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Overcoming caption conniptions

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BY LISA DENSMORE
I’ve never met a writer or a photographer that likes to write captions, myself included. I will craft a well-written article which sometimes takes a number of days, multiple interviews and in-depth research. I take the photos or pull them from my stock file, then make minor adjustments to them if they need it, and often re-label them to fit the submission format of the publication. As soon as I push the send button, relieved to get that text-photo package out the door, I’m on to the next one.
Half-way through another assignment on a tight deadline, I get an urgent email from the editor of the first article. “Attached is the layout,” he or she typically writes. “Would you please add captions as soon as possible. We need to ship the magazine tomorrow!” With a groan, I drop everything to get the chore done.
Composing captions is an inconvenience to say the least, because the writer has, both psychologically and in one’s work flow, moved far past that submission. When it reappears in need of captions, many quickly jot a few words, usually a phrase like “Hunting dog sitting in a field.”
That’s not a caption. It’s a photo title. Now it’s the editor’s turn to groan. If the writer had taken an extra minute to write, “A Labrador retriever takes an uncharacteristic rest in a pheasant cover,” then he’s given the editor, and thus the reader, more than the photo alone does. In ten words, the caption gives the breed of dog, what it’s hunting, and that it’s doing something out of the ordinary. The reader wants to know why and is more likely to delve deeper into the accompanying article.
In general, captions should give details or background information represented by the photo that adds to the impact of the image. It should impart information related to the story that draws the reader into the article. Compelling photos with interesting captions are often the reason a person reads the piece.
Here are five tips to help you overcome your caption conniptions:
1. Impart information about the photo. Remember the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words?” Don’t bother repeating any of those thousand. Use words 1,001-plus in the cutline. In other words, give more information than what is obvious in the photograph.
2. Keep it brief. Space is limited in a caption. Every word counts. The shorter the caption’s word count, the harder it is to get your point across. If you’re worried about being too wordy, it helps to write down your thoughts then trim the copy to fit the space.
3. Relate the photo to the article. Think about why this photo was selected for your article’s layout then let your caption relay the notion.
4. Remember the basics – who, what, where, when, why and how. Can’t decide what to write for a caption? The basics are always a good fallback. Pick one or two of them if space is limited.
5. Write the captions after you know the layout. For years I wrote a caption for every photo I submitted, a ton of unused work. Now I submit the photos on deadline, but, unless specifically requested by the editor, I don’t write the captions until after I see what made the photo editor’s cut. ♦
— A former OWAA board member and current chair of the OWAA photography section, Lisa Densmore is an award-winning freelance writer, photographer and television producer from Red Lodge, Mont. Contact her at densmore1@aol.com; www.DensmoreDesigns.com.
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