How to Write Captions for Your Photos

Photo of a cheetah with caption. Note that the caption for this image, published in Wild Planet Photo Magazine, details camera settings as well as the captive nature of the subject, including location where the image was photographed.
The caption for this image, published in Wild Planet Photo Magazine, details camera settings as well as the captive nature of the subject, including location where the image was photographed.

By Jennifer Leigh Warner, NANPA Ethics Committee Chair

It’s exciting when you decide to make the leap from viewing your image on the back of your camera to publishing that image for the whole world to see. So many thoughts are buzzing around your head, like “What will others think of my image?” and “Will this image impact the way people see the world?” With so much going through your mind, it’s important to not forget the ethical obligation you have to properly caption those photos for viewers.  

Why captions are important

A caption is more than just a label. Yes, it describes what’s in the photo, but good captions also convey crucial additional information. Captions can provide the context that leads to a deeper, richer understanding for a viewer, whether that’s learning about animal behavior, technical information, or safe and ethical practices. While there’s an art to writing great captions, it’s pretty easy to construct good ones.

The caption for this image of burrowing owl posted on social media indicates species name and a description of what is happening in the image. However, for the protection of the nesting owl, location data is purposefully missing.
The caption for this image of burrowing owl posted on social media indicates species name and a description of what is happening in the image. However, for the protection of the nesting owl, location data is purposefully missing.

Different captions for different viewers

How you caption your photos depends on the intended audience. If the viewers are other photographers, you may spend more time focusing on the technical aspects of the image, such as camera brand and model, as well as what settings you used to make your image. Many photography publications require this kind of caption information to help inform their readers, who often want to know specifics about the gear used.

Images posted on social media have less strict captioning guidelines. However, including the subject’s name and location as well as an explanation of the animal’s behavior or the landscape’s importance can help viewers build a better understanding of what they are seeing and why you took the photo.

In the case of sensitive subjects, such as owl nests, omitting specific location data may serve as a way of protecting the subject from harassment or persecution by overenthusiastic people. There is a movement on Instagram, for instance, to stop using location tagging in order to preserve fragile environments.

You may want to consider adding additional information regarding any specialized equipment you used to make your image. For example, if you publish a frame-filling portrait of a bear, then explaining that you used a 600mm lens with a 2X teleconverter, and cropped the image by 50%, helps your audience understand how you were able to make such an intimate image while still maintaining a safe distance from the bear and following ethical guidelines for nature photography, such as NANPA’s Ethical Field Practices.

Including descriptions and explanations of specific wildlife behaviors, the ecological role of a plant or insect, or the importance of a cypress swamp helps viewers better understand what is interesting, unique, or important about your image and develop an appreciation for those aspects of nature.

Embed photo captions in metadata

Whenever possible, captions should be embedded into the image’s metadata. By providing it in the image file, caption information will remain with the image as it is shared online with audiences you may never see or speak with. Image tags and personal information can also be added to the metadata to optimize image searchability.

Including this information in your metadata also helps maintain and protect your copyright as well as aiding others who may be interested in your subjects or your work find you.

This image of a bull moose, photographed in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, is being processed in Adobe Lightroom with relevant metadata added to the image file.
This image of a bull moose, photographed in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, is being processed in Adobe Lightroom with relevant metadata added to the image file.

Five must-have elements for photo captions

When deciding what to include in your caption, try to remember the five must-have elements for an effective caption.

  1. The What – Informative description of what the image depicts
  2. The When – The time of year the image was taken
  3. The Where – The location where the image was taken
  4. The How it was photographed – Truthful disclosure of the conditions under which the image was captured
  5. The How it was post processed – Truthful disclosure of any post-processing and digital manipulation.

If you include these five elements in your captions, you will have much greater success affecting viewers’ understanding of and attitude toward your subjects. In so doing, your images will have more positive impact on the natural world.

This image of a bighorn sheep in the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming shows how the image tags made in Adobe Lightroom are carried over to the image.
This image of a bighorn sheep in the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming shows how the image tags made in Adobe Lightroom are carried over to the image.

