Titling and storytelling

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I’ve always believed a strong image should be able to stand on its own without a title – after all, sometimes images and titles get separated (quite often, actually) – and if it isn’t self-explanatory to some degree without it, then the image itself isn’t clear. However, a good title certainly enhances impact of an image; it can explain, direct, add another layer of meaning, put into context, force the thoughts of the audience in a certain direction, create contrast or tension between perceptual reality and actual reality (visual content vs asserted content or vice versa) or merely serve as an easy method of reference to an image. I’ve frequently been asked how I pick a title for my images; today’s essay explores that in a bit more detail. There really isn’t a lot of science in it, though a large vocabulary probably helps, as does a ready store of cultural references. Firstly, I don’t think choosing – or perhaps more appropriately, creating a title can be entirely spontaneous and retrospective. In fact, it really all boils down to the fourth important thing.

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Never-ending cleaning
Do you think this image works better with or without a title?

Titling is really an exercise in distilling the visual overload of an image down to a punchy epithet – condensing the thousand words a picture is said to contain down to just a small handful. This of course means that without clarity in the mind of the creator around precisely what the image is about, there can be absolutely no way to distill it down to one essential sentence; and if the creator cannot do it, how on earth can they expect the audience to manage?

All good images must start with an idea: whether that idea is preconceived and the image constructed around it, or created in the instant in which the photographer happens to see all of the necessary elements in a scene come together is irrelevant; the idea remains the core to which every other aspect of the image (subjects, composition, output medium, title etc.) must aim to support and remain faithful to.

It’s actually fairly easy to create a strong title if the idea is clear. Beyond the obvious purpose of serving to enhance the overall impact of the image, the title itself can serve any one (or more) of several functions:

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Despite appearances, there is only one reality

To state the obvious
This is probably the weakest kind of title because it adds nothing much other than a way of easily referring to an image, or confirming something the audience might have suspected on their own. That said, you still have to get a bit creative in order not to have duplicates if you’ve got a lot of images to title. I don’t think there’s much point in a title like this unless the ‘label objective’ is important, or the image is likely to be seen by a wide audience – some of whom might lack the specific knowledge or context to identify the subjects or what is going on in the frame. I think there are only two exceptions to this rule – landscapes, which are generally very difficult subjects to turn into metaphors; and images whose content is so simple and minimalist that anything more in the title would simply seem pretentious.

To provide context outside what is visible
Sometimes context in word-form is necessary because it’s physically impossible to include all of the necessary elements due to temporal or space constraints, or because we want to focus our audience’s attention on a detail, then get them to appreciate its place in a much greater whole. It’s also possible to extend this into a caption – the kind of thing that’s seen accompanying news or documentary images to give some explanation of why the specific moment captured is an important one, and in what grand scheme of things exactly. I don’t think it really works other than in a documentary application for the simple reason that if that much additional explanation is required, then we’re probably looking at the image as support for a greater presentation of information rather than being a standalone piece.

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To highlight a less obvious aspect of the image
There are situations in which an idea requires the subject to be less visually prominent than would be ideal to make it stand out on its own (i.e. if the focus of the image was just the subject irrelevant of the context) – in this case, the title can help to direct the attention of the audience back to the subject – and in turn, the contrast between subject and its environment. Beyond this, there’s also the metaphorical or conceptual element of an idea – this isn’t always something that can be carried purely on visuals alone, for reasons of physical impossibility or cultural context; it’s not the same as providing context – e.g. “Emperor Mobutu’s heavily armed delegation meets union delegation to discuss worker benefits amid countrywide rioting against the the current regime” vs. “Only the clouds are truly free” – both allude to events outside the frame, but the latter has a conceptual rather than physical basis.

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The invisible phone

To provide contrast
Perhaps this should be stated a little differently: an alternative way of reading the image. It contrasts with the obvious visual content, but perhaps not necessarily the full range of plausible interpretations; anthropomorphization is perhaps the best example of this, and I find these types of titles are best applied to more abstract images: either because the real, physical object isn’t obvious, or because we’re seeing something that really looks like something else (but isn’t).

