Completing a Proper Caption

Article 3 min
Make your caption thorough and engaging using explanation, identification, background and credit line.

As a military photographer, the information that you include with your photographs must be the most accurate and reliable information possible. A caption is not complete unless it answers these basic questions: Who, What, When, Why, Where and How. Each of these questions can be addressed using the tips explained in more detail below for the Explanation, Identification, Background and Credit Line.

Using these tips to answer the basic questions will help the reader understand the context and story of the image. Make sure you write down all the pertinent information—don’t try to just remember it. Misspelling names, misidentifying equipment, units or terms could ruin your reputation as a photographer and can call your organization's integrity into question. For more information, refer to the DoD Visual Information Style Guide.

Read through each section for a more in-depth look at tips for completing captions.

The first sentence in a caption is the most important; it links the photograph to the caption by describing the action taking place. Explanations in captions should:

  • Use present tense in the first sentence to give the readers a sense of immediacy, as though they were witnessing the event
  • Include a date
  • Always use active voice and never passive voice
    • Active example: U.S. Soldiers destroy a weapons cache
    • Passive example: A weapons cache is destroyed by U.S. Soldiers

ALL acronyms must be spelled out for the first reference. The second reference does not need to be spelled out. DO NOT put the acronym in parentheses after the word.


Students train with the Fire Arms Training Simulator.


After completing their course work in FATS, students move to the field.

There are four methods you can use to identify the subject in the image. 

1. Action - The best method. The subject is identified by the activity they are doing. In this example, Airman Snuffy is the one adjusting the bolt.


U.S. Air Force Airman Joe Snuffy adjusts the tension of a bolt on the landing gear of a C-130.

2. Obvious Contrast - This method is usually easier to use when there is a public figure involved. The reader already knows the public figure, which makes it easier to identify the other individual by obvious contrast. In this example, there are two people shaking hands, but we know which one is President Obama.


President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Jane Snuffy during a ceremony at… 

3. Process of Elimination - Although this method can be complex, it is effective and works with all methods. In the caption below, the reader knows that Gen. Bear Lipton is the one presenting, while the Master Sgt is the recipient.


Gen. Bear Lipton presents Master Sgt. Snapshot Jones with…

4. From Left - This method is not commonly used, but it works well with groups. When using this method, IT IS NOT left to right, instead, it is simply “from left.”


From left, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Johnny Blue, Cpl. Jane Doe, and…


U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Johnny Blue, left, and Cpl. Jane Doe…

Background consists of additional information, facts or explanations needed to clarify the photograph. Background provides context for the news value of the photograph.


Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aaron X. Saldana takes a photograph of an MV-22 Osprey, assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162, aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) Feb. 22, 2020. Iwo Jima is underway conducting a flight deck certification in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jessica Kibena/ Released)

"Iwo Jima is underway conducting a flight deck certification in the Atlantic Ocean," is considered relevant background.

The credit line gives credit to the branch of service and the photographer, and should be enclosed in parentheses.


(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jimmy Snuffy)

The release status is not an element of the caption. Enter this information in the “Release Instructions” field of the image metadata.

If unclassified imagery is released to the public, the release status will be either: "Released" OR "For Official Use Only (FOUO)."

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