Talking captions

May 17, 2004
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A thread at the Visual Editors board muses on the best way to write a photo caption (I know, some of you call them cutlines). I liked this bit of advice.

Back in photo-j school I was taught a very simple but effective formula for writing cutlines. Explain the 5 W’s – when, where, what, etc., then follow it up with one interesting fact.


For example: Barry Bonds hits his 711th homerun in San Diego last night. He’s hit 3 homeruns in 4 games this week.


Simple, short… yet informative.


Besides, I hear that captions are the third most read/viewed elements on the page, just behind photos and headlines. You must respect that and be careful not to cheat readers.

And this note to designers: Look at your photos and ask yourself how many words it’ll take to name everybody in the picture — then look at the lengths of their names. Estimate how how much room that’ll take, then give twice that much space to actually write something meaningful in the caption. There’s nothing like having to ID four people and the designer leaving only enough room for two.

3 Responses to Talking captions

  1. emil on May 17, 2004 at 8:51 pm

    Does the fact that I call ‘em “cutlines” indicate my age or the part of the country I live in or is it coincidence?

  2. wayne on May 17, 2004 at 11:10 pm

    I’ve worked at five daily papers in the past 25 years, all in the East. All have called them “cutlines.”
    Glad to hear advice to designers about laying out enough space to provide necessary information. In addition to names of those pictured, titles take up space.
    Is it MY age, or is the reading of stories by those who lay them out a dying practice?

  3. paulwiggins on May 18, 2004 at 12:28 am

    Wayne, no and no. Or maybe it’s my age.