Field Report:

The Non-Glamorous Side of Photography

Photo Captions

Previously I wrote about stock photo keywording and software so I thought I’d offer some thoughts on picture captioning. What got me to thinking about this topic was that I’ll do stock photo searches from time to time for both professional reasons and location research but often times the image will not have adequate information in the caption. This can be a major problem for both the photo researchers and the photographer whether they know it or not.

Referring to an image as “Goliath’s Wrath” might sound cute for print buyers but it really offers nothing of benefit to the stock photography market. The same goes for images that have a basic description but too vague to be of use. Images captioned like, “Rocks, Colorado Plateau, Utah”, while giving a basic idea for the region really aren’t descriptive enough for textbook publishers. Plus it doesn’t help the photographer get his images noticed because there are a gazillion images out there with those same words as well. But if it says “Gneiss Marble Techtonic Plate Remnants from The Pleistocene Age, Kodachrome Basin, Utah” or something of that nature then it is much more specific and likely to be found by the appropriate sources for several reasons.

1. Not a lot of people have gone that far to identify the subject.

2. The photo researcher might need an image that fits these exact requirements, nothing more and nothing less.

Also something to consider is that if you give accurate and detailed captions along with your images, it makes you the photographer seem much more knowledgeable about your subject matter and more useful when it comes to consulting. If you were to put two equally as impressive photography portfolios side by side along with the captions. One with poor captioning versus one with good captions, then who do you think looks more knowledgeable? One would appear to be a photographer who happens to shoot trees while the other would appear to be a tree expert. There is a big difference in perception there.

Brea Canyon Firestorm Along 57 Freeway, Diamond Bar, Southern California

Brea Canyon Firestorm Along 57 Freeway, Diamond Bar, Southern California

I’ll use some of my own images as an example. For this image of the Brea Canyon Fire, it has an accurate caption. I could have gone further to say what date it was and the end result. This is information that would appeal to newspapers and other journalism outlets but good enough in my opinion for people to find the image through stock agency sites or search engines.

Grant Lake Dry Lake Bed Colorful Patterns

Grant Lake Dry Lake Bed Colorful Patterns

This image from the Eastern Sierras however is not captioned very well. In fact, I’m actually pretty surprised at how little information I included. To be honest, I don’t know really know what the colored stuff is but I should have at least included the region and state, which were June Lakes Loop / Eastern Sierra and California respectively. This is an image that I am going to have to go back and add a better caption when I get a chance. As it is now, this image is not likely to be licensed unless I can get a more insightful caption.

Some photographers, nature photographers in particular tend to be protective over the location of their images so they are very vague with their caption. That is fine if you don’t care about licensing your images but for the purposes of this blog we’re going to assume those people only really care about print sales or are just hobbyists. For the rest of us, this is a foolish practice from a business perspective.

There are going to be times where it is just not cost-effective or too difficult to bother spending a lot of time researching the correct captions and back story to images but it is a good business practice to try at least. Often times, the most important part of an image is not the image itself but of knowing the subject and being able to convey that. Check out this link to my picture of the Original Stations of the Cross Painting from Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. A magazine request came in for this subject once and I made the sale. While the editor did comment that the images I submitted were the best they had seen, I wouldn’t have been able to produce a quality product had I not known how historically significant the subject matter was.

A lot of California Missions have similar looking paintings in their chapels but the difference with this one is this is an original canvas painting, not a replica unlike the others. That is why I photographed it and haven’t bothered photographing the paintings at other missions. We are visual artists obviously but it really does pay off to understand what it is we are shooting. Photographers like to say that it is only about the light. Well not really. Yes we need light to have an image, but light itself isn’t a picture. Subject matter is what truly counts. Subject matter only counts however when we are able to convey that; through photo captions in our case.

Conversely, I made a semi-mistake once on a submission due to somewhat misleading captioning. It wasn’t deliberate but I submitted an image then later went back to research a more comprehensive caption at the request of the editor only to find out that the actual subject might not have held the same meaning as what was initially thought. I made a note of that. The image didn’t sell in this instance, though it later sold a few times through a stock agency. I don’t know for sure that this is why the image didn’t get used but I did learn from this experience.

In another instance when I first started out, I lost out on a potential book cover because the author asked me if I had images of oak trees from a certain area. I told her I didn’t. Well it turns out that I did have the right images! I hadn’t spent enough time captioning my images so I wasn’t aware of what I had. It wasn’t until two years later on a photo shoot in the same place that I finally realized my mistake. Ouch!

The moral of the story is take time to write good captions for your photos. Everyone loses when we don’t.


January 4, 2009 Posted by | stock photography | , , , , | Leave a comment