To set the mood of the image
I think this is fairly self-explanatory. Remember, photography is as much applied human psychology as it is technical skill – both for the photographer and the audience. The use of certain words can trigger specific subconscious expectations by association; e.g. ‘morning’, or ‘dark’ can bias the audience’s perception in a certain direction that might help to tip the overall feel imparted by an image in a particular direction, especially if the image itself is lacking in those visual cues (or those cues are very difficult to provide, e.g. smell, temperature, sound).

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Shattered intact

To enhance remembrance, raise a question and provoke thought
The overarching purpose of a title still remains to provide additional information: whether that information is simply to inform, to arouse curiosity, or to confirm what the audience’s eyes are telling them, if the title does not do this, it fails. But in doing so, there’s absolutely no reason why the title cannot also serve to enhance the long term impact and retention of an image in the mind of the audience long after the image is not present; either by the completeness of the image-title pair, or because something there requires additional cogitation to understand fully: in essence, a philosophical morsel offered in joint visual and literary form.

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City in a box

There are actually times when a title might not be appropriate; this isn’t quite the same as the use of ‘Untitled’. In a series – e.g. the Verticality project – I may not use a specific title for each image as I want to project an impression of consistency throughout; they make do with just a number. I don’t want to give any one image dominance over another by singling it out and giving it a name – especially when the others may not necessarily have obvious names. I’m also avoiding names because I think the subject matter is cold, hard, to some extent inhuman, and therefore not deserving of any sort of anthropomorphization.

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Breaking or building?

The use of ‘untitled’ can be laziness on the photographer’s part, but often I often used it instead when I deliberately do not want to color the impressions of the audience with my own interpretation of the scene; it’s a sort of cue that I want to present the image and let you form your own conclusions. The only impression I want to give is one of a wide range of possibilities. It too is not quite the same as simply leaving out the title entirely – in which case the images are perhaps commoditized somewhat, and not as individually celebrated as if they were isolated. Note that not all images can be titled – some are simply lacking in coherency of idea.

The example articles in this images have been chosen specifically because they were composed with the intention of being multilayered and also because I believe they need a title for maximum impact; now that you’ve read the logic behind how I title, it might be worthwhile to go back through the images and titles again – or view them without titles. It’s also important to note that for maximum impact and coherence, the literary feel of the title should suit the visual feel of the image – e.g. minimalist, technical, surreal etc. Remember that the image should always be capable of standing on its own without its title – perhaps not as strongly, but titles and images often get separated (or the photographer simply forgets after a period of time). To close off, here are two little exercises to try next time you’re shooting and curating: firstly, try fitting a title to your image as soon as you’ve shot it, or only keep/process images that you can easily title; then look at the resulting set overall and see if the impact has increased. Secondly, give a title immediately after shooting, then give another title after processing – and compare the two. If the first title stuck after a period of time – I call it the ‘objectivity waiting period’ – then you’ve probably got a winner. MT


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  1. Brilliant article, Ming.
    BTW, I think that a title has another important role, expecially in conceptual/more abstract photography: getting feedback.
    With a title, I’m saying “This was my intention with this photo” – then I can receive feedback by an observer on how well or bad I have communicated/made clear the message I was trying to convene, this can be important to my growth as a photographer.

  2. Hello Ming. Technically, I think you have used the word ‘title’ where ‘caption’ is perhaps more correct, as a descriptor for a graphic work. ‘Title’, if one were to be rigid in these things, is best used at the head of a literary passage, e.g. a poem, novel, or chapter.

    However, these things evolve, and Adobe is not helping: Lightroom allows us to append each photograph with a Headline, a Caption (formerly Description), and a Title. In this case the title is brief, the caption longer and more fully descriptive. Thank you Adobe. So I will not insist on my above definition; it is futile.

