Captioning a photograph is not a science, but rather an art. One of the reasons why is it so is because caption is in essence, a part of the photograph. A caption can do many things. Sometimes it brings the viewer to a conclusion or climax, while other times it could guide the viewer into thinking in a certain direction. It can also influence the way a viewer observes the photograph, and sometimes it triggers a response from the viewer and gets him/her to do something with an emotional meaning or context.
“A caption is part of the photograph, part of the gestalt.”
Types of Captions
Based on the different objectives that you can achieve with a good caption, the following can be considered as types:
As the word suggests, a generic title can be the name of anything in the photograph such as tree, branch, flower, grass, rock, animals etc. In the image below, a generic caption Coffee makes the coffee its main subject instead of the cookie or the wooden table.
If the author or artist chooses to specify an element of the photograph, it can help a viewer identify it without being confused or any need to guess. The image above could also be captioned as Pepperidge Farm’s Sausalito Milk Chocolate Macadamia with Davidoff Rich Aroma Coffee to communicate a detail to the viewer.
A more descriptive title for the image above could be Breakfast in a Cabin. Such a description conveys more of the story, sometimes even parts that are not captured or shown in the photograph-we don’t know if the coffee cup is actually in a cabin or if it is placed on a piece of wood.
Looking at the image below, a viewer might question why the photographer chose to title it Flying Saucer. In such instances, the viewer is unable to establish a clear link between the title and the image. Such titles are usually subjective and personal and are derived from the artist’s own experiences, thoughts, or feelings at the time of the capture.
When a single word or even a longer description does not work as a title or a caption, a quote can fit the requirements. As long as it is not ambiguous and is open to multiple interpretations, a quote can easily be one of the simplest and effective types of photo captions. The photo below of an isolated tree in a field with a vivid morning sky as background could suggest a caption such as Tree of Seasons.
A picture is worth a thousand words. But, those words can be one’s own interpretation of the photograph. And in some cases, a caption becomes necessary to help the viewer understand the context, the background story, or simply understand the photograph. The image below can have a generic title Brothers. A more specific caption could be Young Farmers. Southern Punjab, Pakistan. But none of these captions convey the reason why the photographer chose to capture the photograph. Now read the caption under the photo and notice how a narrative adds so much meaning and breadth to the photograph.
Personally, I am not a fan of poetic captions. That’s because most of the photos with poetic captions I have come across had no correlation. And those captions gave me an impression that the photographer ran out of ideas and took an easy way out. But that’s not the reality of poetic captions. If done well, they can be powerful and emotive.
There are times when a photographer will leave the interpretation of an image entirely up to the viewer by choosing not to title the photograph. The image below could be titled Meeting of the Chairs or A Winter Vista etc.
I hope this guide would help you understand the different ways you can title and caption your photos and make them communicate better with the viewer.