Lesson: Captions - The text that explains the captured moments

Photojournalists are responsible for more than just taking photos. They must provide the information that explains what's happening, who's in them, and where and when the photos were taken. This information is called captions or cutlines. You will learn how to write captions in this lesson.

  1. Photo + journalism = photojournalism. In this lesson, journalism is the caption information. When you capture moments, explain those moments.

  2. So, what are captions and how are they written? Crafting captions seem simple enough. But there are important guidelines photojournalists should abide by (these might vary depending on the publication).

  3. According to the Associated Press Stylebook Photo Captions chapter, there is a simple formula to follow:

  4. Most captions should be no more than two concise sentences, while including the relevant information. Try to anticipate what the reader will need.
  5. The first sentence of the caption should contain the following mandatory elements:
  6. * Describe who is in the photograph and what is going on within the photo in present tense.
  7. * Name the city and state (or country) where the image was made, following AP style for the city and state as appropriate.
  8. * Provide the date the photo was made, including the day of the week if the photo was made within the past two weeks, and preceded by a comma. (e.g., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015)
  9. The second sentence (if needed) of the caption is used to give context to the news event or describe why the photo is significant.
  10. * This sentence should be written in past tense.
  11. * It can include additional relevant observations from the photographer on the scene.
  12. Next, we shall turn to NPR, Poynter and JNet and other great organizations for hot tips and suggestions for caption writing:

  13. Now, study examples of bad writing and caption writing jokes that backfired:
  14. Important tips for writing photo captions:

  15. 1. There are several kinds of captions. Here are the most common you will use:
    a. A single name for head shots
    b. A basic descriptive caption that highlights most of the 5Ws (for photos that accompany a story).
    c. A more detailed caption, commonly called an extended caption for standalone photos, used when primarily when photos run without a story. Think of extended captions as mini stories.

    2. Basic components of a caption:
    - The first sentence of a caption is written in present tense, and should at least include the who, what, where and when.
    - The second sentence adds additional, background information, and is written in past tense.
    - If you add a third sentence, it could be a quote from the subject, or even more background information.

    Follow this simple formula:
    Holland, Ohio resident Roger Brown (who) presses apples for freshly made cider (what) at MacQueen Orchards Farm Market in Springfield Township (where) Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 (when). (Now comes the background information in past tense) MacQueen Orchards began making cider last month, and will press apples until April. Brown, who has worked at the cider mill for 56 years, commented, "Turning apples to cider is like making water into wine."

    3. Identifying people in the photos.
  16. This means you have to approach your subjects to get the correct spelling of their names, as well as relevant information you need for complete caption information. Taking the photo is one thing, but approaching them is another. Gathering captions can take beginning photojournalists out of their comfort zones, so prepare for that.
  17. Here are a few basic rules of thumb for identifying people in a photo:
    a. Always ID them left to right in your notebook and in the published photo.
    Example: John Doe, left, and James Doe study for the online caption writing quiz that is scheduled for next week.
    - When taking down names, always start with the person on YOUR left. That way you know your names are organized in your notebook from left to right.
    b. In your notebook, write down what the subjects are wearing. DO NOT DEPEND ON YOUR MEMORY!
    Example: Janet Doe (baseball hat) Jane Doe (red scarf)
    c. Write all names legibly, so you can clearly read your writing. If your subject writes their own name down, reread the name in front of them, and then verify with your subject what you think they wrote down.
    d. Verify the correct spelling of their names, even if they are simple, like John (Jon), Lori (Laurie), or Melissa (Melisa).
    - Do not take for granted that names are spelled traditionally.
    - Show your subjects the notebook so they can see how you spelled it.
    - Repeat the correct spelling to your subjects so they can verify you wrote it down right.
  18. e. Use your camera microphone (if you have one) to ID subjects or take notes for a particular photo.
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