While it’s true that every photo needs a caption, opinions on what that caption should say are as diverse and as individualized as editors.
What to include in the photo caption varies according to taste and philosophy. Some publications and publishers have guidelines for cutlines. Others simply have an unwritten style that has evolved over time.
Allow me to suggest some of the many schools of thought for caption creation. Perhaps one or more of them will help you in your next project:
Less is More. This is my personal favorite. Spare, sparse, single sentence captions can not only describe what is going on in a picture, but can also help make a single illustration relevant to an entire chapter.
One way to apply this technique is to sum up a section in a single sentence that applies to the photo. Such captions are especially effective when the illustration is included as much to break up large chunks of text as anything else…
For example, let’s say that you are writing a piece about running, and have a sizeable chapter on the philosophy of running. In the chapter, you’ve discussed things like a positive attitude, determination, and perseverance. At first glance, a photo of a runner running leaves little to say. Yet a caption such as “Every runner has a reason for running” can help the illustration enhance the text of the whole chapter.
More is More. The great rider William Steinkraus was once an editor himself. He reportedly said that the only words people ever read in a book were the ones underneath the pictures. Perhaps for that reason, the cutlines in his book are little mini-chapters all their own.
Many publishers prefer expanded photo captions precisely because people often look only at the pictures.
Lengthy captions can be very effective in highlighting a particular paragraph that you want to call special attention to. In our example of the illustration for a text on running philosophy, a paragraph identifying each of the attributes that make a successful runner would be an appropriate caption.
Get Personal. Captions can be a great way to make your readers identify with the subjects in the illustrations. Calling attention to a specific aspect of a picture, and calling the subject of the picture by name, can introduce a level of intimacy and engage your readers more with the text.
Such a caption for our runner might read, “When Sandy Smythe started running, she used to become discouraged at what she felt was her lack of progress. Recognizing the destructive, limiting nature of her own attitude enabled her to see that “progress” was an arbitrary measurement. She soon stopped competing against herself and allowed herself to enjoy the experience.”
Attract Attention. Many editors like captions to make pointed, controlled observations about the illustrations they accompany. In these instances, the cutline text directs the reader’s attention to specific aspects of the picture. Such captions frequently include words like “here,” “this,” “notice,” or “note.”
If we were to apply this captioning style to our running illustration, we might end up with something along the lines of “Running is a state of mind. Notice the runner’s expression. The same relaxed and confident manner with which she moves is mirrored on her face.”
Think Punchy. Sometimes it can be useful to think of illustrations as short, thousand-word mini-chapters. To caption them, just come up with a snappy, witty, or alliterave “heading.” Then add a few sentences that sum up the photo and editorialize upon it.
Take our runner, for instance. “Running For Your Life” might be a suitable caption heading. “Living On the Run,” “”Mind Over Muscle,” or “Attitude Adjustment” are other possibilities. The sentences that follow can either expound on the chapter text or summarize it, depending on your preference.
These suggestions are by no means comprehensive. But they may help to inspire you to broaden your thinking about crafting cutlines. Here’s to inspiration!