    Perhaps I will skirt the issues and call ‘it’ the photograph’s Name. I think, well done, a name is an enormous addition to a photograph. But a name that is not purposeful and effective is better replaced with Location and Year, seriously. And Person Name of subject, if human.

    If we look to the art world, many great paintings have a name. The great names become so much more than an identifier or reminder; they are integral to our appreciation.
    Potato Eaters
    La Crucifixion
    Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp
    Massacre of the Innocents
    The Astronomer

    I think photographs are entitled to similar treatment. Would you not agree that the following photographs are enhanced by their chosen name?
    The Kiss
    Afghan Girl
    Migrant Mother
    Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief
    Le Violon d’Ingres

    And a humourist can append a name to a photograph to riotous effect, and it is completely valid to our appreciation of the meaning and often sublime social commentary that the name and image achieve when in combination.

    On the other hand, when I read the name of a photograph and my first thought is that it must have been pulled from a grab bag of possible names, or actually misdirects the viewer from a higher to a lower interpretation than the image would naturally draw from most viewers — such names are better left in the pen. As for the use of ‘untitled’ (or, should I say, ‘uncaptioned’ 🙂 🙂 ), I fully agree with you that it can be done purposefully.


  3. I love those shots!

  4. Very interesting, and awesome examples, Ming !

  5. Peter Wright says:

    The more I think about this, the more I realize that I don’t like titles, which I define as interpretative names such as “Only the clouds…”, but really like captions, which I define as contextual and art neutral information: place, time, etc. Titles seem to close off something that should be open ended. If the viewer doesn’t ‘get it’, then that’s too bad – you can’t win every time. One of my hobbies is collecting photography books (not how-to books but books of photographs by photographers), and by now many of the major twentieth century masters are represented (HCB, Salgado, Penn, Bailey, Koudelka, Freidlander, Weston, etc.) and I can’t think of a single one that uses titles, but almost all use captions. There may be something to be learnt in this.

    • Could it be because they themselves didn’t title or didn’t have time to title?

      I agree titles are closed: but that’s intentional, to some extent. I suppose it’s psychological preconditioning in a way, like going to a general ‘restaurant’ rather than say an ‘Italian restaurant’ – at least you have some expectation of what you’re getting…

      • Peter Wright says:

        They certainly didn’t seem to be interested in titles, but I don’t think that that implies that they had no time – if they thought titles were helpful, I expect they would have made the time. I have some books by contemporary photographers I have met, so next time I meet one, I will have to ask “Why no titles?” You are not rigorous in applying titles to your own work (and I don’t want you to start!) for example the ultraprint at the top of the home page which has a simple identifier and location. Much better IMO.

        • I’m not, because not everything has an idea that can be easily filled in a few words, or they’re part of a series. But some…well, I suppose I can’t help myself.

  6. Hi Ming, great topic

    I guess it really depends on the individual and the intended purpose. Obviuously some types of photograhy will require some kind of explaination in the case of documentary and other informative applications of the medium

    Personally I find photography is directive enough without further explanation. I think the first image demonstrates this. A title is not really neccessary in this instance. We can see the window cleaner within the context of their job and we can saftley assume they clean a lot of windows.

    Within the context of “art” we might be tempted to title works as we feel that this is somehow a requirement of completing it. Photography is different to art. In art the image is constructed , the title can further build direction more successfully as the concept is precocieved. Titling is often happening during the process and as such is often very integral to the work and the research around it.

    Photography often differs here, we construct images as they appear before us , with often little in the way of a precocived idea. (of course there are expecptions) however I find titles in photography often come off as an after thought and lend little to the images beyond the obvious.

    Its important to leave something open for the viewer to discover, your more informed and educated viewers will appreciate it, and ultimately this should really be the targeted audience. Never dumb it down, and avoid didactic explanation.Place more faith in the viewer, if they don’t get it its often more their fault than yours.

