A good picture caption adds to the picture; a bad one adds nothing or, worse, subtracts, leaving the reader darkly baffled.

The worse kind of picture caption is one which merely explains what the reader or web viewer can already see: The Prime Minister gets out his car; Children enjoying face-painting. Duh!

Here’s a particularly egregious example from the Times website today:

Oh, these naughty Times: Not only a typo, but the caption tells you nothing but the bleeding obvious. But where the hell is Clegg's "hom" anyway? And what's the chicken doing there?

Adding to a picture can be nothing more than names and place: Petition presentation: Human rights eco-activist Aurora Golden-Virginia delivers the signed sheets to the Civic Centre. This is the basic who, why, what, where approach, and is perfectly adequate – as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.

Better still is to add to the picture what the picture itself cannot always provide – context: Flustered: Human rights eco-activist Aurora Golden-Virginia delivers the petition at the Civic Centre just one minute before deadline.

This example highlights two important points:
  1. Captions should almost always be written in the present tense, unless there is a good reason not to, say, in a Heritage piece about people and places that have long gone: Mary Seacole: Rod Liddle hate-figure; Nonsuch Palace: Queen Mary sold it.
  2. When a picture is related to a particular story – which nine times out of 10 they are – it is important the caption speaks not only to the picture but also to the story. Curiously, this can easily be done by omission, such as leaving out the precise time or by raising a question that can only be answered by reading the story – why did the redoubtable Ms Golden-Virginia leave it until the last minute to deliver her petition? While answering the “who?” question is always important in a caption, the “why?” question is a good one to raise to refer the reader to the story.

Obviously, the style guide for whichever publication or website you’re working for rules, but generally all stand-alone captions should carry a kicker – a few words that economically add to the picture and which refer back to the accompanying story: Three years: Joe Bloggs; ‘Furious’: Ken LivingstoneQuest for glory: Joe Bloggs on an early morning training run (good examples of raising the “why?” question to refer the reader back to the story). The words used in the kicker should not be repeated in the main body of the caption. And if you’re going to use an adjective such as Furious or Happy as a kicker, the photo should show the subject conveying an at least approximately apt expression, unless you’re going for irony (and the reader knows you are).

In pictures of groups, it is imperative to identify the key players at least: Prime Minister Joe Bloggs meets Beaver Creek Council leader Mary Seacole and fellow councillors; Human rights eco-activist Aurora Golden-Virginis is mobbed by hysterical autograph-seekers. Note that in cases where it is not possible to identify everyone in a photograph – either because there are too many and names would be irrelevant, or because you don’t have the names – it is important to identify the role of the accompanying group – onlookers, staff, protesters, hysterical autograph-seekers etc.

Do not assume that because you know who someone is, the readers will. You may know that Councillor Mary Seacole is leader of Beaver Creek Council, but chances are many of your readers would be hard-pressed to identify her as such.

Identification should be from left to right – this is so standard it is not usually necessary to point it out – unless the picture concentrates on one or two people who may be in the middle of the group. They should come first, which also handily gets round the awkward problem of identifying the over-familiar in the middle of a list of comparative nonentities.

DO NOT USE “the picture shows”, “in the picture” or similar verbosity.

Ideally, every picture should have its own caption, but sometimes, as in picture spreads, multiple captions can save space. But equally they can be a maze which the reader has to wade through, with the risk they will give up. As a general rule, do not include more than three pictures in one caption, particularly if names and positions or job titles are included.

Captions should be placed where the reader expects to find them – in 99.9 times out of 100, this is directly underneath, or if, for reasons of space that is not possible, directly to the side. They should NOT be placed at the end of the accompanying story three or four columns away.

Caption stories, where the story is a caption and vice-versa, are an art, and while they follow many of the rules given above, they have a few of their own:
  1. It is imperative that both headline and intro speak directly to the picture, even in an oblique way.
  2. Identification must occur early in the story, not left until the end. In group photos, identifying the group should occur in the intro eg, Beaver Creek Primary School pupils; Arsenal team members; individual names can be left to the second or third par.
  3. Caption stories should be set in normal column widths in normal body text, rather than set into a separate caption text or CSS style.
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