Chapter 47: Captions & graphics in news pictures

Chapter 47: Captions & graphics in news pictures

In the previous chapter, we looked at how the print and online media can use pictures to tell the news. In this chapter we discuss various kinds of graphics and how to caption pictures.


If you have not already read the previous chapter on news pictures, it might be useful to visit it before proceeding with this chapter. Many of the things we speak about here build on advice given in Chapter 46 on the reasons for, choice of and use of news pictures.


Very few pictures used in newspapers, magazines or web pages can stand alone without at least some short description of what they are or why they are there. We call these descriptions captions. Typically they are short pieces of text placed below or beside the picture, although in magazines where there are several pictures on a page they may all be gathered together in one block of text, which we will discuss shortly.

Why have captions?

We have already seen that news pictures need to be able to tell the news. Even when they tell it well, though, there are things which no picture can do for itself.

Pictures generally cannot answer all the questions Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? Nor can they always make it clear exactly what is happening, especially if it is a photograph of a demonstration or riot, where the scene is confused.

The job of the caption is to help readers to understand what they can see in front of them.

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The content of a caption

To understand how a caption should be written, you must first think about how people read newspaper pages. They first look at the big headlines and the pictures, until they find something which looks interesting; then, if it is a picture which has caught their eye, they read the caption; finally, if they are still interested, they will read the story which goes with it.

Readers therefore read captions before they read stories. This means that a caption must include enough information from the story to make sense all by itself.

In the following example, the reader knows from the correct caption what the story is about and who is in the picture; the incorrect caption means nothing until the reader has first read the story:

Mr Fred Duka, president of the Chamber of Commerce, welcomes the Finance Minister, Mr Barney Kina, to the Chamber luncheon at the Travelodge yesterday.      
The president greets the Minister as he arrives at the luncheon.

Note, too, that the caption was written in the present tense, even though the event happened yesterday: "Mr Duka welcomes the Minister". This is because the picture is there, in front of the readers, as they read the caption. They can see it happening at that very moment. It seems strange at first to write "Mr Duka welcomes the Minister yesterday," but it is a convention of journalism which works well.

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Writing the caption

Every news photographer should go on assignment carrying a notebook and pen, as well as a camera and spare films or memory cards. This is because the photographer will need to write a caption for each picture.

If there are several people in a photograph, the photographer will need to ask the name of each one, and make sure that all the names are spelled correctly. It is best to do this before anyone moves out of position, so that the photographer can list the names as the people appear, from left to right, in the picture.

When the photographer returns to the newsroom, and the photographs are developed and printed, he or she will need to write a caption. This should be written in the style which we have just discussed, and should give all the information which the readers will need.

If the photographer is a good writer, this caption may be published exactly as it was written. However, not all good photographers are good writers. If the caption has not been written very well, it should be rewritten by a sub-editor, using the information provided by the photographer.

If you are using photographs of people from your picture library (or archive), always double check they are of the right person. It is not unknown to use the wrong picture where there are two people of the same name. For example, using a photograph of Archbishop Geoffrey Kwano above a caption: "Convicted murderer Geoffrey Kwano" will not make the Archbishop or your lawyers happy!

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Where does the caption go?

In English, people read from left to right and from top to bottom. We have already seen that they want to look at the picture first and then read the caption afterwards, so it is natural for the caption to be below the picture or to the right-hand side of it - that is, in a position to which the reader's eye will naturally travel next.

In practice, the best place to put a caption is below the picture, preferably the full width of the picture. It is always easy to find a caption in this position.

Next to the picture is the second best position, but ideally a caption in this position should have a column of space all to itself, so that the caption can easily be seen. Space is precious in a newspaper, though, especially on the news pages. A caption beside a picture will probably have other text above it or below it, and this will make it hard for the reader to find the caption. It is best, therefore, to put captions beside pictures only on feature pages, or in magazines, which can better afford to use white space.

Worst of all is to bury the caption in the middle of, or at the end of, the story. This makes it almost impossible for the reader to find the caption at all.

It is usual to print a caption in a contrasting type (either bold or italics), slightly larger than the body type. If it is to go underneath the picture, it should be set a bit narrower than the picture itself, so that it fits neatly underneath the picture without looking as though it is sticking out at either end.

Occasionally when there are several pictures on a page all associated with the same story, you can use an 'island' of text for the captions. This is most usual in feature articles where one theme connects all the pictures. In such captions it is common to either use words like 'above', 'right', 'far right' etc to identify the specific pictures. Another method is to identify the pictures in a clockwise direction from the first picture.

