Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Captions

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Small red sign with Burma Shave logo, near a fence in a field
This caption for the billboard article describes the sign's ad campaign and provides relevance to the topic.

A caption, also known as a cutline, is text that appears below an image. Most captions draw attention to something in the image that is not obvious, such as its relevance to the text. Captions can consist of a few words of description, or several sentences. Writing good captions is difficult, and the examples below may be helpful. Along with the title, the lead, and section headings, captions are the most commonly read words in an article, so they should be succinct and informative.

Not every Wikipedia image needs a caption; some images are simply decorative. Very few may be genuinely self-explanatory. In addition to a caption, alt text—for visually impaired readers—should be added to informative (but not purely decorative) images;[1][2][3] see Wikipedia:Alternative text for images.

Some criteria for a good caption[edit]

There are several criteria for a good caption. A good caption

  1. clearly identifies the subject of the picture, without detailing the obvious.
  2. is succinct.
  3. establishes the picture's relevance to the article.
  4. provides context for the picture.
  5. draws the reader into the article.

Different people read articles in different ways. Some people start at the top and read each word until the end. Others read the first paragraph and scan through for other interesting information, looking especially at pictures and captions. Those readers, even if the information is adjacent in the text, will not find it unless it is in the caption. However, it is best not to tell the whole story in the caption, but use the caption to make the reader curious about the subject.

Another way of approaching the job: imagine you're giving a lecture based on the encyclopedia article, and you are using the image to illustrate the lecture. What would you say while attention is on the image? What do you want your audience to notice in the image, and why? Corollary: if you have nothing to say about it, then the image probably does not belong in the article.

Clear identification of the subject[edit]

One of a caption's primary purposes is to identify the subject of the picture. Make sure your caption does that, without leaving readers to wonder what the subject of the picture might be. Be as unambiguous as practical in identifying the subject. What the picture is is important, too. If the illustration is a painting, the painter's Wikilinked name, the title, and a date give context. The present location may be added in parentheses: (Louvre). Sometimes the date of the image is important: there is a difference between "King Arthur" and "King Arthur in a 19th-century watercolor". If the image of the painting is on the page for the artist's biography, wikilinking the artist's name is not needed. See below for more details. If the image depicts the subject of the article, it need not be wikilinked. For instance, if the article is about J. D. Salinger and the image depicts him, his name should not be linked.

Succinctness[edit]

Large automobile engine with Bugatti logo
Mechanical engineers design and build engines and power plants...

Succinctness means using no superfluous or needless words. It is not the same as brevity, which means using a relatively small number of words. Succinct captions have more power than verbose ones. More than three lines of text in a caption may be distracting. Sometimes increasing the pixel width of the image brings better balance: superfluous wording can also be removed from the caption instead. Save some information for the image description page, and put other information in the article itself, but make sure the reader does not miss the essentials in the picture.

Technical images[edit]

Technical images like charts and diagrams may have captions that are much longer than other images. Prose should still be succinct, but the significance of the image should be fully explained. Any elements not included in a legend or clearly labelled should be defined in the caption. A substantial, full discussion of a technical image may be confined to the caption if it improves the structure of the prose in the main article.

For maps and other images with a legend, the {{legend}} template can be used in the caption instead of (or in addition to) including the legend explaining the color used in the image. This makes the legend more readable, and allows for easy translation into other languages.

Establishing relevance to the article[edit]

Large empty tanker underway at sea
...structures and vehicles of all sizes...

A good caption explains why a picture belongs in an article. "The 1965 Ford Mustang introduced the whiz-bang super-speeder" tells us why it is worth the trouble to show a photo of a 1965 Ford Mustang rather than just any year of that model car. "It was the only one I could find with a suitable license" probably is not a worthy caption reason. Links to relevant sections within the article may help draw the reader in (see here for how to do this): compare Ebola for an example.

Providing context for the picture[edit]

A picture captures only one moment in time. What happened before and after? What happened outside the frame? For The Last Supper, "Jesus dines with his disciples" tells something, but add "on the eve of his crucifixion" and it tells much more about the significance. Add "With this meal, Jesus established the tradition of Holy Communion" to get more context if you do not cover that in the article. In such a caption the name of the painter and date provide information on the cultural point of view of the particular representation.

