Captions to images can be defined as titles, short explanations, descriptions or labels that are usually short -one to four words or sentences long- associated to an image. However, while short captions are frequently recommended, they’re not always effective for trivial or obvious descriptions. For instance, imagine you have the following picture:
A caption saying “Ben and Julia kissing” might seem unimportant, so in these cases, it is better to use a short paragraph or two if that means adding value to the image, allowing the photographer to actually capture the image’s situation and providing people with adequate information to understand the picture and logically relate to its circumstances in a relatively small amount of words. Consider for instance using something like “The intense feeling of love still bringing Ben and Julia together after 50 years.”
The main reasons to use captions range from identifying the subject or most important element of the picture without necessarily giving the obvious details, identifying the place where the picture was taken to present relevant cultural or natural information, identifying the rest of the people or things in the picture, establishing when and why the picture was taken, and providing context for the picture, which involves letting the vie wer know the events surrounding that one specific moment in time or the actions that took place outside the frame and that are therefore not evident to the viewer.
To better understand the previous points let’s look at an example. Let’s say you took the following picture:
You could use captions to describe the action taking place and give the details about it without simply stating the obvious, “Linda walking towards Gina.” You could instead try something like “Linda taking her first steps towards her mommy,” which tells more about the significance of the picture, and if you further add “while dad gives her a hand on a sunny day at Gorky Park, Moscow after several frustrated attempts” the caption provides even more context to the picture and highlights the importance of the events taking place around the image.
Although different people have different captioning styles and although certain guidelines are to be followed when writing professional captions for journals or other media, and when actually selling pictures; regular people like you and me can still convey the meaningfulness of a picture to share on the web if writing a decent description for it. Captioning pictures can be both an art and a science, but the fact is that doing so remains a matter of taste. The most important thing to consider when writing labels is the content that you want people to notice in the picture and the stories, if any, behind it.
I recently vacationed in Chile and while there, I visited many historic places such as one of the three Pablo Neruda’s houses in that country. He was an iconic Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the year 1971; the place was decorated with his belongings, and the one thing that captured my attention the most was the fact that he had lots of colored glasses because he believed the color improved the taste of drinks, so only people who weren’t welcomed at his house would get clear glasses.
The latter explanation would make a great description to the picture below, rather than simply stating “Bar area at Neruda’s house.” It also adds worth and importance to the image as it allows the viewer to know an interesting fact about a whole bunch of otherwise seemingly random colored glasses sitting on a bar station.
Another example could be for instance my visit to Valparaíso, which is a port in Chile that you can see in the picture that comes next:
Rather than just stating the location, something like “Valparaíso’s landscape, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003 because of its historical importance, natural beauty, port’s history and unique architecture” could be used to enhance the significance of the picture and let people know more about the site. In other words, if you have a story to share then make sure do so even if the story or the picture will never have the same meaning to viewers than they do to you. It makes all the difference. It is useless to have traveled around the world, been to places and to post great pictures you’ve taken if you and only you know what they are, where and when they were taken, who the people in them are and why you took them.
Of course you won’t always have something to say about a picture, but even a small and simple caption can enhance and draw the viewer’s attention to it. Noun phrases, prepositional phrases, adjectives, active verbs and adverbs can all be used to highlight the most significant information of an image. You can use descriptive captions that say something about the physical attributes of the picture, conceptual captions that explain the ideas you were going for when taking the picture or technical captions that talk about the analytical or theoretical aspects related to the image.
Sometimes letting viewers interpret the picture by themselves is a good idea, but at other times doing so only implies that they probably won’t get as much meaning out of the picture as they would if they had more information on it. Do not assume that viewers will automatically know everything about the picture; make sure the viewer does not overlook the fundamental elements in the picture and that your captions do the job of letting them know instead of leaving them to wonder what the picture is trying to convey. Let the text illustrate outstanding aspects of the picture and let the viewer draw out visual information from it so that he or she can have a guided interpretation of the image.
A picture isn’t always worth a thousand words, so make sure you use at least two or three to let your viewer recognize the meaning of it. “Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language, is the best way to recreate the incident as it happened and to picture it for the audience.” (by Dale Carnegie)