“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.
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.
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
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.
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?