Crafting Compelling Captions for Photo Contests, Part I

A young pine marten leaps from one tree to another in my direction. I was shooting out of an open window. Silver Gate, Montana © Patricia McCollom Bauchman
A young pine marten leaps from one tree to another in my direction. I was shooting out of an open window. Silver Gate, Montana © Patricia McCollom Bauchman

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Captions play a critical role in photo contests. You might think that your photograph stands on its own but judges don’t have your knowledge of the circumstances at the moment you pressed the shutter button. The information you provide in your caption can help preemptively answer a judge’s questions or concerns, explain a unique situation you captured, illuminate subtle nuances in your composition, and assuage any trepidations over potential ethical problems. Captions can make or break your photo’s chances in Showcase or any other photo contest.

We’re in the middle of the 2021 NANPA Showcase nature photo competition and hundreds of photographers are combing through their archive to choose which stellar images they want to submit. The quality of submissions has always been outstanding, making the judges’ job difficult. Yet every year we get comments from judges about images with inadequate captions. Don’t let a weak caption give judges a reason to discount your photo!

This is not a problem unique to Showcase. Rather, it seems to be common in photo contests in general. So, taking a few extra minutes to craft a succinct and informative caption is time well spent. It could be the difference between your image making or missing the cut.

This article opened with Patricia McCollom Bauchman’s photo of a pine martin jumping towards the camera. It is one example of a photo that benefitted from a bit of extra information. Judges seeing this image might wonder whether this was shot on a game farm, where food is offered to entice animals to move towards photographers. Bauchman’s caption helped explain how this unique shot was captured and alleviate any concern about unethical photography practices.

Sandra Lee Zelasko’s photo of bighorn sheep dangling from a helicopter is another example of a photo that needs a good caption. Without her explanation, the viewer doesn’t have enough information to realize that this is something done by conservationists for a specific reason. The context clarifies both what the photo depicts and the importance of those actions for the wellbeing of bighorn sheep across the state.

Antelope Island is home to a healthy, wild population of bighorn sheep. A number of these animals are transported, as part of conservation efforts, to increase sheep numbers around the state. The process begins by flying low over the island, where from the air, biologists choose suitable individuals, shoot them with a net gun and hop out to tie up the captured animals. Once the sheep are restrained, the pilot returns, sheep dangling in bags beneath the helicopter. On the ground, the bighorn are weighed, measured, given blood tests and antibiotics before being loaded into a trailer for transport. Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Utah © Sandra Lee Zelasko
Antelope Island is home to a healthy, wild population of bighorn sheep. A number of these animals are transported, as part of conservation efforts, to increase sheep numbers around the state. The process begins by flying low over the island, where from the air, biologists choose suitable individuals, shoot them with a net gun and hop out to tie up the captured animals. Once the sheep are restrained, the pilot returns, sheep dangling in bags beneath the helicopter. On the ground, the bighorn are weighed, measured, given blood tests and antibiotics before being loaded into a trailer for transport. Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Utah © Sandra Lee Zelasko

Finally, Ian Frazier’s photo from Death Valley was entered in the Altered Reality category. A good rule of thumb for this type of entry is to describe what you did to the photo in the capture, the processing or, as in this case, both.

Went to Death Valley and found some amazing patterns in this dried mud flat. Used a small flashlight and multiple exposures to create something different as night fell. Death Valley National Park, California © Ian Frazier
Went to Death Valley and found some amazing patterns in this dried mud flat. Used a small flashlight and multiple exposures to create something different as night fell. Death Valley National Park, California © Ian Frazier

The take away? Craft a good caption and provide enough descriptive text to prevent problems. Don’t give a judge anything to question or doubt, nothing that would take away from the impact of your photo.

Want more tips for entering your photos in Showcase or any other photo competition? Go to the Members Area of NANPA’s website and look for Wendy Shattil’s webinar “Photo Contest Secrets Revealed” and download NANPA’s new handbook, “Contest Secrets: What to Know Before You Enter a Photo.” And read our recent blog article, Top Seven Tips for Choosing Winning Images for Photo Contests for even more ideas.

Time to get cracking! Enter your best nature shots in the 2021 NANPA Showcase photo competition. The deadline is September 21st at 11 p.m. Eastern Time.

Prize-winning photo by Karen Schuenemann plus a selection of pages from free handbook titled CONTEST SECRETS: WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU ENTER A PHOTO