Photo Caption Writing - 5 Cardinal Rules from Old School

29 July 2011
Some lessons from old-school journalism are alive and well. Take, for instance, photo caption writing.

When you write a blog entry and include a related online photo with your post, you are not obligated to add a caption. 

For news stories, feature articles and other materials intended for print media publication however, using an appropriate and effective photo caption is essential. So, how do you start? You need to observe 5 cardinal rules:

  1. State what the reader will need to know. Images may indeed "tell a story," but make sure you don't leave everything to guess work. Many professionals suggest that you include one or two answers to any of the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and one H (how).

  2. Do not state the obvious. In the case of photos accompanying a main story, your central purpose is to highlight a specific detail. A lame caption for the photograph of a winning basketball team would be "basketball superstars." A better caption will mention the score or the point lead which led to the victory.

  3. Omit wooden descriptives. Some phrases are overused and too obvious that they are best deleted. You will save space and your work will have more impact. Wooden descriptives include the likes of "as shown above" "in the photo" "as mentioned below" "as stated in the article" and "smile for the cam."

  4. Keep things concise. You may use a phrase. Be careful that your photo caption does not sound like a telegram. It is perfectly alright to include the articles a, an and the. By rule of thumb, limit the caption to one to two lines only. The shorter, the better.

  5. Express verbs in the present tense and active voice. As with conventional news headlines, the use of the present tense commands more attention and conveys more actionable news than a statement in the past tense. When in doubt, use your common sense.*
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