The art of cutlines

Photographers have one of the most important, and misunderstood jobs at a newspaper. Their task isn’t merely to get the picture — we depend on them for that, sure, as newspaper becomes an increasingly visual medium — but they have to bring home the substance as well.

Here are some tips for cutlines, which without the photographer’s help are often impossible to write.

  • Is it complete? Is there anything unusual in the picture that is not explained in the cutline?
  • Does it identify? Identification is the basic purpose of a cutline.
  • Does it tell when and
  • Where the picture was shot?
  • Does it tell what is in the picture, not what is in the story? (In other words, don’t repeat the lead of the story.)
  • Does it avoid repeating word for word a sentence or passage directly from the story? (Just as a headline should not echo the lead of a story, a cutline should not repeat verbatim sentences or passages from story. That is lazy editing.)
  • Does it have the names right? This means are they spelled correctly and in correct order (from left).
  • Is it easy to read? The sentences must be short, direct and in proper sequence.
  • Is it specific? Does it give information on specific points of interest in the picture, or does it merely echo the obvious?
  • Does it have adjectives? Let the reader decide whether the subject is “middle-aged,” “glamorous” and so on. Also, don’t interpret emotions.
  • Does the picture suggest another picture? Going to press without the other picture is like running a story before getting all the facts.
  • Use present tense in the first sentence that gives identification, the who and what in the picture, and what is happening.
  • Use another tense in following sentences and use time element.
  • Be clever, but not cutesy
  • Try for identification, but don’t stress fact it is unknown. Find a label for those pictured.
  • Identify from left to right, and indicated with left if it is not obvious.
  • Use full sentences.

It should be our goal to so thoroughly report a photograph that, if necessary, we could run it as a stand alone picture. Without all of the details, pictures — both the naturally compelling and the commonplace and boring — don’t tell the entire story.

They celebrated their 20th anniversary at a football game. Their secret, he said, was “the Lord. And a wife willing to put up with your football.” She turned and nodded her head.

Interesting as that little window into their lives is, it isn’t complete. There are no names, obviously. But, also, were they Alabama graduates? How much did she pay for tickets? Has this always been their anniversary present? What did he get her? And so on.

Same thing here. Obviously this picture has motion and action and gives the reader enough context clues. He’s a juggler. A street performer. But the cutline, and thus the photographer, must tell us that he’s outside Faneuil Hall in Boston. It is from the photographer’s reporting that we’ll learn more. What’s his name? What brought him to this career? He says in his show that he went to college for this, did he really? Where? What did he major in? How much money does he make? How many shows a week does he do? What’s the most crazy thing that has ever happened while he was performing?

Not all of these details will find their way into every cutline. Some will go unpublished, some may find their way into the actual article. They are all invaluable parts of the story.


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