January 17, 2011 / Copywriting

Captions provide the total yearbook picture

Written by Elizabeth Braden, CJE

A COB photo of a basketball player dominates the opening spread of the 2010 Caxton yearbook of Robert McQueen High School. He is wearing sunglasses, beads and some sort of shiny purple head gear. Chances are, most students had to read the caption when they got their yearbooks to realize the player was senior Brian Grove, since his eyes and blond hair were covered. Chances are even greater that in 20 years, most graduates would not remember that this was Grove, because he looks like any basketball player.

And that is the value of captions for today and the future.

“Yearbooks without captions are incomplete,” Johanna Sergott, yearbook adviser at McQueen High, said. “Captions also help to tell the stories behind photographs. Otherwise, viewers would not know who they are looking at and what they are doing,”

Information about students and events vanishes each year because either the yearbook staff did not write captions for photos or they were not written with enough information to help students remember what the image was about. In the photo example, identifying Groves as a participant in the Winterfaire assembly explains why he was dressed as he was.


Captions should be written for the enjoyment of readers when they first get their yearbooks, and for memory-jogging years later. An incomplete description may leave readers wondering who this student was, why they were dressed this way and what was the occasion. In this instance, students at Robert McQueen High School in Reno, Nev., will forever know that this is a photo of senior Brian Groves, a basketball player participating in the Winterfaire assembly at school. Captions should contain the who, what, when, where, why and how, just like stories.

“The functions of captions include adding more detail, giving specifics, especially in the case of sporting events, adding quotes to your stories and helping preserve history,” Lynn Bare, yearbook adviser at Southern Alamance High School in Graham, N.C., said.

How to write a caption

There is a basic caption-writing formula: the first sentence is in present tense and includes names and a description of the action; then a second sentence, and maybe a third, is in past tense with more explanation and maybe a quote.

Captions should tell the reader who is in the picture, where and when it was taken, what went on immediately before and after the picture was taken, and why, said Stephanie Emerson, yearbook adviser at Wynne High School in Wynne, Ark.

The information should be factual – why is the person laughing, crying or cheering? How did students react? Sometimes a quote can answer those questions, Emerson said.

The yearbooks at McQueen, Southern Alamance and Wynne all follow these basics with slight variations. They all begin captions with bolded lead-ins that function to capture the reader’s attention and to summarize the photo.

At Wynne, the caption must have at least four parts: the lead-in (also called a kicker or mini-headline), a summary statement in present tense, a descriptive sentence in past tense, and the photographer’s name. A quote or sentences with additional information can be added before the photographer’s name.

Also, Emerson has other caption-writing rules: do not begin with a person’s name; do not use “to be” verbs, do not rely excessively on the use of verbals for lead-ins, especially “ing” words; and no two captions on a double-page spread should start the same way.

At Southern Alamance, the second and subsequent sentences in sports captions must include stats on the team, the athlete and the season as applicable, Bare said.

At all three schools, the staff members working on a spread write the captions.

“The captions for a layout start with the person who is completing the layout asking the photographer for certain types of pictures. I encourage students to plan their layouts by having them complete plans of what they will cover, what types of pictures they need, new events for the year, etc. I ask that everyone take notes when they take pictures but it doesn’t always work that way,” Bare said.

“When the pictures are downloaded, the staff member talks to the photographer, and the caption is then created by the staff member. For stats, we go to both athletes and coaches, depending on what we want. The staffers go and get their own quotes to further add to their captions,” Bare said.

At Wynne, each staff member is to be with the photographer if possible when the photo is taken for that spread, Emerson said.

Of these three yearbooks, only Wynne’s staff provided a photographer’s credit.

“Sometimes photographers take only photos, they do not write copy (or) captions. Without their photos, we wouldn’t have a yearbook. They deserve as much credit as the writers and editors.  Therefore, the photo credit is always attached to the end of the photo’s caption. We have always done this,” Emerson said.

“Since the yearbook is a history book of the school, each photo needs identification and pertinent information. Years from now, when a person reads the book and captions, if there is no identification, the history is lost,” Emerson said.

That is why captions, like all other copy need to be accurate.

“Writers should steer clear of cheesy generalizations. Such captions are like a slap in the face to whoever is featured on said spread,” Sergott said.

Sergott said captions not only finalize the look of layouts, they serve as design elements in and of themselves. But captions offer much more.

“Captions tell the mini-stories that are visualized in photographs. These short stories also provide extra information that is interesting and allows more students to be featured in the book,” she said.

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Elizabeth Braden, CJE

Elizabeth Braden, CJE, is the former editor of Idea File magazine. Before retiring, she was a copywriter for Walsworth Yearbooks for more than 15 years, writing articles for various marketing materials, and proofreading copy for the Yearbook and Commercial divisions. Her career included reporting and editing for United Press International and editing for Knight-Ridder Financial News. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Media News from the University of Tulsa.