Next in the series where we talk about page elements are picture captions. Believe it or not people really do read picture captions. Even more than intros or pull quotes. Pictures draw attention of the reader and picture captions describe the nature of the picture and this is why they should be treated with care.
Readers search for an explanation of the image and from an editorial point of view picture captions have to be well written, with some interesting text, because if they are boring, readers will skip them and you are missing an opportunity to catch their attention.
Writing picture captions
Writing picture captions should not be a last minute nuisance. They should contain fascinating, valuable pieces of information so that the reader will get more info about the article he is reading about.
Unlike pull quotes, picture captions should contain information that is not presented in the main body copy of the article. In this way you are giving the reader some additional information.
The picture and the captions should always work together. The contents of the picture caption should describe the picture or tell us some background story about the subject of the picture.
You may think that this is self explanatory but look around and you will see how many times this is missed. So many picture captions talk about something else than a picture, or if they do talk about the picture they do it in uninteresting way.
Opening words of picture captions should be dominant. You can even make small headlines for each caption and this headline should be strongly tied to the picture.
If you don’t have a headline for picture caption you can make first few words in bold and again these words have to be tied to the picture. They must have a connection to the picture and instantly describe it.
Captions can be as long as they need. It all depends how much space they can have but if the space is not an issue make your caption bigger.
Design of picture captions
From a design point of view picture captions should be standardized in placement because this pattern will help you build a positive image. Of course you don’t have to be rigid about it. If you have to break a standard here and there to make a point, do so.
As mentioned above, picture captions can have a headline or first few words set in bold. In this way you are pulling the reader’s attention even more to the image caption. Of course, give them some great text to read.
The text in the picture captions should be aligned left or right. Avoid central alignment. Since these are small text chunks you can place them in narrow columns where it is better to align them left because justified text can have unnatural, forced spacing. Of course if your picture captions are wider you can justify the text but I should avoid this. You should keep it uniformed throughout the entire publication. Stick to left or right alignment.
You can turn off hyphenation for picture captions.
When aligning text you can break its lines for sense. This will sometimes create awkward line length and spacing, but it will be much easier and faster to read. Since the line length of the picture captions is relatively short it will be much easier for the reader to skim through the text if it is broken by sense.
Picture captions should be styled differently from the body copy. Their size can be the same or slightly larger, but they have to be different from the body copy. In this way they will be instantly recognizable and easier to spot.
If you are going to place lots of captions directly on the picture it is better to use sans serif type. Serif type can be harder to read on multicolored/patterned images, especially in smaller sizes because serifs can be chewed off in the printing process. So, my advice is to go for a sans serif type. Preferably in weight slightly bigger than regular. For example, Helvetica Medium, opposed to Helvetica Normal or even Light.
Positioning of picture captions
Natural position of picture captions is below the picture. The second best position is on the right. These two positions are the most natural ones since human eye searches for information in this way. Third position can be on the left of the image.
Avoid positioning picture captions above the picture, because they can be totally missed by the reader.
Each picture should have its own caption but if you have a lot of pictures on the page, group them in one big chunk of text and number the pictures.
Captions should be placed close to the picture and far enough from the body copy.
When placing captions on the sides of the pictures use the “sticky edge”. This means you should align the text to the edge of the picture. If you put ragged edge next to the image it will look as if separated from the picture.
If you are going to give some angle to the picture, give some angle to the caption also. This is the more natural way since picture captions belong to the picture and not to some other element on the page.
Who would think that there is so much to say about such a small part of the magazine page as picture caption.
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An image used by license under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Source: FreeFoto. Photographer: Stephen Lyons