Last Friday I covered captions, so I figured I might as well post on titles this week. Both are necessary in my opinion, although many photographers only title their images. Probably the best argument for including both captions and titles is that Google and other search engines tap those two fields (plus the keywords field) when people search the web. An upcoming post will cover how and why to include all this so-called metadata with your photographs.
By the way, the titles for these pictures are in all caps, with the caption following. They are a mix of very recent images along with some from my just-finished trip through the western U.S. As always, they’re copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission. If you’re interested in any of them, just click on the picture. If you can’t find the one you want there, please contact me, making reference to (you guessed it!) the title.
It seems so simple to slap a title onto a picture. And it is! But when you think about capturing a real winner, then printing it at a truly enormous size, and you put your signature very small in one corner. Then below the image, centered and written in beautiful script, is the title. In that case the title becomes a big part of your image. When people look up at the framed picture, their eyes quickly lock onto the title. And that really influences how they view the image. What I’m saying here is that titles are worth more than a casual thought.
Over the past year or so I’ve been looking at more and more images from other photographers. While I certainly didn’t avoid looking at the work of others when I started to get serious with my photography, I definitely did not seek it out. I wanted to develop my style without a lot of influence from others. But as I’ve gotten familiar with the styles of other photographers, I’ve realized that the way they title their images reflects and even helps define their different styles.
So now that I’ve beat the drum loudly on the importance of a good title, what goes into writing one? Like your images themselves, titles are very subjective. So you should view the following guidelines more broadly than most any other advice on photography.
- Keep it short: Think one to three, maybe four, words. This fairly obvious point can easily be missed if you’re not careful. If your title starts looking like a caption, it should be a caption not a title.
- File Names: Decide on whether you will have a file-naming system that is independent of your titles, or if you will be using the same thing for both title and file name. It’s totally up to you. There is no right or wrong. There are things to consider of course, having to do with web searching. But we’ll postpone that discussion for the future post I mentioned above.
- Descriptive Titles: This type of title says what (and maybe where) the image is. I know the caption does this too, but as long as it is short, a descriptive title can be simple and effective. If you shoot a portrait of someone named Candace, titling it Candace is a fine idea. If you have other select images of her, adding a word or two to distinguish the images is good. Maybe “Candace & Kitty”, or “Candace at the Beach”.
- Be Specific: Say you’re going the descriptive route. You don’t want to be overly broad with your titles. For example, title a picture of the largest waterfall in the world Angel Falls, not Grand Nature, or even Tall Fall in an effort to be witty. I’ve seen the titles Nature, Boy, Water. You get the idea.
- Simplicity: I just warned against not being specific enough with your titles. But titles like The Crack or Evening Comes, while not very specific, can be nevertheless very effective. My advice here is to simply not overuse this technique.
- Creative Titles: These types of titles can run the gamut. Popular these days are touchy-feely titles that attempt to evoke some sort of image on their own. (I think the image itself should do that, call me crazy!) All these types of titles do for me is tell me the photographer has a good thesaurus and knows how to use it. Titles like Perseverance, Eternal, Awakening. I also see a lot of images with titles like Liquidity, Counterpoint, etc. And don’t get me started on titles with references to fantasy stories: “Kneel before Sauron“, Odin’s Revenge, silliness like that.
- Relevance: You might think from the above point that I don’t like creative titles. It’s true that I think they are easily overdone. I believe in mixing it up. But that is purely subjective on my part. It is relevance that really tips it, I think. If I’m scratching my head trying to figure out what Eve of Forever has to do with a shot of a stream running through a forest, I think there’s a problem with the title. In a word, it’s forced. But if a shot of a mostly submerged crocodile with wildebeests clustered on the river bank is titled Patience, then it works.
- Overused Titles: I think there are quite enough images of red rocks in the American desert southwest with the title Red Planet, don’t you? Watch out when you use the word Heaven’s in any title. Use common sense. Just as it’s bad form to replicate images, it’s bad to replicate titles. The way to get your images noticed is to stand out from the crowd. And titling a shot of some young guy doing something dumb Extreme is just not going to do it.
- Descriptive & Creative: This wonderful combination takes some effort, and not every picture lends itself to titles like this. But if the title contains a relevant descriptive word or two along with a word that sparks the imagination or evokes emotion, it’s likely to both be effective and natural sounding. A title like Creation’s Furnace for an image of bubbling lava in the crater of Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia is a more attractive title than Erta Ale Lava Lake (which isn’t a bad title either). For an image of beautiful golden cliffs reflected in quiet waters, Light’s Golden Echo is both descriptive and creative.
If the idea of creative and descriptive titles is attractive to you, my advice is to take a two-pronged approach. First, work on being conscious of what you’re trying to get across with your images. For selects, write down notes about the message or story behind them. Some people even write short poems. This thought process will help with the creative part. Secondly, become a good keyworder, thinking hard about all the words that describe your image. That will help with the descriptive part. These two skills overlap and support each other. They also have benefits other than for titles.
- Keep it Simple: It’s a good idea to keep your titles simple, that is, easy to understand. If the reference to your image is very indirect or obscure, nobody will understand the title. My experience is that being obscure, at least more often than occasionally, is a good way to get people thinking you’re desperate to appear intelligent.
- Getting Better: Just like with the image-making itself, writing good titles takes practice and conscious thought. Don’t be afraid to change the titles of your selects if you think of better ones down the road. Also, again just as with the photography itself, you can learn from other photographers. When you’re looking at the work of other photographers, take note of those whose titles you admire as well as those who can teach you what not to do. In fact, you may even end up viewing the portfolio of a photographer whose images you’re not a big fan of, just because you think she writes good titles.
I hope this has given you some ideas. I don’t claim to be a great “titler” by any means (is that a word?). My style tends to lean toward the literal, though I do get touchy-feely on occasion. Your style may be completely different.
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!