writing photo caption tips

writing photo caption tips

Photo captions in PR and marketing materials are often an afterthought.  Those who neglect captions, also called cut lines, miss a valuable opportunity to spread their key message.

Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications offers these facts about photo captions:

  • Images receive the most viewership on a page, according to eye-tracking research by The Poynter Institute. Captions get 16 percent more readership than text, according to Poynter research.
  • Telling people what to look for in a picture, increases comprehension, according to research by W.H. Levie and R. Lentz.
  • Removing captions from a series of cartoons reduces recall by 81 percent, according to a study by Richard E. Mayer, et al. It also reduces problem solving, or the ability to apply the information, by 66 percent.
  • Text that’s larger or bolder than body copy gets more readership. Caption-style stands out from the text.

Wylie and other experts offer these tips for photo captions.

Include a caption with every image — even if it’s small, even if readers can see what the image is, and even if it’s a conceptual illustration. You’re not writing captions to explain what’s in the picture. You’re writing captions to draw readers in and communicate to viewers who skim.

Don’t just describe what’s in the photo. Many writers make the mistake of simply stating what the photo shows. “Don’t insult your readers,” writes Gregg McLachlan, associate managing editor of the Simcoe Reformer. “If you have a photo of an environmentalist standing next to a fence at a toxic dump site, don’t write, ‘John Johnson is standing next to the fence.’”

Provide context in which the action of your story occurs (location, time of the year, etc.). Describe important details that are not obvious.

Identify important people in the photo. And make it clear who’s who in the photo. Don’t lead the readers into a maze.

Describe what is happening in the present tense. Writing like it’s happening now will prompt more engaging copy.

Deliver a key message. Encapsulate one of your key ideas into the caption and include your key words. More people will read it than if you just run it in the body copy.

Use Alt-Text to Label Online Photos. Use keywords in the alt-text descriptions that label photos. It helps with SEO and search engine results.

Write the subject, verb and object. Call them “action captions.” Think simple sentences, active verbs, Wylie says.

Be concise but informative. The more information you include, the more information the journalist and readers will have about the event. But beware- too much information – especially information that does not relate to the subject – will be distracting and could send your one message straight to the trash can.

Examine your message. Ponder what media outlets might be interested in the photo. Don’t confine yourself to one city newspaper. There are many possibilities – magazines, industry publications, and social media.

Bottom Line: Writing photo captions is an essential skill for gaining attention and promoting your brand and its key messages. Because captions often draw more attention than the accompanying article, it’s especially important to follow journalistic practices and write succinctly.