mind when considering why captions are important. A yearbook is a pretty unusual book, when you think about it. It’s a book that you might go through when you first get it, but then you put it up on your shelf and don’t look at it again. But it may get pulled off the shelf ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years from now. And by then your memories of high school probably will have faded quite a bit, and looking at those pictures you wonder: Who are those people? Who was she again? Was that the Fall dance or the Spring festival? I used to know that guy, he was the quarterback, what’s his name again? So, if you do your job well in writing photo captions for your yearbook, you will answer those questions for your reader decades before they even ask them.

A caption should typically have three sentences, and each sentence has a purpose.

Okay, second question. What are the main parts of a caption? Photo captions do have a structure, and it’s a pretty simple structure. A caption should typically have three sentences, and each sentence has a purpose. Sentence #1: You describe what’s happening in the photo in present tense without being redundant. Sentence #2: You give additional information about the event, usually in past tense – the people, the situation, etc. And sentence #3: This is a quote, ideally from one of the people in the photo. Now, let’s spend a little more time on each of those sentences.


The first sentence is where you use some of those W’s – you tell the reader Who, What, When, and Where.

The first sentence is where you use some of those W’s – you tell the reader Who, What, When, and Where. Imagine that you have a sports photo in front of you of #89 catching a pass during a football game. Don’t write “Our player #89 catches a pass in a football game.” That’s pretty obvious just from the picture. Your job as a writer is to add something. Who is #89? What’s his name? When did the game take place? Who was the game against? Who won? So, a better first line for that football caption might be “Receiver Rick Trejo goes high to catch a pass in the September home victory against Polytech High.” Now, notice again that it is in present tense: “Rick Trejo goes high to catch a pass.”


The second sentence then allows you to give more information about the photo, whether that be the events surrounding the photo or the person in the photo.

The second sentence then allows you to give more information about the photo, whether that be the events surrounding the photo or the person in the photo. Using our football photo as an example again, a good second sentence might be “Trejo was the only sophomore to make the all-league team this year,” or maybe “This was the first time in three years that our school beat Polytech.” See, the second sentence gives you the chance to answer two of those basic questions – the Why and the How. Why is this photo important enough to include in the yearbook? How was this event significant? Notice that second sentence is written in past tense.


The third sentence is a good place for a quote, either from one of the people in the photo or from someone else connected with the event.

Now, the third sentence is a good place for a quote, either from one of the people in the photo or from someone else connected with the event. Quotes can be surprisingly hard to do well. For example, again, using our football photo, here are some bad quotes: “This was the first time in three years that we beat those guys,” said Trejo, “so it was a good night for us.” Now, that’s not a bad quote unless it’s totally redundant. If in your second sentence you said that this was the first time in three years that you’d won, then your quote says “This is the first time in three years that we’ve won,” then it’s redundant. Captions are very brief, so you don’t have any room to be redundant. Here is another bad example: “We played hard,” said Trejo, “I was proud of all the guys.” Thanks there, Captain Cliché. If the quote isn’t interesting and it doesn’t really add anything to your caption, then either a) find a better one, or b) just skip it and add another “second sentence” that provides more information. One last bad example: “Those dumb f***s tried to f**k us all game,” said Coach, “so we showed those f*****s who the f***k we are.” Uh, thanks but no thanks. Like all the other parts of your caption, your quotes should be positive and not critical of anyone … just have good taste, people.


First, be interesting. Some people look at the 3-sentence format we just went through and get locked into a boring formula of “Just the facts, please.”

Now, let’s talk about the actual writing of the caption. First, be interesting. Some people look at the 3-sentence format we just went through and get locked into a boring formula of “Just the facts, please.” But I would encourage you, don’t be afraid to be creative in expressing those facts! Not all of your captions have to be poetic or whimsical or over the top, but a few of them could be. Sure, you need to be a reporter, but also, most importantly, you need to think of yourself as a storyteller. A yearbook tells the story of this year at this place, so tell that story the best you know how – captions are a huge part of telling that story. Don’t be afraid to use a thesaurus to find more interesting words, but be cautious, because if you overuse the thesaurus you could end up with captions that just sound weird and forced. So, be sure to use words that you and your classmates would normally use.


As a yearbook writer, you’re in an interesting spot, because you’re actually a part of your audience – the people you are writing for are your friends, classmates, and peers.

As a yearbook writer, you’re in an interesting spot, because you’re actually a part of your audience – the people you are writing for are your friends, classmates, and peers. So, here’s a clue: If you think that your caption is boring, it probably is. Also, a note about attitude – really try to be positive. Maybe that’s easy for you with your personality, or maybe it’s not so easy. Either way, your default attitude in writing a caption should be upbeat and encouraging, even if that means putting a rosy spin on some things. You don’t want people picking up the book ten years from now and getting depressed because the yearbook told them that their senior year was sucky.


