Friday Foto Talk: Captioning   7 comments

Autumn in Utah's Wasatch Mountains means quaking aspen in their golden glory.

Autumn in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains means quaking aspen in their golden glory.

Photo captioning is a subject that never really occurred to me before last week.  And I don’t really known why.  It just seemed to fly under the radar, something not really relevant to photography.  How wrong that is!  Writing good captions is a part of presenting your images well, and is just as important as good editing on the computer.

As images have proliferated on the web, so have bad captions.  Let me back up.  When talking about photography, I try to be as non-judgmental as possible.  I have my own ideas of what a good image is, but I don’t presume others will always agree.  Photography is an art, thus completely subjective.  So let’s just say the following is my opinion and leave it at that.

The images here are a sampling from my recent trip through the American West.  I’m picking the keepers now, and succeeding posts will feature more.  They are all copyrighted, thus not available for free download without my permission.  Please click on the image or contact me directly if you’re interested in purchase of prints, downloads, etc.  Thanks for your interest.

The Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon attracts an enthusiastic group of "wind-riders".

The Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon attracts an enthusiastic group of “wind-riders”.

Here are some examples of captioning that is less than useful (in my opinion):

      • The Superhero Story:  I put this first because it annoys me the most.  And it’s getting more and more prevalent.  Even pro photographers succumb to the temptation.  Of course Facebook is prime hunting ground for these captions.  But even sites like Earthshots.org (which features excellent nature photographs) seem to love these silly captions.  

The superhero story is a long, involved account of how the photographer got the shot.  Nothing about the subject unless it is some hazard that he had to face down.  You find out that in order to bring you this amazing shot, he had to brave dangers that would make mere mortals like us turn and run.  

Reading these captions, you find out that the photographer entered dangerous waters, faced vicious predators, danced at the edge of tall cliffs, endured extreme weather and discomfort.  In short, he performed feats that Homer would have been proud to include in The Odyssey.  Notice I use ‘he’.  That’s on purpose, because this is primarily a male ego thing.  It is also pure B.S.  

These captions are about the photographer not the subject.  Will the viewer think the image looks better after finding out the photographer went to some trouble getting it?  It’s more likely the reader will discover the photographer has an inflated opinion of himself? 

Early morning light floods into the historic Peter French Round Barn in the "outback" of southeastern Oregon.

Early morning light floods into the historic Peter French Round Barn in the “outback” of southeastern Oregon.

   

      • Camera Info. Only:  Pros do this all the time, I think because they are sponsored by the camera/lens manufacturers.  I certainly don’t mind knowing the camera and lens used, but don’t tell me that and leave out the camera settings.  I don’t really care if someone uses a $6000 camera and $12,000 lens.  After all, a person shooting with much cheaper gear could easily have much better images.  And would it kill these guys to write an actual caption for the photo?  Where is it, what is it?  You know, a caption!
      • Inaccurate:  I’m running across this more and more.  These days, people want to be seen to know about all sorts of things.  I want to say to them, “hey, I’m slightly impressed you know this, but I’ll never mistake you for a Renaissance man.”  It’s certainly okay to give detailed info. in your captions.  But if you don’t know a lot, don’t get too specific.  Nothing wrong with going into detail, but do your research.  Get it right.
      • Deliberately Misleading:  I understand why a photographer might not want to reveal exact locations.  I have my favorite (secret) spots too.  But for the most part, you can easily give location information without giving away your exact shooting position.  I think it betrays insecurity when a photographer is afraid that others will replicate the shot.  Who cares about imitators?  If you are secure in your ability, you’re not worried about such things.
A frosty morning walk along the Rio Grande River is beautiful when the cottonwoods are in autumn leaf.

A frosty morning walk along the Rio Grande River is rewarded by cottonwoods in autumn leaf.

The end of fall comes to the high desert of southeastern Oregon.  "Termination dust", the winter's first snow, mantles the peaks in ghostly white.

The end of fall comes to the high desert of southeastern Oregon. “Termination dust”, the winter’s first snow, mantles the peaks in ghostly white.

I could go on but I’m starting to sound like a curmudgeon.  To sum this up, here’s what I believe a good strong caption should possess:

      • Keep it Short:  Say enough but not too much.  Captions should be short paragraphs, one line if you can swing it.  Don’t worry about writing sentence fragments, but make it readable.  Just the facts.
      • Be Accurate:  Do your research.  Find out the animal’s correct name, get the place-names right (including spelling), was it sunrise or sunset, and so on.  Most important, don’t go beyond your knowledge.  If you don’t know for sure, don’t include it.
      • Make it Subject-centered:  Give the viewer some idea of the What/Where/When of the image.  If you want to add camera & lens info. make sure to include the settings too.  It is even more important to give information on the subject when the title lacks it.  Titles; don’t get me started on those!
      • Avoid “Making-of” Stories:  Following the above point, make it about the subject and consider a blog if you want to talk about how you got the shot.  There simply isn’t room in a caption to give a lot of back-story.
      • Spelling & Grammar Count:  Run spell-check.  While I think phrases and sentence fragments are fine in the interest of brevity, that doesn’t mean bad grammar is okay too.  Captions are writing, and bad writing looks sloppy.  It can reflect poorly on you and your images.
      • Add Interesting Stuff:  If you know something interesting about the subject, include it.  You don’t have to be long-winded to add info. that people would find fascinating.
      • Don’t overdo Cute/Funny:  An occasional cute or funny caption is great, depending on the photo of course.  But if most of your captions are like this I’m not sure you’ll be taken seriously when the time comes to inform rather than amuse your viewers.  Wittiness can, like everything else, be overdone.
Welcome home:  A typically understated entrance to an adobe house in Taos, New Mexico.

Welcome home: A typically understated entrance to an adobe house in Taos, New Mexico.

Writing good captions takes some practice.  But if you keep it simple, start with the basics – the What/Where/When – and if you add interesting tidbits only as you learn them, you really can’t go wrong.  Have a great weekend and Happy Shooting!

In this view of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, the early morning low sun highlights the spires, buttes and mesas of Indian Creek Canyon.  The Abajo Mountains lie in the distance.

In this view of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, the early morning low sun highlights the spires, buttes and mesas of Indian Creek Canyon. The Abajo Mountains lie in the distance.

The former mining town of Silverton in the San Juan  Mountains of southwestern Colorado lies nestled in a high valley.

The former mining town of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado lies nestled in a high valley.

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7 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Captioning

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  1. Pingback: Friday Foto Talk: A Sense of Place | MJF Images

  2. I love captions. It think it’s their brevity and power. People are far more likely to read captions than the article.

  3. I love when photographers are reluctant to give the location. I’ve found that many people who want to buy an image want it because of where it is! It brings a memory back and that photo on their wall reminds them of it every time. I personally don’t ever read the settings people post because I prefer to see it in the image. This is a great post and I’ll re-read it again I’m sure. Thanks! EE

  4. I enjoyed this post and really like your common sense approach to captions.

  5. Always great tips. Thanks, Rosemarie

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