So, for example, a caption for four pictures of a singer at different ages might say something like:

Much of singer Dhaba Lal's life has been spent on stage: (clockwise from top left) aged six in a talent contest; on Talent Time aged 12; winning India Idol at 18; performing last year at Madison Square Gardens.

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So far we have talked about photographs, but there are other kinds of pictures which can also tell the news. If you have the chance, get a graphic artist on to the staff of your newspaper or magazine. They can do a lot of valuable work, preparing advertisements as well as the kind of news graphics which we shall discuss here.

There are four main kinds of graphics which you are likely to want to use.


One of the basic questions which journalists need to answer is Where? One of the best ways of answering this question is by publishing a map.

For a foreign news story, this can be a map showing the location of the country where the news is happening. For a national story, it can be a map showing whereabouts in the country the town is, where the news is happening. You can even use a street map, showing whereabouts in the town the news event happened.

The best maps for use in newspapers contain as little information as is necessary, and have all the lines drawn boldly. Do not try to photocopy a page from an atlas, which is full of contour lines and rivers, and expect it to communicate clearly with the readers. Get your graphic artist to draw a simple map, using the atlas as a guide.

Some maps can have an inset, showing the location of the main map - for example, a map of the Federated States of Micronesia showing the location of Chuuk Lagoon could be used as an inset, beside a larger scale map of the lagoon itself, pointing out exactly where Tol island is in relation to the main island of Moen.

Remember, too, that all the lettering on the map must be easily readable, even after the map has been reduced in size for publication. The usual rule is that no lettering on a map (or other graphic artwork) as it appears in a newspaper should be smaller than 9 point.

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Graphs and charts

When the story depends on comparing sets of figures, it may be easier for the readers to understand if they are presented in graph or chart form.

Many small personal computers can now generate artwork of this kind, if you have the right software. Even if you have not, they can be simply prepared by any graphic artist.

Once again, it is important to remember that all lines should be drawn boldly, and that the chart or graph should not be crowded with too much unnecessary information.

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Sometimes a drawing can illustrate a story more effectively than a photograph can do.
A news story about a dramatic rescue of a child from the side of a cliff, in bad weather, may be difficult to illustrate with photographs for several reasons.

First, the weather was bad, so all your photographs are pale grey and fuzzy. Second, the rescue took a couple of hours, so there was no really decisive moment to photograph. Third, the best vantage point from which to see what was happening was in mid air, 40 metres above the sea.

An artist can overcome all those problems. In the drawing of the cliff, the reader can be taken out into mid air, just out from the cliff, for the best possible view. In the drawing, the mist and driving rain can be cleared away, so that everyone can see clearly what is happening. And in the drawing, all the stages of the rescue, over two hours, can be shown together, clearly numbered so that the readers can understand the order in which things happened.

Drawings can also be useful in illustrating features. If the feature can be given to a good artist several days in advance, it may be possible for the artist to create a drawing which captures the point of the feature in a way which no photograph can do.

Whether or not you will use drawings will depend on whether or not you have a good artist available. If you have, use them as much as possible.

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Drawings on photographs

There are some stories which need a combination of photographs and drawings to be told clearly.

If the site has been cleared for a new hospital to be built, how can you illustrate this? A photograph of a cleared site will be very boring.

One possibility is to photograph the whole site, ideally from a high vantage point (perhaps you will be allowed to go up into a crane on the building site) and then get an artist to draw on the photograph how the hospital will look on this site when it is built. To do this, you will need the architect's drawings or a model of the finished building.

Similarly, if a car has run out of control in the city centre, bumping into other cars and traffic signs before finally running across the footpath and into the front of a shop, you might be able to show all of this in one picture.

A photograph of the whole scene (again, preferably taken from a high vantage point) can be drawn on by an artist, to show the car's eventful journey down the street. A line, going from side to side, with a short caption at every "bump", might tell the story well.


Make captions self-contained and in the present tense

Use them large enough for people to read easily

Use suitable graphics to tell news, as well as photographs

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>>go to next chapter

Index to Chapter 47
  1. Why have captions?
  2. The content of a caption
  3. Writing the caption
  4. Where does the caption go?
  5. Graphics
  6. Maps
  7. Graphs and charts
  8. Drawings
  9. Drawings on photographs
  10. To summarise
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