Captioning Your Stock Photos for the PhotoShelter Collection

English captions are required on all images submitted to the PhotoShelter Collection. Captions help our editors contextualize the subject matter of your image during their review. But more importantly, captions provide a description for image buyers who often rely on the caption while browsing through thousands of images. A caption can actually affect the sale of an image, because explanatory detail is needed in certain cases (e.g. a textbook). Uniformity of captioning style is important to maintaining professionalism throughout the buying experience.

This is a brief primer on caption style that will help you avoid the dreaded soft-rejection from incomplete or poorly captioned images.

Captions & Soft Rejection
All images submitted to the PhotoShelter Collection require captions, but editors can “soft reject” images if they feel that the caption is not sufficient. Soft rejection reasons include, but are not limited to:

– Insufficient location information (e.g. “Pretty church”)
Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy
Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by David Baker

– Landmark name required (“A statue near a rainbow” vs. “Rainbow over Statue of Father Damien at St Joseph Church Molokai”)
Rainbow over Statue of Father Damien at St Joseph Church Molokai
Rainbow over Statue of Father Damien at St Joseph Church Molokai. Photo by Reimar Gaertner.

– Keywords, not caption (“skyscraper, calatrava, malmo”)
Turning Torso skyscraper by Santiago Calatrava, Malmo, Sweden, Europe, Scandinavia
Turning Torso skyscraper by Santiago Calatrava, Malmo, Sweden, Europe, Scandinavia. Photo by Pawel Toczynski

– Caption not in English (“Una chica y un hombre en la playa”)
Woman giving man a piggyback ride.
Woman giving man a piggyback ride. Photo by Rob Howard

– Insufficient identification of people (“Radiohead in concert”)
Radiohead play at Meadowbank stadium in Edinburgh.
Radiohead play at Meadowbank stadium in Edinburgh. Radiohead are an English rock band formed in Oxfordshire in 1986. The band comprises Thom Yorke (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, piano, electronics), Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, other instruments), Ed O’Brien (guitar, backing vocals), Colin Greenwood (bass guitar, synthesisers) and Phil Selway (drums, percussion).Photo by Ross Gilmore

– All caps (“BARACK OBAMA CAMPAIGNS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE” vs. “Barack Obama campaigns during the New Hampshire Primaries”)
United States Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) campaigns in the University of Nevada, Reno gymnasium on Friday, January 18, 2008, approximately 24 hours before the Nevada caucus.
United States Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) campaigns in the University of Nevada, Reno gymnasium on Friday, January 18, 2008, approximately 24 hours before the Nevada caucus. Photo by Geoffrey King

Sometimes people take the extreme opposite and provide multiple paragraphs of background information for an image. Although we won’t soft reject these images, it is overkill for both our editors and the image buyer.

Image Sequences and Captions
We’ve reviewed and subsequently soft rejected many images where the photographer cut and pasted the same caption for many different images. If the images are so similar, they should be stacked. If they aren’t that similar, then the captions should reflect the different subject matter, angles, lighting conditions, etc, that make the photo unique.


Style Points
Verb Tense
Captions should be written in the simple present active form.

After performing at the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony at Oslo City Hall, Yo Yo Ma took the stage again at the internationally-televised Nobel Concert, performing Haydn's Cello Concert in C. For many in the audience, including laureate Mohamed ElBaradei himself, it was a brief respite from the pop and rock fare that dominated most of the evening.
Photo by Scott London

Best:
Yo-Yo Ma performs at the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony at Oslo City Hall.

Avoid the present progressive (gerund).
Bad:
Yo-Yo Ma is performing at the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony at Oslo City Hall.

Avoid past tense construction (particularly in the first sentence).
Bad:
Yo-Yo Ma performed at the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony at Oslo City Hall.

The second or subsequent sentences can contain past tenses.
After performing at the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony at Oslo City Hall, Yo Yo Ma took the stage again at the internationally televised Nobel Concert, performing Haydn’s Cello Concert in C. For many in the audience, including laureate Mohamed ElBaradei himself, it was a brief respite from the pop and rock fare that dominated most of the evening.

Point of View (aka Grammatical Person)
Captions should be written in the third person, and should not editorialize. Do not use “I,” “me,” “we,” etc.