Drawing the reader into the article[edit]

The caption should lead the reader into the article. For example, in History of the Peerage, a caption for Image:William I of England.jpg might say "William of Normandy overthrew the Anglo-Saxon monarchs, bringing a new style of government." Then the reader gets curious about that new form of government and reads text to learn what it is.

Wording[edit]

Shortcut:
  • While a short caption is often appropriate, if it might be seen as trivial ("People playing Monopoly"), consider extending it so that it adds value to the image and is related more logically to the surrounding text ("A product of the Great Depression, Monopoly continues to be played today.").
  • Sometimes the title-and-subtitle style with a colon works: "Neoclassicism: antiquity recreated in an 18th-century mode".
  • It is usually unnecessary to state what kind of image is being shown. In the case of a map of the world which clearly shows countries that are members of NATO you can just use the caption "NATO members", rather than "Map of NATO members".
  • Wikipedia has its technical means of getting readers to the full size version of the image; therefore amending the caption with a direct link to the image (for example, "click for larger view") is not appropriate.

Formatting and punctuation[edit]

  • Captions normally start with a capital letter.
  • The text of captions should not be specially formatted (with italics, for example), except in ways that would apply if it occurred in the main text.
  • Most captions are not complete sentences, but merely sentence fragments that should not end with a period. If any complete sentence occurs in a caption, all sentences and any sentence fragments in that caption should end with a period.
    • "The Conservatory during Macquarie Night Lights, a summer festival" (no final period), but
    • " The Conservatory during Macquarie Night Lights. The Conservatory was spotlit for the occasion." (final periods for complete sentence and preceding sentence fragment)

Special situations[edit]

Several types of images warrant special treatment:

  • Periodic table snippets for each element – no caption needed
  • Images of Element samples in the element infobox – no caption needed
  • Images of plants and animals, protists etc. in infoboxes – caption optional
  • Infobox images with mission insignia – no caption needed, but if there is a description of the symbolism, it should be included on the image description page
  • Other images (especially within infoboxes) where the purpose of the image is clearly nominative, that is, that the picture serves as the typical example of the subject of the article and offers no further information – no caption needed.
  • Chemical compound diagrams (as in TNT) could benefit from a mention of the role of the structure in the properties of the compound.
  • Group portraits of a few people (presumably related to the article) should list the names of the individuals so that readers can identify individuals. Larger groups should have an index photo with numbered silhouettes and a key listing each person's name.
  • Portraits of a person in an article about that person should be captioned with the year. If the photo is of a special occasion, such as Wernher von Braun surrendering to the Americans, the caption should follow the usual style.

Tips for describing pictures[edit]

Here are some details people might want to know about the picture (all are linkable):

  • What is noteworthy about the subject of the picture? If there is an article on the subject of the picture, link to it.
  • For photographs:
    • Where was it taken?
    • When was it taken?
    • Who took it? (Generally, this is only included in the caption if the photographer is notable)
    • Why was it taken?
  • For works of art (see WikiProject Visual arts Art Manual of Style for fuller details):
    • Who is the artist?
    • What is the title or subject?
    • When was the piece completed?
    • See proper right for ways of unambiguously describing right and left in images.
  • Usually less significant are:
    • What is the medium (oil on canvas/marble/mixed media...)?
    • Where is it located?
    • What are its dimensions?

Keep in mind that not all of this information needs to be included in the caption, since the image description page should offer more complete information about the picture. If it does not, it may be possible to add it there from reliable sources such as the website of the museum that owns the image.

Credits[edit]

Shortcut:
"The Raven" depicts a mysterious raven's midnight visit to a mourning narrator, as illustrated by Édouard Manet (1875), digitally restored.

Unless relevant to the subject, do not credit the image author or copyright holder in the article. It is assumed that this is not necessary to fulfill attribution requirements of the GFDL or Creative Commons licenses as long as the appropriate credit is on the image description page. If the artist or photographer is independently notable, though, then a wikilink to the artist's biography may be appropriate, but image credits in the infobox image are discouraged, even if the artist is notable, since the infobox should only contain key facts of the article's subject, per MOS:INFOBOX.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

External links[edit]