GRAYnomad Nature Photography :: Esays :: Captioning

Should we caption our images, or leave well enough alone?

Tolkien's Trees

For the viewer, the meaning of the print is his meaning. If I try to impose mine by intruding descriptive titles, I insult the viewer, the print, and myself. — Ansel Adams

Many great photographers either didn't name their photos or gave them purely descriptive titles. The pull quote above makes Ansel Adams' views fairly clear. Edward Weston did caption his photos, but with names like Eroded Rock, Cow Tree Bark and Pepper #30 I think it's fair to say that he wasn't trying to add any meaning to his images.

I have always been of two minds about captioning photographs. On the one hand I think it is possible to indicate to the viewer my thoughts about the image with an appropriate caption. On the other hand, as Adams says, why should I impose my opinions on the viewer. Nevertheless I do caption my photos and believe that the caption should, ideally, add some value. It should at least give the viewer an inkling of what I think about the image.

The photo Tolkien's Trees is a good example. Why Tolkien's Trees? Having read ‘The Hobbit' and ‘Lord of The Rings' several times, I consider myself an avid J R R Tolkien fan. This grotto, with its twisted trees and running brook, just reminded me of Middle Earth. No scene in particular, but I can imagine Gollum in such a place, admiring his ‘Precious'. As soon as I saw the first working print I knew what I would call this image.

This is a good title as an incident in my gallery testifies. One day two girls, around ten years of age, were looking at this photo. One said "You can see why he's called it Tolkien's Trees”. The other agreed. If you can strike a chord with a couple of ten-year-olds you're doing pretty well with the naming of your photos.

I got it right on this occasion, but I admit that I don't always do so. However the alternative of calling everything "Untitled" is not an option for me.

Sometimes I know what the caption will be the instant I see an image, while at other times I rack my brains for ages trying to think of a good one. It's not uncommon for the release of an image to be delayed by weeks for lack of a caption. Occasionally I give up and, in despair, call an image Three Rocks and a Trunk or some such. Normally this is an indication that the image is not one of my best.


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