Useful terms for photo captions

NANPA’s Truth in Captioning Statement provides suggestions for terms that might be included in photo captions to help viewers better understand how the image was captured. These include:

  1. Wild – The term “wild” applies to any animal having the freedom to go anywhere and to disregard artificially set boundaries, with the exception of preserves established to protect the animal for its own sake, and where it lives in a natural state.
  2. Captive – The term “captive” applies to any animal that is living under human care and control for an extended period of time. This includes, but is not limited to, zoos, game farms, falconry, rescue facilities, and research facilities. Including the name of the facility in the caption may also help convey the captive nature of the animal. Many educational and documentary photo users require this information.
  3. Controlled – The term “controlled” applies to an animal temporarily under human control but otherwise wild. Examples include animals in a cage, net, trap, temporary aquarium, or in refrigerated, drugged or tethered conditions.
  4. Baited – The term “baited” refers to the use of live, dead, or fake food to attract a predatory bird, mammal, or reptile.
  5. Attracted – The term “attracted” applies when using food, water, scent, audio, decoys, or any other introduced means to attract a non-predatory animal. It also applies to using anything other than food (e.g. decoys) to attract a predatory bird or other animal.

In some situations, providing additional information about how the image was taken can help viewers learn how to photograph their own subjects more responsibly. For example:

  • Images taken on public land usually off-limits to the general public may be labeled as having been done under permit, or with appropriate permission.
  • Wildlife images taken while working with wildlife biologists to minimize impact can note that guidance and supervision were provided.
  • Images taken using remote cameras can acknowledge that the technology enabled the photographer to have minimal impact on delicate landscapes.

This type of captioning can help discourage photographers from taking similar images without obtaining the proper permits, precautions, and expertise.

Additional terms can help viewers understand that some images are digitally manipulated during post-processing, helping them distinguish a literal documentary image from an artistically-rendered one. These include:

  1. As Shot” – Nothing has been added to the original image and nothing removed. Standard digital adjustments may have been employed, such as global or selective adjustments to contrast, brightness, and saturation, as well as cropping, sharpening, dust spot removal, and noise reduction.
  2. Cleanup” – Minor elements, such as a stick, have been removed. No new elements have been added to the original image.
  3. Manipulated” – Major elements have been removed and/or new elements have been added, while maintaining the basic natural history of the scene at the time of capture. Examples of added elements include adding canvas, replacing eyes, adding wing tips.
  4. Composite” – Visual elements from separate single images were combined to create a new scene. Examples include replacing an entire background or adding a subject.
  5. Multiple Exposures” – The image consists of multiple single images. These may have been captured at the same location at the same time, captured in the same location at different times, or captured in different locations at different times They are merged in-camera or during post-processing. Examples include HDR, stitched panoramas, focus stacking, and multiple in-camera exposures. Photographers may caption such images with the technique used, such as, simply, “HDR” or “stitched panorama.”
  6. Effects”- An artistic filter or texture has been used to dramatically alter the appearance of all or part of the image beyond anything that could have occurred in nature.

As nature photographers, we have the unique opportunity to educate viewers with every image we share, whether publishing the image in a popular magazine, hanging it in an exhibit, posting it on social media, or sharing it in a blog or e-newsletter. Using the tips presented in this article, we can anticipate what audiences need to know and ensure that our work not only reveals the beauty of nature but also protects it for years to come even, maybe especially, when our images reach viewers well beyond those our originally intended audience.

Jennifer Leigh Warner is a fine art conservation wildlife photographer who specializes in creating meaningful images that convey a message of hope for the natural world. Jennifer feels strongly that, by sharing these images of beautiful animals in their natural environment, she can inspire those around her to preserve the world that we share with all living creatures.

As the Chair of NANPA’s Ethics Committee, Jennifer promotes the ethical practice of photographing wildlife.

Jennifer works closely with conservation organizations to help support their missions to protect wildlife and the world around us. She believes that photography is a powerful tool to share these stories, educate photo viewers on important topics, and inspire change.

You can learn more about Jennifer and the conservation work that she does by visiting her website at www.experiencewildlife.com.