Captions need to add something to the photo

Years ago, J. Carl and Eileen Ganter put together a photo essay (now multimedia, of course) about the Lyons family and their farm on the Old Mission Peninsula.

The pictures are gorgeous and the Lyons are engaging. But one picture stands out to me and I think about it regularly.

It’s a picture of Mary Lyons cuddling a small girl on the back porch. One of their former day-care kids said, “The thing I remember is that whenever we spilled milk, you’d give us a hug.”

The picture is nice, sure, but I remember that bit of child-rearing wisdom the most — and of course the picture comes to mind whenever I think of it. I mentioned it to Carl soon after I saw the photo essay and he said, “The power of a good caption …”

A photo caption can add volumes to a good picture. It can flesh out the story. It can even tell the story. It can enrich the photo and the viewer’s experience with that photo. Tantalize! Question! And yes, add value.

The Aug. 2 storm that devastated our region provided some wild pictures, but if you were looking at them from, say, Australia, you wouldn’t know what the heck was going on.

That picture looks scary, but try adding: “A sudden summer storm advances on homes and farms in northwest Lower Michigan in the early evening of Aug. 2. The storm ended up causing billions of dollars of damage and uprooted hundreds and hundreds of trees.”


Even though you’re looking at the picture weeks after the storm, the first sentence of the caption is still written in the present tense. That’s a great way to make a static photo have “action.”

National Geographic, as you would expect, is a great place to read captions and learn how to do them right.


The above picture could probably stand on its own because it’s so clever, but the caption educates, informs and even entertains.

“A strong, dry wind — called a mistral in southern France — blows through the city of Marseilles, with hair-raising results. Photographer Yves Vernin had for a long time been hoping to do a series on the mistral, so on a windy day he headed to Notre Dame de la Garde, or the “bonne mère,” situated on a hill. ‘This is a famous place in Marseille, and a windy place,’ he writes.“

See how both of these captions add to the photo? You don’t want to just state the obvious, as in, “Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a dinner in Iowa.” Even though that’s technically accurate, it doesn’t add any anything to the photo. Even writing just a few words about what Trump said at the dinner would boost the value of the photo.

There’s so much more to know about captions. Check back often for more tips, including how to write captions for social media, such as Instagram, and a biggie — accuracy.