When the Caption Counts As Much As the Picture

For photographers, it’s all about the image. When a picture can speak a thousand words and a good photo can tell a complete story, what can be added by giving it a hundred-word description? It’s not like anyone will actually read it, and besides, photographers take the pictures. It’s the writers who do the writing, right? There are times though when a way with words can not only enhance the power of your image but also win you sales and attention.

For some outlets, a detailed description is actually a requirement. PhotoResearchers, for example, a stock site specializing in scientific images, accepts photographs of animals for its natural science collection to go with its inventory of bacteria and chromosomes. But the captions that must accompany those images, and which are embedded in the high res scan the client receives, are likely to tax all but the most knowledgeable of photographers. According to the company’s submission requirements:

“natural history images… 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.”

For a company which sells primarily to textbook publishers and around a fifth of whose contributors are doctors and scientists, that’s not an unreasonable demand. Buyers want to know that they’re not just looking at a picture of a bird on a zebra’s back but a “Red-Belled Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) on Grant’s Zebra” and that the image was shot in Tanzania, Ngorongoro Conservation area.

Telling the Photographer’s Story

But while these kinds of descriptions are rich in scientific detail, they’re short of color. They tell a buyer what he’s looking at but not what the photographer felt when he was looking at the scene. As a viewer though, you can’t help wondering what the photographer was doing in the Ngorongoro Conservation area, whether he found what he was looking for there and what he thought of the experience. There’s a story there and it’s one which enhances the power of the picture itself.

Telling that story with a good caption could land you a spot on Pictory, a site created by JPG Magazine’s former editor Laura Brunow Miner. The site invites photographers to submit a single image related to a theme and to send it accompanied by a caption that explains the story behind the picture.

“I think virtually any photo is made stronger with a good caption,” Laura explained. “The words answer the questions you don’t know to ask.”

Offering “just another pretty photo” won’t cut it but contributors who are better at creating images than producing written descriptions will find that their words are professionally edited. They may even be asked follow-up questions to fill in some of the gaps. The work will then appear, together with their bio, alongside other attractive images and placed in a professional-looking design. The result, judging by the images already on offer on a site that has only been up since the beginning of December, can be very moving. Photos and stories submitted to the “My Most Meaningful Image” theme include photos of a sick baby, a dying grandfather and a road leading home. The images themselves have some power of their own but it’s the story of what they mean to the photographer, described in the caption, that adds an entirely new meaning to the composition.

Not a Copy of Flickr

What contributors won’t receive at the moment though, is pay. While JPG Magazine rewarded photographers with $100 for every image used, Pictory is “currently” only offering kudos, bragging rights and the chance to “be part of something larger than themselves.” That might not impress professionals but Laura points out that pros have submitted images, usually sending in personal work or pet projects. Asked whether Pictory will pay photographers in the future, Laura didn’t rule it out, but she also didn’t want to reveal her plans until she’s seen how photographers and viewers actually use the site. There is also likely to be some form of community collaboration, but the site won’t be a carbon-copy of JPG Magazine or Flickr.

One place where captions can both add to the image and increase the chance of actually making a sale is Flickr. Travel writer Rory Maclean, for example, included this image in his Flickr stream showing Maureen Wheeler leaving a hashish store in Kathmandu in 1972. The description accompanying the image explains that the store might also have been an illegal moneychanger, giving the story a surprising twist, and points out that after that trip, Maureen Wheeler and her husband Tony founded Lonely Planet, creating the guides that have changed the way backpackers have traveled ever since.

All of that makes for an interesting story that reveals more than the picture could alone… and directly beneath that story are the contact details for anyone who wants to license the image. It’s direct and without smart keywording and some additional marketing to let people know the image is there, it’s unlikely to churn up too many sales, but it is still a smart way to make use of the text space that Flickr provides. Rick Waggoner does something similar with his set of images from the Vatai Village in Phongsali Province of Laos, using the set description to describe the context and individual picture captions to tell readers what they’re looking at. He also makes clear that the images are not available for use without his permission – or payment. A link takes potential buyers to his portfolio at Photoshelter.

It’s tempting when following this model to write captions – like Rick Waggoner’s – that could have appeared on a stock site. But if Pictory is anything to go by, it’s clear that captions that include the photographer’s story and add new meaning to the picture also make it more attractive, more interesting – and perhaps even more likely to sell.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Scott Coulter Said:

    An important caveat to the last few paragraphs above, is that soliciting sales of photo prints or licenses in your Flickr stream is (at least sometimes) interpreted as being against the Flickr usage guidelines, and can get your account closed. This, like most Flickr usage guidelines, is (A) not clearly spelled out, and (B) not consistently applied by Flickr management.

  2. Alex Hinds Said:

    With the way the web has revolutionised stock photo research and buying combined with the importance of appropriate keywords for seo writing in a variety of forms is increasingly important for photographers. Without words as descriptions, tags, alt text, meta data etc etc images face little chance of being found at present. That may change as visual search engines develop, but at the moment we use words to find images!

  3. Colorado Wedding Photographer - JasonG Said:

    Not to mention - captioning, keywords, and the written word are essential for being found in the ever expanding web. SEO all the way.

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