How to write compelling captions for your photos
STRONG CAPTIONS are often either overlooked or not given significant thought by journalists, which leads to obvious captions that read almost like afterthoughts, essentially repackaging or restating what the viewer can already see in the shot for him or herself. An example would be the shot / caption above.
Giving context: what the viewer can’t see
Instead of simply reducing / restating what’s already obvious in the photo, strong captions — what we at Matador call “narrative” captions — give the viewer context, backstory, information that the viewer CAN’T see for him or herself. This includes things like:
- Place names
- Subject names
- Backstory on the scene (example: at what point of the trip the shot occurred)
- Backstory or technical info on the shot itself
- Challenges or special circumstances not identifiable in the shot itself
- Information on future events the shot puts into perspective
With that in mind, let’s look at this same shot again with the actual caption (both from Matador Ambassador Drew Tabke):
The reason we refer to these as “narrative” captions is because if done correctly, they create narrative layers, a sense not of the moment simply “frozen in time” but part of a story. It adds the temporal sense, the transparency, the window into the journalist’s experience that helps us as readers / viewers to enter the story.
Here’s another example from the same photo essay from Drew:
One last example of narrative captioning comes from Matador contributing editor Daniel Britt. Notice how the photographer’s descriptions imply not just his passing through the area but having spent significant time and developing a relationship with the culture.
A question to ask yourself before signing off on your captions: How does my caption support or undercut my experience with / knowledge of the place and culture that I’m photographing?