Be informed. If you don’t know anything about soccer, you probably shouldn’t be the one writing the soccer photo captions.

Another point about writing a caption: Be informed. If you don’t know anything about soccer, you probably shouldn’t be the one writing the soccer photo captions. If you don’t understand chemistry, you might want to find someone else to write the caption for the lab photo. Don’t try to fake it, because it usually shows.


Be quick. You should try to write the caption as soon after the photo was taken as possible, so that all of the details are still fresh for you.

Next, be quick. You should try to write the caption as soon after the photo was taken as possible, so that all of the details are still fresh for you. If you’re trying to write captions for photos that are months old, then boy you’ve got some work ahead of you. And that’s the next point – be willing to work hard. Sometimes you can write a caption from your desk. But often a good caption will require you to get up and go do some research, ask some questions, talk to some people, and gather some information. Be willing to do that.


Be accurate. Make sure that your caption articulates what’s actually happening in the photo. It is possible to write a creative caption that has little or no connection to the photo at all. Don’t do that.

Also, be accurate. Make sure that your caption articulates what’s actually happening in the photo. It is possible to write a creative caption that has little or no connection to the photo at all. Don’t do that. Also, about accuracy, two other points. First, there’s no worse feeling than seeing yourself in a yearbook photo with your name spelled wrong or left out altogether. Second, be sure that every one of those Who, What, Where, and When bits are double-checked. Nothing tanks credibility like avoidable errors.


Be fair. If you hated this year’s theater production, maybe you should get someone else to write the theater photo caption. If you’re frenemies with this year’s homecoming queen, get someone else to write the caption of her getting crowned at halftime.

The next point: Be fair. If you hated this year’s theater production, maybe you should get someone else to write the theater photo caption. If you’re frenemies with this year’s homecoming queen, get someone else to write the caption of her getting crowned at halftime. Captions are a not a place for your opinion, and they’re sure not a place for you to air grudges or score points. A couple things about that: Don’t assume that you can read a mood just from a photo. Looking at a photo, you may feel you want to write about the “discouraged women’s soccer team” when they weren’t discouraged at all, they were just tired. Solution? Ask the people involved how they felt at the moment that that photo was taken.


A note about being funny, and the line between funny and hurtful: You know that there are some photos that come across your desk where, wow, it can be really tempting to be snarky, sarcastic, or oh-so-clever when writing the caption.

A note about being funny, and the line between funny and hurtful: You know that there are some photos that come across your desk where, wow, it can be really tempting to be snarky, sarcastic, or oh-so-clever when writing the caption. But it’s really hard to know where the line is, so it’s better to err on the side of caution. The #1 rule is, don’t hurt anybody’s feelings in their yearbook. If you think you’re getting even a little bit close to the line, run your writing by a few other people, including your advisor, and maybe even the person who’s in the photo. If other people don’t think it’s okay, leave it out.


Be literate. That is to say, don’t be sloppy, check your spelling, check your grammar, and try to use active voice instead of passive voice in your writing.

Finally, be literate. That is to say, don’t be sloppy, check your spelling, check your grammar, and try to use active voice instead of passive voice in your writing (e.g., “The woman saved the lion” instead of “The lion was saved by the woman”). As mentioned earlier, nothing tanks credibility like avoidable mistakes.


Have a style guide for consistency in your yearbook. Now, this is more for your advisor or editor or whatever your team calls the leadership positions, but it’s good for you to know.

Okay, fourth point: Have a style guide for consistency in your yearbook. Now, this is more for your advisor or editor or whatever your team calls the leadership positions, but it’s good for you to know. A style guide is a rule book, it lays out what you do in various situations: For example, what are your capitalization rules, how many people in a candid photo get identified, do you include the class year of people in your pictures, what is your formatting style, do you reference exact dates when referring to specific events, is slang allowable, etc. There are no right or wrong answers to these style questions – the point is consistency, so that all the sections, all the pages, and all of your captions follow the same rules and formatting


That’s all we have. If would like us to review your photo captions, please follow us on Instagram (@unitedyearbook). DM us the photo you want captioned along with the first draft of the caption, and we’ll send you our suggestions and feedback. We hope that this was helpful – we’ll see you next time!

Dr. John Tuttle, Curriculum specialist & lecturer


Dr. John Tuttle 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, and where he has also been adjunct faculty for several years in the “great books” program.

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