Captions connect us to pictures; empower them
Consider the lowly caption. It seems we’re seeing less of the maligned metadatum than ever nowadays. (Sorry about the neologism. I promised not to do that, didn’t I?)
Now consider your great aunt Louise. You never met Aunt Louise. Pretty much all you know of her comes from family legend and a faded photo. That photo is important, powerful. It paints humanity on the tales of Louise’s exploits. That’s the power of photography as an art. It’s the truth of the thing, a specificity of emotion and fact that no other art form can claim. We can look at Aunt Louise in that picture and imagine that we know her, imagine what it felt like to live her life.
You would be poorer without that photo.
How is it that you have that photo in the first place? Well, it was passed down from family member to
Thank a caption
That handwritten caption – a most rudimentary caption, in fact, has connected that photo to the person who was your Aunt Louise through all those years. Without it, the photo would have been lost, an anonymous document of some long dead anonymous person. And you wouldn’t know Aunt Louise.
Mind you, the photo might have been so artistically special that it hangs today in some museum as an icon of its time and place. But not likely. Think back. How many photos, or paintings, for that matter, endure in anybody’s consciousness, without association, either with the subject or the artist? I can’t think of a one.
The cold, hard truth is that without our little friend, the caption, most pictures become worthless.
Some activities in this world are more fun than captioning photos. On the other hand, taking the time to caption a photo before your publish it or file it away gives it specific meaning and a chance at enduring value.
Images need connection
You saw, if only briefly, hundreds, or thousands, of photos yesterday. Can you remember any of them? If you can, I’ll bet the image you remember is strongly associated with something specific. That association was made by a piece of metadata that somebody took the time to add to an image. Or maybe you associated yesterday’s image with some metadata from last week. Either way, it was the caption that linked you to that image.
So why are we seeing fewer captions? How often do you see a beautiful picture on social media and wonder what it’s all about? Digital media experts are burning up my inbox with dire warnings that our attention span has dipped below that of a fruit fly. No wait, an amoeba. No, shorter than… what was I saying? Those experts lament that we don’t “engage” long enough to be sold whatever it might be, or understand an article or a post. And yet, our little friend the caption isn’t getting the love.
Caption your way into history
I once worked with a brilliant news editor, who was fond of telling the people who worked for him that “captions are the most important small type on the page.” Absolutely right. A picture has the power to stop you cold, for as long as one or two fruit fly wing beats, anyway. Unless or until you understand the significance of the image. Then the photo’s power multiplies. If you understand the specific context of a picture, it might stay with you for a while.
It took a long time, but photojournalists eventually came to appreciate the captions they hated writing.
Captioning photos is actually pretty easy. Watch a video demonstration.
Today, there are billions of photos made every day, and an ever diminishing share of them are made by professionals. But no matter how much you hear about legions on social media documenting society in ways never before seen or some such thing, almost all of those images will soon enough be meaningless, adrift, out of context. The ones that endure will be the ones made by photographers who invested the effort to write captions.
It’s been said that “Metadata is a love note to the future.” (Said, in fact by so many people I haven’t been able to track down who is actually responsible for the quote. If you know for sure, please share.) So write a love note to somebody in the future, whether it’s your grandkids going through the family cloud account, or a future historian, or just some guy like me, searching through Google Images,
Write a caption.
Next week, we’ll be back to talking about technology. Do you have a rant of your own about metadata? Jump into the comments and let us know.
While researching something else, I just came across a blog post about research commissioned by the great adman David Ogilvy. Paraphrasing Ogilvy, the Kissmetrics blog said,
“Captions under images are read on average 300% more than the body copy itself, so not using them, or not using them correctly, means missing out on an opportunity to engage a huge number of potential readers.”
I’m always dubious about quoting somebody quoting somebody, especially when metrics are involved. But the point – that good, relevant, properly supported pictures work and poor, disconnected pictures don’t – always bears repeating. It’s nice to see that someone as distinguished as Ogilvy was repeating it half a century ago.