The London Eye was built to help celebrate the Year 2000 and has become the most popular attraction in the capital. London, February 2008.
The London Eye was built to help celebrate the Year 2000 and has become the most popular attraction in the capital. London, February 2008. Photo by Neil Juggins

Bad (soft reject):
My family and I visited the London Eye in the Summer of 2007, and we enjoyed it very much.

Better:
The London Eye was built to help celebrate the Year 2000 and has become the most popular attraction in the capital. London, February 2008.

Workman with an oil can stands before a large steam turbine in a factory in Southern California, USA.
Workman with an oil can stands before a large steam turbine in a factory in Southern California, USA. Photo by Chuck Nacke

Bad:
A steam turbine. I bet it puts out a lot more power than my truck!

Better:
Workman with an oil can stands before a large steam turbine in a factory in Southern California, USA.

“This is a photo of…”
There is no need to preface a caption with a phrase like “This is a photo of,” as a photo is obviously a photo of something. Please refrain from using extraneous and unnecessary phrases.

Olympic "Bird's Nest" Stadium in Beijing, China.
Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium in Beijing, China. Photo by Andrea Sperling

Bad (soft reject):
This is a stock photo of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing.

Better:
Olympic “Bird’s Nest”; Stadium in Beijing, China.

Sentence or Phrase?
We prefer that captions be a complete sentence, and at the very least, they should be a descriptive phrase.  

Mature businesswoman using computer mouse
Mature businesswoman using computer mouse. Photo by Mihaela Ninic

Bad (soft reject):
mouse

Better:
Mature business woman using computer mouse.

Keywords Are Not a Caption
PhotoShelter has both a keyword and a caption field with specific uses. The caption field should not be a string of comma-separated words. The caption should be a phrase or a sentence in intelligible English.

Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as Khufu's Pyramid or the Pyramid of Khufu, or the Pyramid of Cheops.
Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as Khufu’s Pyramid or the Pyramid of Khufu, or the Pyramid of Cheops. Photo by Jeff Kennel

Bad (soft reject):
Pyramids, Egypt, Desert

Better:
Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, Egypt, also known as Khufu’s Pyramid or the Pyramid of Khufu, or the Pyramid of Cheops. The pyramid is believed to have been constructed in 2560 BC as a tomb for the Fourth Dynasty pharoah Khufu.

Caption Style for Creative Content
Photographers often set or stage scenes to create imagery that illustrates specific concepts, objects, etc. In this instance, the caption has a slightly different purpose in that there is rarely a larger context to elucidate. In most cases, a single sentence will suffice.

Splashes of water on a ripe red apple
Splashes of water on a ripe red apple. Photo by Craig Loose

Bad:
Red apple

Better:
Splashes of water on a ripe red apple.

Images can be illustrative of something literal, or they can illustrate a concept of emotion. A caption can capture this.

Portrait of contented girl.
Portrait of contented girl. Photo by Chris Carroll

Bad:
Girl in a room.

Better:
Portrait of contented girl.

Captioning Style for Factually Based Content
News, Sports, Travel, Entertainment: All of these categories exemplify content that is factually based. A caption in this instance helps describe what is seen in the picture, and often a subsequent sentence that brings some background information to the reader.
Captions (AP Style preferred) should answer the who, what, when, where and why of the subject depicted in the photograph. Captions should be written in English in the present tense and include a date.

Typically, captions are written in two parts. The first sentence describes the subject/action depicted in the image, while the subsequent sentences give context to the image.

First Sentence:
Detroit, MI, May 26, 2008 – Kevin Garnett drives to the hoop for an uncontested dunk.

This first sentence effectively conveys who is depicted a what they are doing but gives us little information about what the larger significance may (or may not) be. A second sentence helps bring that clarity.

Two Sentences:
Detroit, MI, May 26, 2008 – Kevin Garnett drives to the hoop for an uncontested dunk. The Boston Celtics lost 94-75 to the Detroit Pistons in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Location
The majority of travel based images are soft rejected because the photographer does not provide enough detailed information about the location. Get in the habit of providing city, state/province and country at a minimum for any image where location might be relevant to the buyer.

See Writing Killer Captions for Travel Photography for additional reference.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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