Photographs, despite their unique story-telling ability, are seldom effective enough to stand alone. No matter how exciting the picture may be, it fails unless the viewer understands the five Ws-Who, What, When, Where and Why of the photograph. The area of providing information that the photograph cannot give is in the caption-the text that accompanies the photograph. It is your responsibility, as the photographer, to gather the necessary information and write complete, concise, and factual captions.
The caption supplements the photograph by answering the five Ws. It provides clarification of important details that are not readily apparent in the photograph, To make a caption work, you must use three basic elements:
An explanation of the subject
Identification of persons or things in the picture
Additional details of background information
In caption writing, the first sentence is the most important. It must describe the action without overemphasizing the obvious. Always use the active voice of the verb and write in the present tense. Another important consideration in caption writing is background information. This consists of additional facts or explanations needed to clarify the photo. The amount of background information included depends on where the picture will be located and how it will be used.
Whether the photo will be printed in a military or a civilian publication, used in a report, or used as a display picture is of primary importance. The caption explaining a picture of a sailor wearing an oxygen breathing apparatus to a civilian is more difficult than explaining it to another sailor.
The second consideration, how the photograph is to be used, refers to whether it will be used alone, as a single picture, or used in conjunction with something else, such as a news story or report. When the picture is to accompany a news story or a report, the caption should not repeat details used in the text. On the other hand, when the photograph is to be used as a single picture, it must tell the whole story, and the amount of background information must be enough to provide the reader with all the necessary details. In other words, the caption and picture combination must tell the complete story.
The answers to the five Ws should be given in vigorous, forceful language without sacrificing simplicity and brevity.
WHO Give as much information as possible about the personnel shown in the photograph, beginning with paygrade, rate, or rank and full name.
WHAT Used to identify ships, aircraft, awards, and other things shown in the photograph.
WHERE Identifies the location of the event.
WHEN The actual time or date of the event.
WHY The reason for a particular operation or action taking place.
The novice caption writer is often confronted with the problem of how long to make the caption. Although there is no prescribed length for captions, the general rule is one paragraph, preferably in 50 words or less. Caption content is your last opportunity to tell what makes a photograph significant. The shorter you make the caption and still tell a complete story, the better.
There is no best way to write a caption. There are, however, rules that make caption writing easier. One proven method is to make use of the three basic elements: explain the action, identify persons or things in the photograph, and give necessary background information.
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