University Communicators Guide

Writing Effective Captions

Following photos, captions are one of the first things your readers notice and consume when they look at your publication or website. So, the best captions are meaningful, captivation, and make readers want to know more so they read the entire article.

Tips for great captions

The Essentials

  • Check the facts—be accurate
  • Avoid stating the obvious: “Forward Jessica Jones grimaces as she takes a ball to the face.” Tell us something we don’t know. “Despite a midgame injury, forward Jessica Jones went on to score record points in the championship game.”
  • Use complete sentences
  • Avoid terms like “is shown, is pictured, gestures, looks on”
  • A photograph captures a moment in time. Whenever possible, use present tense.

Identifying Individuals

  • Always identify the main people in a photo
  • Descriptions are helpful. The person “dressed in black,” “holding the microphone,” “wearing the backpack,” or “standing to the left of sofa” are helpful.
  • If the group is large, use “From left:” and then introduce the group. Otherwise, set off directions with commas: “Gayle Hutchinson, above, …. ” or “Gayle Hutchinson, upper left, … ” BUT… If it’s obvious who is who (female and male) or there is only one person in the photos, directions are probably unnecessary.
  • Avoid making judgments: “A happy student sits by Big Chico Creek.” Are you sure she is happy? Maybe she has something awful happening in her life. Stick to the facts.
  • Similarly, avoid assuming someone's gender identity and pronouns—if you're not sure, ask, and if that's not an option, try to write around it using the person's name. Always use a subject's preferred pronouns.

Considering Context

  • No caption is an island. You don’t need to repeat every detail in every caption of a story. Second reference names, the event, etc.
  • If it’s a historic photo, give a date.
  • Please give credit. Courtesy of ______ or (Photo by Jason Halley / University Photographer)