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
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
The answers to the five Ws should be given in
vigorous, forceful language without sacrificing
simplicity and brevity.
WHOGive as much information as possible about
the personnel shown in the photograph, beginning with
paygrade, rate, or rank and full name.
WHATUsed to identify ships, aircraft, awards, and
other things shown in the photograph.
WHEREIdentifies the location of the event.
WHENThe actual time or date of the event.
WHYThe 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
EXPLAIN THE ACTION
The first of the three elements, explain the action, is
the most important part of the caption. The very first
sentence must link the caption to the photograph by
describing the action. One of the peculiarities of the first
sentence in caption writing is its verb form. Since a
photograph has frozen a moment in time, the verb
should be written in present tense. This provides a sense
of immediacy, as though the reader is actually
witnessing the event. For example:
"Petty Officer Second Class Paul T. Boat
swims through swirling flood waters of the St.
Johns River to rescue 6-year-old Sammy
Cameron . . . ."
This has more dramatic impact than a caption which
"Petty Officer Second Class Jane B. Doe swam
through . . . ."
There is, however, one problem that arises from the use
of present tense in the first sentence. What to do with
the when or time element? If the when or time
element is included in the first sentence, the result reads
something like this:
Pete Rose hit a line drive to center field
yesterday . . . .
A sentence, such as this, would be somewhat jarring to
the reader and should be avoided. To alleviate the
problem, you should leave out the when or time element
of the first sentence when writing captions, thus
avoiding an awkward shift in tense.