The 1001st word: an introduction to captioning your images

by Elizabeth Atalay

Captions writer Elizabeth Atalay is an avid snapshot photographer, but says she’s more at home with words than with a camera. In her 15 years as a research editor at National Geographic magazine, she’s had the chance to help research and craft captions for some of the best images in the world. You can see why we’re so excited that she was drawn to our work and goals here. She’s thrilled as we are, to be working with Confluence Magazine to help give voice to the next generation of documentary photographers. Elizabeth is available for captions writing, editing, and consultation for your next project or competition submission.

Picture it: You’ve spent weeks, months, maybe years creating a deep, meaningful, artistic documentary photography project. Before you started, and while you were shooting, you were immersed in your topic, learning as much as you could about it and the people (or things) involved. 

Now you’ve winnowed down your best shots, perhaps placed them in the (hopefully) kind, thoughtful, experienced hands of a photo editor to lay out in a way that makes sense to a viewer. And then someone asks you to write captions. How on earth can you boil down everything you’ve learned into a few short lines to appear with each photo?!

I’ve spent 16 years as a sort of mediator between photographers and readers/viewers, helping to determine what people want to know about a documentary photo, how to pull that information together, and how to present it clearly. Here are some things to consider before and during your coverage, and some tips on conveying information in captions.

Before and During Your Coverage - Captions Groundwork

If you’re coming to documentary from commercial/family photography or art photography, consider the different purpose you have for your documentary images. When you work with a family or corporate client, you just need to capture the images – the client knows how to fill in the who and what. In art photography, the image is all. But in documentary, you’re capturing parts of a bigger picture – the captions’ job will be to fill in the aspects of the story that aren’t visible. Your job is to make sure you gather that surrounding information and transmit it to your viewer accurately and clearly.

During your coverage, ask your subjects how much detail they feel comfortable sharing about themselves with your viewers – make sure you know if you can use their full names (preferable, for documentary) and talk to them about how much detail about their lives they’re comfortable with sharing. A photo release is a good way to approach this – you’ll get the correct spelling of their name and contact information for any follow-up questions, and you can clarify the potential uses of the images.

Be curious throughout your coverage – ask questions about what you’re seeing and capturing on film. If you’re shy about asking details on your own behalf, consider that you’re asking on behalf of future viewers. And, generally, if someone has agreed to be photographed, they’ll want you to understand what you’re seeing. Get answers to the what, where, why, and how about your subject/s. Write things down when you can, or use your phone to record conversations (with permission!) about what you’re seeing. Or take a short video interview that you can refer to later. Documenting things in the moment is really helpful.

Good steps to take:

-       Plan some questions in advance while you’re researching and planning your shoot

-       Take moments during the shoot to stop, ask questions, and jot things down

-       After the shoot, if anything is unclear, follow up while the moment is still fresh


After Your Coverage – Drafting the Captions

Once you have your final image selection, gather together the information you have about what is in each photo. You may need to do some research and/or follow up with your subject to make sure you’re describing things correctly, using the right terms, etc.

Then, when you know the order in which the photos will appear, review them in order while considering each as a chapter in your story. (I pull a screenshot of each into a Word document, in order, and then I gather the information as notes and links under each picture.) Try to look at each image with a fresh eye – you may even ask someone unfamiliar with your project look through the images and tell you what they would want to know.

As you draft the first few captions, be sure to establish where you are and what topic you’re addressing—you can do more or less of this depending on any introductory text. As different characters appear in the layout, introduce them to the reader and explain their role in your topic. 

 Avoid saying “In this photo” or similar – it’s obvious and will get repetitive. Just start with what we see. 

 It’s good to cover different aspects of your theme in different captions – ideally the selection of images will make that easy; if not, don’t push it, but try not to repeat information.

Keep in mind that captioning a set of photos is different than captioning one photo – it’s a story versus one description. And if the order of the images changes, the captions may need to change, too. Depending on the format of your presentation, and the amount of surrounding text describing your project, you’ll need anything from a brief cut-line simply identifying what’s in the photo, to a longer, many-sentence caption tying the image to an aspect of your topic that you’d like to highlight. When in doubt, though, keep it simple and direct, addressing what people see in the image. Your images will do the emotional labor; a good caption will reinforce the emotion, while conveying the factual information. 

If all else fails, give me a call – I’m available for freelance consultations and/or captions writing.

Elizabeth’s caption for photographer  Adrienne Harvey’s feature story  in Issue Two of Confluence Magazine.

Elizabeth’s caption for photographer Adrienne Harvey’s feature story in Issue Two of Confluence Magazine.