Captioning Your Images


What rules should I follow while captioning my images?

Answer by: Tunali Mukherjee Photojournalist, Documentary Filmmaker, and Writer.

A photograph is worth a thousand words, a thought you should keep in mind when captioning your images.

Let me begin with something you should never do—being poetic with your captions. Too many photographs have been butchered by photographers who take the emotional route when captioning their images. By that, I mean, using abstract, vague terms like ‘love is forever’, ‘a mother’s sacrifice is eternal’, and so on. This is the biggest disservice you can do to your photograph. Anything you want to communicate in an image must be done visually. The caption is only there to add context. If it is about a mother’s sacrifice, let the picture show it. If it is a portrait, and a story must be told through the caption (refer to Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York), tell it in the shortest way possible.

A caption is not a space for you to elucidate your thoughts, or worse, a diary about the emotional process behind your image. Unless you have been invited to talk about your photo, or if talking about the picture is the very point of taking it in the first place, don’t indulge yourself. Never dictate to the viewer what they should infer from your photograph. In fine art photography, the term ‘Untitled’ is often used. This is for works that are open to interpretation, thereby preventing the viewer from being influenced by your thoughts.

On the other hand, in photojournalism, captions are required for context, and generally follow the Five Ws and One H in reporting—Who is in the photograph, what is happening (not literally, but say, the event or the reason why the image was shot), followed by when, where and how. The purpose of this is to inform, and perhaps, in some cases, to initiate action, in the form of donations or volunteer work.

The reason formats like the one used in Humans of New York work is because the captions add meaning and enrich the photograph. You see a portrait of a seemingly ordinary human, who you would have otherwise not acknowledged. But the caption reveals a side to them that you would not have known otherwise. This is the aspect of the image that requires communication through words. That, I think, is the golden rule to captioning photos. Say with words only that which you couldn’t with visuals.