The Champion’s Guide to Captioning and Keywording Your Photos


There’s an old cliché about a picture being able to speak a thousand words, so you’d imagine that having shot a great image, you wouldn’t need to say any more. You could just edit it, make it available for sale and let the eloquence of its colors and composition do the talking.

If only. Images made available for sale online also need a long list of keywords; they help buyers track down the photos they need. While keywording sounds like a chore, in practice, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Andres Rodriguez, a top microstock photographer, describes his process as: typing the first keywords that come to mind; checking his own previous images on similar themes to make sure nothing was forgotten; cross-checking with three or four images from other photographers; then saving his list as a template for the future.

“At first it was difficult especially since English is not my first language,” says Andres who lives in London but is originally from Colombia. “I feel more confident now that I’ve done it 6,000 times.”

For those who don’t want to go through the process though, it’s always possible to automate. Software like Image Keyworder lets photographers outsource the wordplay to a program armed with a thesaurus.

Put your Caption Here

But the writing doesn’t always stop there. Many companies also ask for captions for every photo submitted. That’s usually necessary when the subject of the image is as important as its appearance, and tends to crop up most often on Rights Managed (RM) images. Photo Researchers, for example, supplies scientific photos to clients such as textbook publishers and specialist magazines. The company requires contributors to embed caption information into their images before uploading.

So what sort of information should a caption describe? According to Photo Researchers’ website, the caption:

” should include as much information as possible about the image. For natural history images, for example, it should include the common and scientific names of any organisms pictured, as well as location information, and additional information about what is going on in the image. Other useful information may be included as well if it is relevant.”

That sounds like some demand, but many of the Photo Researchers’ contributors have a good grounding in the science of what they’re shooting. Some are scientists themselves. Others, like Jerry Lodriguss, are enthusiasts with a good knowledge of their specialization.

Photographers who don’t know the Latin names of the flowers in their pictures however, needn’t despair. Glyn Headley, founder and managing director of fotoLibra – an open access photo library which demands both captions and keywords — sums up a good caption as one that “describes precisely what the picture is about.” Keywords, he says, amplify that information.

“Simply answer the following questions in your keywords: who, what, when, where, how, why?”

Helping the Germans

That’s not a bad guideline to follow when composing a caption too. A major difference, of course, will be that keywords will take the form of a list while a caption will be a paragraph or two that tells the buyer what he’s looking at. Glyn actually recommends ditching the descriptive stuff in the keyword list.

“For RM images we need good, accurate, concise data in the keywords; lots of nouns, fewer verbs, adjectives and adverbs,” he told us. “Location is always important. Town, county, country; city, state, country. Never leave out the country. Amazing how few people mention England. But if you’re a German guide book publisher looking for images of England, that’s what you need to know.”

Perhaps the best way to approach both keywording and captioning is to follow a version of Andres Rodriguez’s approach and spend time browsing stock images to see how other people do it first. That’s actually a strategy that Yvan Cohen of Photo Keyworder recommends. He suggests Getty and Corbis as good references. The photos available from those companies can also help photographers decide whether to include conceptual terms or specifics like age groups, ethnic identities or the number of people that can be seen in the image, he says.

Producing lists of words and descriptive paragraphs might not be the sort of work that a photographer has in mind when he or she picks  up a camera and points it at a subject, but it is a part of the job. It’s an important part of the job too – but at least you can do it in a lot fewer than a thousand words.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Fotografo Said:

    Nice and interesting post. Caption is really important.

  2. Subhanjan Sengupta Said:

    I have been thinking for sometime whether I should be having a blog or not. But now I have finally decided to have a blog. The name of my blog is - My Third Eye. In recent times I have discovered a genuine fondness for photography. Capturing the world and its people in still images is a very difficult task. But right now I am trying. I am serious about this hobby. And I will carry on with it for years to come.

    In my new blog I have posted a few pictures that I have taken in recent times. There are four categories. There is also another category which has my sketches. The URL is:

    I will be glad if you pay a visit to it and post your thoughts. I hope others will pour their thoughts in soon. You can even vote in the voting machine at the bottom of my blog. You may even be my follower if you want to. By clicking the 'Follow this blog' link on the top left of this page, you may add yourself to the list of my followers. I will be extremely glad.

  3. Vitezslav Valka Said:

    At Pixmac, we allow users to let us add tags/keywords to their photos for free. We hope, that it should help us, the users and even the buyers. But we will see how it develops...

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