What additional information does the image caption provide?

Learn about the different information an image caption provides to your readers.

I have been publishing content on the Internet for the last 15 years and running Image Source Control for 12 years to display image captions and author attributions next to images. Read below what I have learned about the basics and what additional information the image caption provides on websites.

Identification and Descriptions

First, image captions could identify the main objects in an image or describe the happening action.

Thinking about an example, I remembered historic images depicting a vital victory in one’s country’s history. I was happy that the image caption told me who the main character on the image was and what that mess was all about.

Let’s look at an example I first saw in a history book in school. Without a proper description in the image caption, would you know what it was about?

Historic picture of Napoleon’s Coronation as an example to the question what additional information an image caption provides.©By Jacques-Louis David/ Georges Rouget - art database, Wikimedia
Napoleon’s Coronation Ceremony

You might be able to identify the action in this classic picture as a coronation, but not who is who. Here, Napoleon holds the crown while his wife Joséphine kneels before him, and Pope Pius VII sits in the back.

Contextual Information

Captions also provide context to the relevance of the image, not only related to the surrounding text.

I could use the historical example from above to explain why this particular coronation had a unique historical meaning and what happened before and after. But you probably would never see this image out of context in a history book anyway, with that information explained in detail.

I remember when context was even more important to me, and that was whenever I saw the World Press Photo exhibition.

Many photos have a few people on them, though they often don’t perform a specific action. Sometimes, we can interpret what this might be about based on some clues, but the older the pictures, the more we need the photo credits also to contain contextual information.

What do you want to highlight?

Whether you describe the actions or people in an image or provide contextual information, your version might differ depending on your intentions.

In contexts like journalism, image captions might try to be more objective, answering the five essential questions of good journalism: who, what, where, when, and why. While in other types of texts, you might highlight different things.

An art blog about painting styles might clearly describe Napoleon’s Coronation differently than a history book or an Instagram account about historic fashion. Only one of these might care about the people or actions, the date, or the location depicted in the painting.

Attribution and Credit

I started a technical solution to manage website image captions because of a legal dispute about missing photo credits that unnecessarily wasted my time and money. Since then, I have relied on Image Source Control to show author attributions.

Image captions often acknowledge the creator or owner of an image or photo. This is important not only for legal reasons but also for ethical reasons, especially if the usage of the image is otherwise free of charge, like many images from Wikimedia.

If you use images from external sources, you might be obliged to add the author or owner and the license terms. With Image Source Control, you can select the license from a list linking automatically to the terms.

If you are the author of the images, you can use the image caption to inform visitors about the conditions under which they could use your pictures.

Accessibility

Next, captions can complement alternative text (ALT text) to improve accessibility for users who rely on screen readers. Captions provide additional context that might not be fully covered by ALT text alone.

I found different information about screen readers’ capabilities and the kind of image captions they can access. The ALT attribute might still be a better solution than any visible text next to the image.

Conclusions

In summary, image captions identify and describe an image, provide context, give a photo credit, clarify permissions, and enhance accessibility. They are essential for ensuring that images are properly understood and ethically used.

Still, the final decision about the content of an image caption depends on what you have to or want to achieve. A picture says more than a thousand words, but a few words help the picture to say even more.

Portrait of Thomas Maier, founder and CEO of Image Source Control

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