Following are some tips for writing good photo captions for sales to
1. Be accurate: I once saw a picture of a “pastelillo” (a
half-moon-shaped fritter stuffed with meat or chicken popular in
Puerto Rico) captioned as “fried taco.” (I’m not making this up.)
Nothing will lose your credibility with an editor more quickly than
providing erroneous information in a caption. The editor will be
embarrassed when an alert reader contacts her about the mistake. You
will be embarrassed when the editor calls you. And, after that, you
will likely never hear from that editor again.
When you’re in the field, especially in unfamiliar territory, assume
you know nothing (you will probably be right about that) and get
tourism brochures and other information that will help with
caption-writing later. Taking pictures of informational plaques or
signs is also a good idea. I even carry around a small pad to write
down unfamiliar names and other information when nothing else is
2. Be truthful: This is a sticky subject since there is no bright line
for what you need to disclose and how much manipulation is acceptable.
Some publications (mostly newspapers) have specific guidelines
regarding what you have to disclose and how much you can manipulate an
image, but most do not.
In general, I err on the side of caution and disclose things like
whether an animal is in a zoo (I add “captive” at the end of the
caption) and whether I used a special digital filter when I edited my
photos in Lightroom or Photoshop.
As long as you disclose this information upfront to your editor, it is
then up to her to decide whether to use the picture or not. I do not
disclose commonly applied enhancements like brightness, contrast and
saturation because it is standard practice to optimize these
parameters in an image. But if I apply a filter, I’ll say in
parentheses after my caption “(digital filter applied).”
3. Be brief and descriptive (and do not state the obvious): Most
images already have plenty of information available (a picture is
worth a thousand words, right?). So think of your captions as
providing supplemental information.
For example, a picture of a castle by the ocean like this…
Click here to see the photo:
… might be captioned as follows:
“Cruise ship departing and San Felipe del Morro Castle (1540s-1786),
San Juan National Historic Site, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico”.
This caption gives the editor plenty of information in one sentence,
whereas something like “Castle by the Ocean and ship” would state the
obvious and not provide additional information.
4. Be flexible: Every publication has a different way of captioning
photographs, and you should be aware of each magazine’s preferences
before submitting your work.
For example, when I submit work to photography magazines in
conjunction with a story, I include technical information like f-stops
and shutter speeds with my captions, since that’s the kind of
information readers expect.
Nature magazine captions typically include scientific names of
animals; captions in outdoor enthusiast magazines include the height
of a mountain; and so on.