    • Perhaps because photography is a lot more literal/identifiable than other forms of art? It’s difficult to photograph something to be unidentifiable. Can’t help but think that if the audience doesn’t get it, there’s a good chance I got it wrong or didn’t make it obvious enough (plus there’s of course the question of relativity and context, too).

      • Absolutly, I think thats what makes titling photos in a way that is actually adding to the work or idea difficult.

        • I tihnk the majority of your images tend to draw the viewer in aesthetically. If they dont get it, I guess you can take the fact that they engaged the work in the first place as an indicator of the works strengths. Positive or negative a response is a response,

  7. I very much appreciate the insight to your extremely thoughtful process. I would never be able to so clearly articulate the massive collision of random thoughts that enter my mind when it comes to anything on the creative spectrum. You have clarified a lot of vague concepts in my mind.

  8. I tend to feel that the title of the image is part of the image. An image doesn’t have to title, but if it does it becomes integral. I think most will have experienced the approach of looking at an image without looking at the title first and we are often surprised by the photographer’s choice – sometimes we are disappointed, sometimes our eyes are opened to a hidden depth that we had not appreciated before – either way, our appreciation can change. Consequently, I feel that if a title is used it should be properly considered before applying it. Of course, there is a danger of becoming far too pretentious about such things – after all we can change the title the next time we present it, can we not……?

    • I’m sure that has something to do with subconscious association – if the title is strong and the image is strong then we will always put the two together. If it doesn’t stick (and we forget, or decide to change the subsequent title) then perhaps it’s an indication that either the idea – condensed in the title – or the image is not strong enough. Or, there’s a good chance we simply forget because there are a lot of images…

  9. Peter Wright says:

    Ming, there’s a difference between a caption and a title. In your made-up example, the text “Emperor Mobutu’s…” is a caption, and in my mind would be much more important than the title “Only the clouds…” but both can go together. For myself, I always want to know the what/when/where/why (perhaps I am too literal, or simply that is the type of photography that speaks to me the most), but I can always make up my own title! The title from the photographer (IMHO as they say) usually detracts from the subtlety of the ideas expressed in the picture, as the title is too specific and direct.

    In looking at the pictures in your post, the title “Never-ending cleaning” which has negative connotations, could have been “A job for life” with positive connotations. It might be better to let the viewer see both, and no doubt more again if they use some imagination. But I still find myself wondering what that building was again, especially as (unless my memory is tricking me – always possible!) I was in the group standing beside you when it was made! ‘At the bridge into the city in London in 2014’ is about the best I can do. (I think I remember “Departures” as well. Good illustration of how quickly I picture can be seen and realized btw.)

    I found the picture “City in a box” somewhat depressing partly because it has no caption, and could be anyplace – Chicago, London, KL, etc. It speaks to me of the homogenization of cities (another possible title?). This is emphasized by the placement of the following and last picture which could be Havana being subjected to the same homogenization process. It probably isn’t Havana – but just wait five years! Good news for Cubans but not for photographers. I better get my camera down there soon!

    • What do you see as the difference between a caption and a title? One is descriptive and the other is making a non-obvious connection, perhaps?

      Your own imagined title (or any other observer’s) may not correspond with the photographer’s idea. If it seems too direct, perhaps the image has more to it than initially envisioned. If not obvious, then the visual translation wasn’t that great. I’m not sure I agree with your London title, which is literal – but not what I was seeing.

      Titles are also a reflection of the photographer’s state of mind, much as a composition is. Presenting two titles can be indecisive unless we are trying to make a point of interpretation – it’d be like presenting half the image with a warm white balance and half with a cool one, which would be rather odd to say the least…

  10. I’ve wondered how you name these photos! To be fair, I’m in the Bill Allard/Nat Geo camp of naming the photograph based on what is in the image and where it was taken. For art, not naming it at all. Bresson has a good line that i cant find about naming photos (he was against it for the most part). My feelings are that some of these more artsy titles are too contrived and force me to turn away from the image.

