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Photography & Marketing: How NOT to Write Photo Captions

I’ve viewed lots of photography websites and I noticed that most of them miss out on one very important marketing tactic – putting photo captions. Some do not even have, at the very least, captivating titles for their photographs. Take a look at this photo.  It looks good but it’s not remarkable, right?

Until you read it’s caption:

Stare at the photograph long enough — you will then realize that the white streaks are the camels and the black images are their shadows.

There are some things that photographs cannot express accurately and there are some things words cannot express well. These two mediums can work in tandem in order for each to become more meaningful.

But you should be extra careful. Captions are good but a poorly-written caption can ruin even the world’s loveliest photograph.

Writing is art and rhythm and it takes years upon years of experience before a copywriter becomes an expert. So instead of enumerating the things you must do to make excellent captions, I made a list of things you must NOT do. Because good copy can be better but bad copy is bad copy. We must learn the Don’ts first.

Avoid making judgments. Do not use adjectives like unhappy, jealous, pretentious or anything that is not 100% true. How can you be so sure that a person is happy or not happy? How can you be 100% sure that a certain look is of jealousy and not simply curiosity or arrogance? Do not assume or interpret. Just state what’s there without judgment.

Here’s an example:


Unsafe Journey. A woman is riding between the railway carriages of a local train heading north from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Her luggage is tucked under the carriage in front of her. It is the month of Ramadan, a fast which culminates in Eid-ul-Fitr, a three-day celebration. Tens of thousands of people leave the city to go to their home village and celebrate with their families. Trains are packed and many who fail to get tickets before they sell out or can’t afford buying them at the black market ride on the roof of the train or, like this woman, finds a quiet spot between the carriages. (Photo and caption by Amy Helene Johansson)

The caption didn’t say anything about the woman being hungry, or poor, or pissed, or courageous because they’re not facts, just assumptions. You can use these words if you’ve done you’re research and found out that she’s in fact hungry or poor or pissed. Then provide proof (backstory) in your caption or else the readers would think you’re simply assuming. Let the readers make their own interpretation and assumptions.

Avoid very lengthy Captions. Unless there is a need for it. People have short attention span that’s why you should never ever bore them with unnecessary information. The more condensed your caption is, the more impact it will have.

Avoid Difficult Words. I’ve been reading National Geographic and Life since I was a kid and I understood every word of the photo captions even back then. In fact, I only read the captions and not the whole story. Use words that can be easily understood by 4th graders. That’s the standard for good copy. Of course, proper nouns not included.

Avoid using past tense. Use present tense.

Avoid Using Stiff Words. Conversational language works best in making captions. You should write as if you’re telling a story to a friend, and not as if you’re reporting statistical data to your strict client.

Avoid stating the obvious. If the girl in the picture is wearing a red cap, a pink dress, and a blue necklace, you do not have to write about her red cap, pink dress, and blue necklace. Every word you out in the caption is important. So if it’s obviously unnecessary or unnecessarily obvious, drop it.

Avoid Putting Dates for non-historical Photographs. It looks factual and well-researched if you put dates in the caption. It has that historical appeal. But do not put dates if the dates are not really that important. Just put dates in war pictures, government pictures, and the like. Do not put dates on photographs like this:

As Einstein once said, Keep everything simple but not simpler. Know which ones to include and which ones the photo can live without. I hope you will remember these DON’TS when writing your photo captions. If you have anything to add, leave a comment. 😉


Some of these tips are from Kenneth Irby of Poynter

Photos are from 


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