TJ explains the workings of a wearable steampunk contraption made by his company, Owl vs. Octopus, during the City of Albuquerque Renaissance Faire on Saturday, April 26, 2014. Steampunk fashion from the 19th century has made a comeback in recent years and even seemed welcomed at this Late Middle Ages festival. (Image © Jain Lemos, Albuquerque, NM; 2014.)

A challenging task for photographers and writers is writing great captions. I’m convinced it’s a complete art. Like every other talent, it can only be mastered with practice. In my web series, The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books, I have completely failed in the mission of captioning my photos. This is out of sheer laziness. From this point forward, I realize that I must provide proper captions for fear that you’ll call me a hypocrite!

News writers typically keep to a two sentence caption style and that system is a great place to start (note these must be complete sentences):

  1. In the first sentence, describe what the photo depicts—always in the present tense—and include where and when the photo was taken.
  2. For the second sentence, provide some background information on the event or explain why the photo is significant.

Here is a made-up caption example: Musician Eric Clapton arrives at the House of Blues in Los Angeles for the private premier party celebrating his new album, Eric Clapton & Friends: The Breeze, An Appreciation of JJ Cale, on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Singer-songwriter John Weldon (JJ) Cale, who died on July 26, 2013, was a close friend and major influence on Clapton.

There are a few more things to keep in mind when preparing captions for documentary books:

  • In some cases, a longer caption works but if you have more than three sentences, it means the information needs to move to the narrative or some other text design on the page.
  • Avoid apparent and unnecessary phrases such as “points to” or “is pictured above” because we’ll just be cringing.
  • We’ll also start screaming if the caption uses the words beautiful or dramatic. Please let the reader decide what’s obvious.
  • Adding the specific date to every caption may not be warranted for some books but make sure every photo file has the exact date embedded for any future reference. News captions usually include the day of week. Don’t assume the “creation date” that is automatically added to the metadata is correct, either.
  • Depending on the subject being covered, dates and places are sometimes better displayed and understandable when they are added in an adjacent credit line. For example: Jain Lemos, Albuquerque, NM; 2014. This credit style can allow the caption to be more conversational rather than reading as too dry or newsy.
  • Find a formatting style for captions and credits and then stick to it for all the images in the book.
  • When images have been digitally altered (sizing, cleaning and color adjustments are generally acceptable), I like the practice of adding a label such as “photo illustration” in the caption or credit. This might need to be explained further if there is something unique about the manipulation or technique. Remember, documentary truthfulness should be equal to journalistic integrity.
  • Your photographers need to provide the basic caption information but either you or your writer should finesse all of the captions.
  • Once images have been submitted, it’s your job to check facts, check all name spellings and then check them all again.

No, there wasn’t a private party at the House of Blues for Clapton’s record launch, but you can buy his awesome new album. Next up is Licensing Supplemental Content, where I’ll talk about the value of adding great touches to your book.