Time to go a little “old school” of this public holiday with some tips for writing better captions.

Captions are, sadly, not as common in today’s online news media as they are in printed newspapers and magazines. Nevertheless captions writing is as valuable a skill today as it ever was.

A caption is one of the display devices the layout artist has at their disposal to entice readers into the story. Often the caption is read before any of the other elements on a page and can either make a reader read on or turn the page.

Here are a few things to bear in mind when writing a caption. They may seem obvious but if you spend any time editing in a newsroom you’ll know exactly how rarely these are applied.

Check the facts
Don’t assume. Contact the photographer or reporter if you need something clarified. Always check the spelling of names.

Always identify the main people in the photograph
There is little that is more frustrating than looking at a photo and wondering who the people are. Don’t assume readers know what so-and-so looks like. Identify people from left to right unless the photograph demands otherwise. Always check the spelling of names (again).

Don’t state the obvious
“Julius Malema smiles as a security guard pushes a photographer.” A caption should provide the information that the reader can’t already gather by simply looking at the photo. It must explain why the photo is relevant to the story. Avoid using terms such as “is shown, is pictured, gestures and looks on”. Readers can probably already see that.

Don’t repeat the headline, blurb or pullquote
The words in a caption should never simply duplicate the other display elements on the page. All of these elements, including the captions, are designed to pull readers into the story and repeating them is outright boring.

Avoid making judgements
“An unhappy citizen watches the protest.” How do you know he or she is unhappy?

Use present tense wherever possible
A photograph captures a moment in time. Present tense creates a sense of immediacy and impact.

Dates where appropriate
If the photograph is a historic or file photo include the date it was taken: “President Nelson Mandela, 1996”.

Don’t use clichés
Heed George Orwell’s advice and avoid the obvious and common in favour of something fresh.

Don’t repeat the reporter’s words
Regurgitating the writer’s words is lazy and boring. Provide the reader with something new to read.

Why this picture?
When working with photos not directly related to the story (perhaps generic stand-in) ask yourself why the picture is being used. Who is in the photo? Why are they there? What are they doing? Is the photo relevant?


“Photo captions are an integral part of newspaper storytelling, but they are often the most underdeveloped element in the mix of words, graphics, and photographs in a newspaper. A poorly executed caption can destroy the message of a photo or the story package of which it is part. The reader/viewer expects nothing less than accurate, complete, and informative information, including captions.” Kenneth Irby of the Poynter Institute