Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The importance of photo captions and the anatomy of a correction

Statesboro High School honor graduate Anissa Fetzer 

I screwed up.

Plain and simple. It was an honest mistake, but an avoidable one.

We just finished up graduation season. A couple of Saturdays ago, I had to cover all three Bulloch County public high school graduations in one day. It means shooting an insane amount of pictures and dashing around to get proper identifications for any pics that might get published.

Those IDs are mandatory. It's a non-negotiable professional standard for any photojournalist because proper captioning is elemental. Good captions are part of what set a real pro apart from the rest.

And I dropped the ball. Sometimes IDs are difficult to acquire, but the effort should always be made – if you're a pro. In most cases, that means approaching your subjects and asking them for their information. It's not always possible. While I was covering the first graduation ceremony, I noticed an ecstatic graduate, sobbing uncontrollably, shedding unmistakable tears of joy when she returned to her seat. I focused in with my telephoto zoom and was able to make several frames of a moment that I hoped would move our readers as much as I was moved. I was sure I had my lead picture for the next day's front page.

The problem? She was seated right smack dab in the middle of the seating area with a steady stream of graduates exiting the stage between me and her. Sometimes, I will approach – as stealthily as possible – a graduate at or near the end of a row to make sure I get the proper information. This was going to be a tough ID, though, because access was nearly impossible.

Darren Brinson, center, waves to family and friends.

Plan B. I moved to the other side of the arena where the teachers were seated and quietly approached. I whispered to a couple of them that I need some help. I pointed out the student I had photographed. Then I showed them the pictures on the LCD on my digital camera. One teacher said she didn't know her, but another said she thought she did and checked her program. She conferred with another teacher and asked a student at the end of the row. She gave me the name and I felt confident I got it right. Still, I intended to seek out the student after the ceremony to double check, but she disappeared into the crowd at the conclusion and I never was able to catch up with her.

That picture did end up running as lead on the front page, and all was well – until the graduate's mother called the paper on Tuesday. Great picture. Wrong name.

What should have been a keepsake front page for a graduate and her family turned out to be an embarrassment for myself and the Statesboro Herald. In the end, most of our readers will forgive the error. The picture still conveys an honest, story-telling emotional moment, but the accompanying information was inaccurate. And if you've been reading this blog at all, you know that I've been beating the accuracy drum when it comes to images. It's a mistake and it underscores the importance of photo captions.

Shouldn't a good picture speak for itself? Well, yes, to the extent that it can speak for itself. Photographs are a powerful means to communicate some things better than any other medium. Emotions, first and foremost. They can confirm reality of an event or situation, also. However, pictures often – if not most of the time – need a little help from words to best understand what they are communicating. Captions add information to help us place photographs in their proper context.

Ronnie Arline, center, conducts as Jarrell Robinson, left, 
auditions for Chelsea S. Waters, right, who's preparing 
to sing the national during Portal High School's 
Commencement at Hanner Fieldhouse. Robinson

wanted Waters to know he was there for her

- in case she needed help.

So what makes a good photo caption? It starts with the inclusion of certain basic information. One of the first things you learn in journalism and news writing is The Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. They are basic questions a news story should answer. They are the starting point for a good photo caption, as well.

< The most basic is the "Who." That means the main subjects of any photograph should be identified with their full names, correctly spelled. If there is more than one subject, the caption should identify the position of each person. "Far right," or "upper left," for example. The What, When, and Where also add certain factual information to help establish accuracy and relevancy. The Why is often what separates a really good caption from run-of-the-mill ones.

Photographs, as they are initially captured, don't lie. But they can mislead or misrepresent if the context in which they were taken is not made clear. Good captions can also expand on the understanding of a photograph. A quote, a fact, or a statistic can reinforce what the photograph is meant to convey.

Eye-track studies on readers tell us captions are extremely important. The older studies done on newspaper readers suggested most test subjects read photo captions before they read story text. Newer studies on web-reading habits are even more interesting, suggesting that story briefs and captions get eyes even before the photographs themselves. Because of that, captions become a critical measure of a publication's credibility . Captions count!

The photograph below, from Georgia Southern University's Spring Commencement, is an example how words and pictures can work together to tell a story within a story, and how it's relevant. A picture that ran on Mothers Day, no less.

Catherine Shirley gives daughter Beth Roakes, 24, a big hug at the conclusion of Georgia Southern University's Spring Commencement at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Ga. on Saturday, May 8, 2010. Roakes, an Information Systems major from Newnan, Ga., tricked out her graduation cap to thank her mother for putting her through college.


  1. You'd think the only sure way to avoid caption errors is to speak directly with the subject. I had a misspelled name in a caption a couple of years ago and I was sure that I had used the spelling the subject had given me.

    Since I record a sound file on the camera with all IDs I went back and listened. I had recorded the subject spelling his own name - incorrectly!

  2. Hah! That's happened to me, too. Except I wasn't recording at the time. Wish I was.

    That's a great practice if your camera has the capability.

  3. Scott, I've found the recording function on my D2 invaluable, for (usually) getting names spelled correctly and correctly quoting people. Amazingly, I've even used it a few times to record sound for an audio slide show. I am amazed how good it works in some situations, at least for web work.


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