What is a Good Picture Title?
The photograph above is entitled, “Discover”. I think it’s a good picture title. Why is that? Because I came up with it, of course! The real question is, do you believe it’s a good one. That’s a very different question.
So let me explain. I called it “Discover” because that is what I felt the animal was doing at that very moment. Cats are often guided by smell, and get to know their environment by sniffing their way around it. Since this particular domestic cat seldom visits the outdoors, it was, for him, a discovery. If I hadn’t mentioned this in this one-word title, you may simply have seen a cat smelling something. And nothing more.
In general, a good picture title is one that adds to the image, not take away from it. Otherwise, what good would it do? The photograph, after all, already pretty much says it all (remember that a picture is worth a thousand words, and clichés like this one are often true). But there is always something you can add, and that has to do with your perspective and the context at the time you snapped that picture.
Disclaimer: Below I list the “rules”. But there are no rules in photography, just guidelines, so take anything anyone says with a grain of salt (especially me!), and do what you think is best for you (or rather, your photographs). Having said that, I firmly believe in every point I’m making below.
1. Say it in a Few Words
A good picture title must be short. It must be told in a few words. Best? One word. Second best? Two. And so forth. The reason is that as human beings, our brain can only hold so much information and the meaning of a few words is likely to survive in your short-term memory before it is stored into long-term, but more than and it will not. You can learn more about how memory works in this simple explanation from basic psychology.
2. Encapsulation of Theme or Idea
A good picture title is one that states what the image is about. Sounds trivial, I’m sure. But think about it this way. The picture (if meaningful) is not OF what you just shot. It should be ABOUT what you just shot. This had to do with what you’re trying to convey. Hence, a photograph of a cat is just a photograph of a cat. A photograph that says more is about something involving the cat. And it is this about that should make the photograph work. If in any doubt, make sure to read any of David Duchemin’s articles on photography and vision. Here’s just one example. David is big on “About” vs “Of”. I also highly recommend him as a teacher of photography if you ever seek one.
It may be tempting to come up with a clever name for that photograph you love so much. But don’t. A good picture title does not require cleverness. Unless you’re the Picasso of photography, I would personally stay away from overlaboring your titles, using smart metaphors or unusual words that sound poetic. For one thing, if the photograph fails to convey what you hoped for, a “clever” title will sound pretentious. If the photograph accomplishes what you hoped for, that cleverness will be completely unnecessary. I used to write fiction, and trying to come up with clever titles is something of which I am guilty. And if you’re completely honest with yourself, you’ll find that whatever you’ve achieved is not something to be admired in Le Louvre (and even there, sometimes you want to raise an eyebrow but are afraid that an art aficionado might pummel you with words of derision). It’s just a photograph. And not everyone will like it. But if you do, you’ve accomplished what matters.