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Storm Light, Mt Desert Island

“What do you think is the proper role of captions?  I notice that you (intentionally, I believe) almost always take a straightforward, descriptive approach in captioning your photos, as if to say, the caption is a point of reference, but I want the image to do most of the speaking for itself.” – Steve Kieselstein, Troy, NY

This is a great question from a workshop student that got me thinking about the use of titles and captions in landscape photography and how you might think of creating and using them for your own work.

• Titles and Captions

First, lets make a general distinction between captions and titles. Please bare in mind others may have different

– Caption is a description of the photograph that provides some context and or information on the subject in the image. You see this frequently in photojournalism where the main goal of the image is to provide factual information.

– Title on the other hand, has a much more subjective quality in that the photographer has more freedom and artistic license in how to title a photo. Whereas a caption “explains” an image, a title just provides a reference, or a meaning to the photographer’s intent. I think this can play a big role in how a photographer’s work is perceived, and also helps provide some context to a body of work.

Of course, others may prefer to use titles and captions in a different manner – and there certainly is no wrong way. This is just my personal method which serves me well when selling my images. I use titles most of the time, and captions when I want to share a story behind the image, and usually limit them to a sentence or two.You can see many  examples of this in the free Beyond the Lens Photo Journal.

• Usage Examples

I often title my images based on what I felt were the most important aspects of the image when I made it. Notice this is past tense because as we all know, the meaning of an image can change to the photographer as time passes. This is especially true when I purposely decide not to process images but rather let them “sit” for a while in my archive. Often I have returned to older images and found different meanings as well as seeing something I didn’t notice before.

Dennings Point, Hudson River
"River Dreams, Hudson River"

River Dreams was conceived before I shot the image, and I knew I wanted to convey some sort of “dreamy” feel to the river, hence the long exposure, and the title.

In addition the viewer may also see something much different than what you imagined, and so have a very different emotional response than what you intended. For this reason, I am very careful with titles, and try to be as minimal as possible, and hopefully provide just a hint of what I felt about the image.

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
Ocean Songs, Cape Breton

Here I wanted to convey what I was thinking while shooting this image – the sounds of the ocean that seemed to influence the waves, wind, and cloud patterns.

“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” -Ansel Adams

"Swirling Color"

While this image may seen to be about the leaves or the waterfall, the title Swirling Color refers to the single leaf that was swirling around the small pool at my feet, and I waited until it was in just the right spot to use a long exposure and create the subtle streak of color in the foreground.

Other times, I may just write a location for the title. This usually means that I don’t want to influence the viewer in any way, and again hopefully let each person bring their own perspective to the image. However, a proper caption can add a personal story to the image, and I recommend you take advantage of this when appropriate.

"Lyrical Walk, Maine" - CAPTION: As I explored this shoreline path, the sound of the waves and smell of the sea seemed to guide me in a way that made me forget where I was actually going.

If you have a difficult time captioning your images, this can be a sign that your photograph is too complicated and doesn’t make a clear statement. This is an exercise I always have my students try with their work, and it can be enlightening to say the least!

• Final Thoughts

Like anything else, it really just becomes a matter of practice and learning what feelings and reactions you have to your own work, and then deciding how much of that you want to share through the title or caption. Being consistent is helpful, but not necessarily a requirement.

“A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.” – Ansel Adams

I hope that sheds some light on this rather important subject – thanks for the great question Steve!

Do you have any thoughts on caption and titles I didn’t think about? What’s your preference?

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Ocean Song is a such a lovely blend of layers, Robert. I like that shot a lot.

    I usually don’t caption photographs. I have found that it works better for my work to not say too much about the shot but rather, to let the viewer see it unencumbered with my thoughts and experiences. My use of titles is not too regulated; sometimes I call it something that the photograph brings to mind and sometimes I simply use the time and location.


    1. Thanks for the kind feedback Sharon – yes it was a great location and I was very fortunate to have the experience. I agree with your approach and follow it myself – try not to influence the viewer too much, but if an image brings a specific feeling to mind, then I might include that in the title.


  2. I am the administrator of a Facebook public group, “Minnesota Through the Lens” and found your article on titling photographs while doing a Google search on the topic. I do not require group members to title their submissions. I have enough problem getting some of them to supple the subject and location information in their descriptions. However, there are many fine photographers, both amateur and professional, who participate in the group, and I would like to take a shot at encouraging them to title every submission. To this end, I am thinking of providing (posting to the group) several articles about the importance of titles and how to write them. Cutting to the chase, would you consider giving me permission to share your article with Minnesota Through the Lens?

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