I am not going to tell you what this animal is.

At least, not yet.

Instead, I'd like to use the absence of a caption to mention the importance of accompanying science images with the right text. Why? Artists and photographers spend enough time crafting images that it'd be a waste to lose potential viewers simply for lack of adequate captioning. Text doesn't take much time relative to the benefits, so why not spend an extra five minutes to pen a couple sentences to help along a five-hour photograph?

Most basically, search engines see captions more easily than they see images. Poorly-captioned images will miss an audience for that reason alone. Yet captions bring other advantages. If the point of an image is to build a relationship between the viewer and the subject, captions can serve as an introduction. They direct viewers to subtle points they might otherwise miss, and they can confirm to a viewer that what they thought they saw was correct, strengthening their connection to the subject. Captions can inject memorable humor, or they can induce a viewer to linger or revisit the image beyond a first glance.

Below are a few pointers for better captions.

  1. Lure the viewer in with a familiar reference. For obscure technical and science subjects, a well-placed metaphor or reference to a commonly understood idea may provide the audience with their only point of entry to an otherwise unintelligible topic.
  2. Summarize the important points concisely. Reinforce the story in the photo, or tell one that may not be immediately apparent.
  3. Avoid the obvious. Viewers can see for themselves that my photo shows an insect. They're also smart enough that they don't need to be told about "the above image", or that "the photograph shows," or any similar repetition of the trivially true.
  4. Provide specific data. Give search engines and the data-hungry something to feed on. Places and Latin names are always helpful.
  5. Avoid talking about yourself. This is especially true for conservation photography, where the aim is to establish a connection between the viewer and the subject. Three's a crowd, so save your personal bits for the main post and let the viewer have quality time alone with the image.

With these in mind I present again the lead photograph, this time captioned.

Pedants pick on Spider Man for spouting silk from his wrists rather than from the arachnologically accurate read end. There is an insect, however, that mirrors the teen superhero's anatomy. Web-spinners use swollen segments in their forelegs to produce silk linings for their burrows. (Haploembia solieri, Lake County, California)

Inspiration for this post comes from the inimitable natural historian and expert captionist Mark Deyrup, who spoke on this topic at the BugShot photo workshop last week in Florida.