The 4-Part Caption: Crimson’s Goal

Captions must tell the specific details AND the larger story behind each photograph. That means each one answers who, what, when, where, why and how. The caption also states a larger comment, fact, comparison, or event that tells the full story also. A lack of good reporting is evident if captions are MISSING or WEAK.


HOPE IN THE WRECKAGE: A 6.2-magnitude earthquake nearly 100 miles northeast of Rome has left hundreds dead and many more injured. The mayor of one town, Amatrice, said at least half of his town was destroyed. (Photo by Lauren Wassam)

Part 1: The ALL CAPS label

Part 2: The 5W’s shown in photo

Part 3: A Larger Context behind the event

Part 4: The Photo Credit for the photographer




When writing captions, keep the following guidelines in


WHAT’S THAT: A juvenile black rat snake at Wave Hill: It’s real, but the timber rattlesnake on the table isn’t. “Imagine you’re on vacation, and you lie in the sun all day and go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Ms. Nestlerode told the group. “That’s what it’s like to be a snake.”


  1.  Avoid stating the obvious. Tell the readers more than they would know if they saw the photo without the caption.
  1. Be accurate. Writing captions is part of reporting. The caption writer must find out what was going on when the picture was taken. Do not make up captions. Photographers should write down all the essential information when they shoot the photo. Don’t send the caption writer out at the last minute to get information.
  1.  Be serious. Avoid gag captions.
  1.  Do not editorialize. Leave out the writer’s opinion.
  1.  Begin with words that have a strong impact. Avoid beginning with “a,” “an” and “the.” Also avoid beginning with “ing” words, prepositions, dates and time elements such as “during,” “while,” “at,” “as,” “after” and “when.”
  1.  Write in the present tense, active voice when answering the questions of who and what. The action in that frame is frozen forever. Generally the background information (especially the why and how) follows in the second and third sentences, for which past tense is preferred.
  1.  Use full names and complete identifications.
  1.  Use multiple sentences to tell the complete story. After answering the necessary questions in the first sentence, require a second sentence that provides an additional fact or backgroundinformation. Writing captions as short stories themselves can enhance your coverage and get more students in the book via direct quotes.
  1.  Identify all people in an action photo unless it is a large crowd shot. Some staffs set a cut-off, requiring that photos with fewer than five or seven students be identified individually.
  1.  Use colorful, lively verbs. Avoid passive “to be” verbs—am, is, are, was, were. Sports coverage meets student life in this attractive spread about snowboarding. Quick-reads and fast facts around the spread include specific information about cost and equipment from student enthusiasts. 
  1.  Use ALL CAPS label or phrase for lead-ins to capture the reader’s attention. Writing mini headlines or lead-ins for each photo is another great way to increase impact by combining visual and verbal messages.
  1.  Give names of opponents in sports captions. If the jersey number shows on an opponent’s uniform, it is possible to find out the name of the player by consulting a program or by calling the athletic director or coach at the opposing school.
  1.  Bury dates at a logical thought break in the middle of a caption or place them at the end of a caption. Vary their placement to avoid monotony. Do not use dates in every caption if all pictures on the spread are from the same date, especially since the date also may be mentioned in the copy.
  1.  When identifying persons in photo, do not use the words “left to right” for identification--the reader automatically looks from left to right. Crimson uses (left) or (top row), etc. 


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