    In most of your images here, you’re using reflection to convey a sense of limitlessness or emptiness. You don’t need to supplement these messages with a deliberate wording such as “invisible” or “only one reality” or “never ending”. The images aren’t that deep. There’s a picture of an iphone on a shiny table. A title that impactful belongs on a more impactful image or collection, like your recent HK photos from the air.

    For example, if I took a picture of an orange and called it art, it might be of interest to look at. If I named it “Orange, 2015”, one probably wouldnt change their mind about the image. But if I named it “The futility of apples in the servant’s globe of solar breath” I’d probably lose a lot of interest in the image itself and draw it to the meaningless title made up of random words.

    • It depends. If we have an image that’s documentary or you’re trying to present in an unbiased way, the ‘name/content/location’ approach works (and what I’d use for reportage). There are degrees, I suppose. And remember not everything is obvious to everybody, either. Choosing a middle road for a variable audience is tricky in itself.

  11. Ming, I you have time, please stop by my blog. I have lots of photos from Hong Kong and Macau up, and more from Macau every day. What amazed me the most was how different the two places were. As far as titles go, at times some people have used them to give me a hard time. If the shot is a dud, no title can fix that.

  12. “Try fitting a title to your image as soon as you’ve shot it, or only keep/process images that you can easily title; then look at the resulting set overall and see if the impact has increased.”

    This is a great exercise suggestion. I’ve been mulling image titles lately so this post is very timely. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that all good images must start with an idea. All good images should contain an idea though I guess one could think up good images that are idea-less. But my real concern is that the starting point is the idea. It implies that image production happens in a linear process: idea first, then technical execution, followed by post-production and eventually if need be the title. For it’s worth, for me it’s a much messier process. The idea might actually emerge right at the end — and it might be a strong idea that you hit upon in post-production or during the naming process. It’s the final product that counts, no?

    • Well, yes and no. I think there are certainly spontaneous images that cannot be planned or imagined, but there isn’t a controllable or predictable outcome there. I prefer a bit less chance. There is of course curation post-capture too…

      • Jose Viegas says:

        This is what I agree the most. Very rarely I plan images, apart from usual landscape sites I know. I like very much your article, and I do believe more on the strength of an image than the title behind it. In fact I almost never care about titles anyway.

      • Ming,

        Have you ever made an image with an idea in mind for someone to come along and see in it a stronger more compelling idea, so much so that you end up seeing your initial image in a completely different light? I guess it boils down to what matters more: process or product? Ultimately, it’s got to be the latter.

        Moving on, I’ve just been pondering what an idea-less image might look like. I’m not even sure it’s possible. I mean if you think this through, everything is potentially an idea. Even a blank sheet. I guess an idea assumes communicative intent — which is why titles help.

        • No, to be honest. But it might be because I already influenced their impressions with the title?

          I suppose a true abstract with no title would be as close to something idea-less as I can imagine…

  14. I really like how you worded this:

    All good images must start with an idea: whether that idea is preconceived and the image constructed around it, or created in the instant in which the photographer happens to see all of the necessary elements in a scene come together is irrelevant; the idea remains the core to which every other aspect of the image (subjects, composition, output medium, title etc.) must aim to support and remain faithful to.

    Best – Eric

  15. Here’s an interesting consequence of titles: your audience is now reduced to those people who know the language of your title. I guess even for native speakers, if you use an obscure word, not everyone will know that word. So there’ll be two audiences with two different experiences of the work. That’s not necessarily bad, but it may be unintentional.


  1. […] advance apologies to the dissenters: they’re getting titles, and a few lines of explanation or thoughts as to why the images ‘stick’ for me. […]

  2. […] easier to give a complete impression of something by detailing critical parts; however, with the narrative in mind, you’ll find that there are certain ‘filler’ images required for […]

  3. […] There’s also been plenty of feedback going around in the comments on other photoessays on the use of captions; personally I think if done right they can be used to suggest alternative lines of thought and […]

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