Creating Titles that Add Value to Images

Creating Titles that Add Value to Images

Capturing an image is one of many steps in the process of putting together a photographic body of work. While titling your images is not obligatory, if you are thinking of exhibiting them or submitting to competitions, then this can be an important step. Although this can sometimes seem daunting, it need not be. If you’ve struggled with this, then read on.

Most of us get writers block from time to time. It can be very frustrating. And even if you don’t consider yourself much of a writer, you likely write in some capacity every day — whether it’s a caption for an Instagram post, a text message to a friend, or a (hopefully kind) comment on an Fstoppers’s article.

As a photographer, there may come a time when finding the right words to describe something you have created is necessary, but it shouldn’t take precious time out of your life to sort out. So where do you start? Here are some general dos and don’ts when it comes to titling images.

To begin, it’s important to keep things simple. However, restating what is present in the image can feel a bit too obvious to viewers. At the same time, an over the top title can take away from an image. Think about it — a more complex title doesn’t leave a lot of room for the viewers to interpret an image for themselves, and an overly simple title can bore them. People want to feel a connection to your work, and titling it well can add value to the piece in ways you may not even intend.

Sometimes we see titles that try too hard. Having a title that is stronger than the image itself is something that should be avoided. And yet at the same time, while using "untitled" is perfectly acceptable, Adair Lentini, Head of Media and Communications at Sean Kelly Gallery in Manhattan explains, “For many artists the title can be distracting from the artwork itself, thus leaving the work ‘untitled.’ However, the title can often lend itself to provide further insight into the work.”

Lentini suggests the first consideration in titling an image should be “to think about how you want [the title] to relate to the piece.” She explains that it’s important to “first determine whether it is a standalone work or part of a larger series of works that are connected through a unifying theme.” She suggests thinking through whether or not you want to incorporate that into the title. She adds, “Is there a color, place, or piece of poetry that inspired the work?”

Personally, I like to take a look at the color, technique used and the overall feel of the image. I ask myself what emotions the image evokes? I then like to pick up a thesaurus and search for a more appropriate term. Another approach I’ve recently employed is to title an image based on its latitudinal or longitudinal lines. I generally like to display the following images from my polar region series side by side, and as such I’ve titled the following two abstract images by the latitudes at which they were created: 79º North and 63º South — the high Arctic and Antarctic peninsula. I think this pairs nicely with the fact that the lines in the image are horizontal, but that may get lost on some.

creating titles that add value to images

63º South

Creating titles that add value to images

79º North

A play on words can also add an element of thought-provoking creativity.  For example, this other piece from my polar region series depicts life and death on an ice floe in the high Arctic. Given the gruesome yet delicate “flow of life” that is represented (as a polar bear was feeding on a seal off camera), the title “Floe of Life” offered a compelling double entendre, which added some dimension to the abstract image.

creating titles that add value to images

Floe of Life

From a photojournalism perspective, simply including the place or subject matter and the date the image was taken is also an option, such as: “Kingdom of Tonga, September 20, 2018.” I have personally titled images based on how the subject matter makes me feel, but I’ve also been much more straightforward with my titles — to the point that I wish I could go back and change the title.

It can be tough to title an image under pressure. While some creatives work well under stress, it can also hamper creativity. Avoid waiting until the last minute to come up with a title you may regret later. As mentioned, I’ve toyed with the idea of changing a few titles, but it’s a good idea to pick a title and stick to it, especially once a piece of work has sold. While there are no rules, Lentini advises against changing the title, and says, “don’t over-think it, after all the focus should be on the work itself.” At the end of the day though it is ultimately your call.

Have you struggled with titling your images? Do you do something that I haven’t touched on? I’d love to learn about your process in the comments below.

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3 Comments

I would guess that about 80% of the time my titles are the first thing that comes to mind.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Great read, Joanna. I would also add that I try to stay away from using esoteric language or anything that sounds like I just took it from a thesaurus — no issues with anyone else doing it, though. I don't actually have a system for naming my images and I do tend to be quite literal to avoid overthinking it, but that definitely has limitations. I might just borrow your method!

I wrote poems for 20+ years before I picked up the camera seriously, and I'm grateful for the ways that made me think about titles. For the last few years, I've been titling images based on what I saw in them. Lately, I've been trying to title to help my viewer feel the same thing the image makes me feel.