Using Good Picture Captions to Draw the Reader Into the Story

“Connecting” is a daily newsletter for current and former employees of the Association Press and its editor, Paul Stevens, allows former UPI staffers like me to read it and occasionally write for it. Earlier this week Bill Sikes, the AP’s photo editor in Boston, posted some thoughts on writing good picture captions; he was talking about news photos. In today’s Connecting, I added some thoughts on writing good captions for feature photos.

By Bill Sikes

A few thoughts on Campbell Gardett’s recognition of photographers’ writing in the Oct. 5 edition of Connecting:

Perhaps years of writing succinct captions leads to better word-smithery. Extraneous words waste space.

Good captions use Hemingway’s literary techniques. He wrote short sentences. He used a limited word palette. He chose active verbs. He emphasized nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs.

Perhaps photographers use words like photographs: to show rather than tell.

Verbal clutter detracts in the text, just as visual clutter does in the photograph. Every word should focus the reader on the central point. Less is more.

Limitless space in the digital world has spawned rambling writing, while attention spans and time of engagement to websites are shorter than ever.

Perhaps if we want folks to read what we write, we should think more and type less.
By Jack Limpert

Bill Sikes had some good advice for writing picture captions—mostly keep them short and punchy. He was talking about news photos. As a newspaper and magazine editor who wrote a lot of captions for pictures that accompanied a story, here are some thoughts that I’ve passed on to other editors about using good picture captions to entice the reader to read a story.
Many readers graze—they look for something that captures their attention. Nothing stops a reader as well as a good picture. The picture caption can do two things: Give the reader something about who or what’s in the picture, and make it so interesting that the reader thinks, “This story may be worth reading.”
It often pays for whoever is writing the caption to talk with the photographer. For many years, the New York Times had a photographer, George Tames, in its Washington bureau. The editors in the bureau discovered that George came back not only with good pictures but also with details that often could add life to the story.

In getting the picture, George would try to loosen up the subject by talking about family, hobbies, anything they might have in common. The subject didn’t feel interviewed—it was just friendly talk. And the Times’ editors learned to debrief George when he came back with his pictures.
Editors should encourage photographers to do more than just take the picture. The most effective captions have the caption writer and photographer working together to make the picture and caption as interesting as possible.


  1. barney collier says

    YOUR SAGE ADVICE brought me back to when I wrote about 90% of the captions for some editions of TIME Magazine.

    In that era, the first three words of each caption were capitalized. Hours of thought poured into getting those words sharp and catchy enough to hook and hold a reader’s interest.

    The TIME editors were judged hard on their section’s captions because the managing editor, Otto Feurbringer, was a caption master. It was a common Time Inc. reality that picture captions were read by about three times as many people as read the stories.

    I don’t know if that’s actually true, but the advertising genius David Ogilvy believed so, and so did many of his acolytes, including all of my editors at TIME.

    It still believe that the captions in any publication, including on-line, are the most persuasive and significant part of any story and are worth as much or more creativity and honing as the story itself.

    I find that photographers are, indeed, the people who ought to write the captions because, unlike writers, they must actually have their emotional and editorial nose right there smack into the scene, while reporters can lurk off at a voyeur’s distance. They see things that writers often miss. Photographers often write pithy captions that burst with juice that the story writer cannot say or does not know.

    While I was writing TIME captions, I queried the photographers for extra details on almost every picture and the captions quite regularly contained prime details that illuminated the main text in often brilliant ways.

    My trademark was to be sure that every caption told a full story all on its own, no matter how fiendishly short, which some were.

  2. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Looks like a good place to ask this question: are wire services (AP, Reuters — any others?) helped, in circulation and income, by newspapers closing their bureaus here and there?

  3. Barnard Collier says

    Dear Richard,

    My friend David Ledford, who was at one time president of the APME says that “AP is selling its wares anywhere it can now that defunct or downgraded newspapers have left a 45% hole in its income. It’s David feeling that AP isn’t doing any more than just keeping up in the income department. I know nothing about Reuters. Nobody is gaining much by the closing of newspapers, particularly not the AP, whose report was and probably still is pretty dependent on other publications’ reporting.

    • Richard Mattersdorff says

      Thanks. I thought the closing of bureaus by individual newspapers might increase reliance on and payments to AP by those newspapers. But if circulation is down and newspapers close…. I also wonder how syndicated columnists are doing. Gone are the days when Ann Landers was in 800 papers and Dear Abbey was in another 800 papers.

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