December 9, 1996 / Coverage / Winter 1996

Complete the Picture

Written by Michael K. Frazier

With the trend in yearbooks moving toward less copy, strong captions for the pictures play a more important role than ever before. Today’s captions answer the important 5Ws and H questions (Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, and How?) for the reader instead of a brief identification of the subject and an obvious description of the action. Captions report on behind-the-scenes information to supplement, not repeat, the body copy.

The best yearbook captions reveal an obvious attempt to research and report the events and activities surrounding the photo. That means photographers must become “photojournalists” in the truest sense. They need to record relevant information about the subject(s) and event while they are shooting the assignment. A pocket notebook and pen carried in the camera bag for taking these notes should be standard gear. This is how professional photojournalists work. Some staffs find it helpful to send a staffer with the photographer to record this information, freeing the photographer of the duty.

Regardless of the method used, it is best to get the information when the assignment is photographed. It is much easier to obtain quotes, statistics, reaction and the emotion of the moment while on assignment. Too often staffs try to obtain their caption information only after the film is processed. The delay may be days, weeks, or even months. It is very difficult to recapture the mood after just a few hours. This may mean the photographers must learn to adjust their approach, but it will save time in the long run.

Caption writers should work closely with copy writers to avoid duplicating information and quotes. Space is limited on the spread, so avoid repetition.

If greater effort is made to provide real information, supplementary material and quotes, captions will, of course, be longer. That is good. With less copy, you need longer captions to tell the whole story. A good rule of thumb is that no caption should be less than two sentences in length. Three is certainly acceptable, and more than that may be appropriate, depending on the photo and situation. Naturally, care must be given to keep length in perspective. The smallest photo on the spread probably should not have the longest caption. After all, by making it the smallest photo, the staff tells the reader this is the least important picture.

Captions are the best-read copy in the yearbook. Take advantage of that. Since most spreads contain from four to seven photos (multiply that times the number of coverage pages in your book), you can see the need for a variety of styles and approaches. If all captions begin with the subject’s name, a gerund or participle (those “ing” words), they will soon bore the reader. Vary your approach and vow to make each caption on the spread begin with a different grammatical style. Use colorful, descriptive action verbs and avoid using state-of-being verbs (“is,” “am,” “was,” etc.) unless absolutely necessary.

The first sentence of the caption should be written in present tense. Additional sentences may be written in present or past tense. A quote can be used to begin a caption, but it should clearly reflect the emotion or action in the photo.

Be sure to identify all people in the photo by first and last name. If the photo is a candid group shot (i.e. a crowd shot), identify the group and any people who clearly stand out as the focal point of the photo. If there are five or six people in the photo, all should be identified. Be sure to identify the subjects from left to right, but do not say “from left to right” in the caption text.

Never use joke or “gag” captions, or captions which pass judgment on the subject or activity. Journalists refer to this as maintaining objectivity. Humor has its place, but caption writers must avoid the temptation to inject their own views or opinions. Schools can be (and have been) sued for libel for seemingly innocent remarks. It is not worth it and it is not professional.

Use a consistent style. If you use courtesy titles (i.e. Miss, Mrs. or Mr.) or identify students by class, stick with the format. Some staffs designate a caption editor to check for style consistency.

Sports captions should identify opposing players by name, not just by number. Photographers usually can obtain a program or team roster at the contest site or from the scorer. Significant statistics from the contest or season can be helpful in telling the whole story about the photo or page subject. Obtain stats from the scorer or, if necessary, from the coach or athletic director after the contest. Avoid using contest scores in the captions unless it is done to make a point. Your scoreboard supplies this information, so there is not much reason to repeat it.

Group captions may begin by simply listing the name of the group. Maintain a consistent style for row indicators. To eliminate confusion, use “front row” instead of “first row.” Continue with “second row” (or “middle row”), etc. (Be advised that critique services may frown on using “row 2,” “row 3.”) End with “back row.” Also, do not forget to include any “not pictured.” Include titles or officer designations before the name (i.e. Coach Robert Bloom).

Photo credits may be included at the end of the caption, often set in smaller type. These also may be placed next to the photos, but not included as part of the caption. Finally, once the caption has been written, be sure to proofread it and check for spelling errors. Anyone who has ever seen their name misspelled in a publication knows the disappointment the subject might feel. Sloppy editing reduces the credibility of the entire publication in the eyes of your reader, and shows a carelessness that may alert the reader to look for other errors in the book. Remember, the yearbook is a keepsake and a memory book as well as a record of history. Accuracy is essential.

Yearbook staffs that treat captions as an important part of vibrant coverage are the staffs which understand attention to detail. For many staffs that means allowing more space for captions than ever before. A good rule of thumb is to set captions in type two points smaller than the body copy. However, with the huge number of fonts available today, think in terms of contrast. Just make sure caption text does not compete with body copy because of point size, or that a particular font is too difficult to read in a small point size. Once the caption font and point size are determined, create several sample captions and print them in actual size on your laser printer (or ask your publisher to generate these for you). By doing this, you can get a good estimate of how many words fit into a column inch. This will help provide caption writers with a reasonable word count target for the space available.

The cliche, “One picture is worth a thousand words,” has never been more true. Of course, even with the trend toward longer captions, space will be at a premium. If you have an unlimited budget for extra pages, or use very tiny type and a magnifying glass, make sure you pick the right thousand. For the rest of us, just tell a complete, but concise, story.

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Michael K. Frazier

Michael Frazier is a retired former yearbook and newspaper adviser from Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Indiana. Frazier spent 30 years at Hanover Central, where his staffs and yearbooks earned national honors. He was chosen as a Distinguished Adviser by JEA in 1997.