John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Creating Titles for Images

Making up an interesting title for an image can be an important creative aspect of photography. After all, did famous photographers ever resort to generic or bland labels for their work, or no names at all?

Actually, they often did. Very ordinary titles like “East Coast Fisherman,” “White Radish,” “Nude, Campden Hill, London, 1949,” or simply “Self-portrait.”

Generic titles

So how come these highly creative people failed to conjure up a captivating title for some of their most famous photographs? Well, probably because it wasn’t necessary. The image itself was meaningful, powerful, revealing, all on its own. Maybe all they felt they needed to do was indicate the simple facts of where, when, or who, in order to provide a basic context. Then the image did the rest of the talking.

Some old school photographers believe that attempts at a catchy title is a cop-out or cover-up for an image that doesn't have any power on its own. In some cases, that might be true. On the other hand, it's also possible that some of these old school photographers are not very good with words. Their strong criticism of creating titles might be their coverup for feeling insecure about that lack of of skill.

It's best to avoid titles that rub the viewer's nose in something that's obvious. "Sadness" as a title for a photo of someone crying might come across as cloying, or even desperate. It's as if the photographer is saying "Just in case you didn't realize this is sadness, it's sadness!" Don't beat a dead horse. Avoid stating the obvious.

The mystery of the nameless image

There are some definite advantages to no titles at all. It lets viewers explore the image on their own without forcing any particular interpretation. It tosses the image into their lap and encourages them to project themselves into it, creating their own meaning. That's exactly how some photographers like to think about their work as "art."

No title at all can be especially effective. It’s mysterious. It teases, frustrates, challenges, lures the viewer in: “Go ahead. Figure this out.” It’s a presentation of the purely visual with no pretense of words. It's a very Zen-like strategy.

I've heard some photographers say that the never create titles for their photos because they don't want to "take away" from the viewer's experience. I'm not so absolutist in my viewpoint. Some photos work very well without titles. Others work well with them. It's knowing the difference that counts.

Titles are practical

At the very least, titles of some kind are practical. They serve as useful handles. Without one, how do you refer to an image? “It’s the shot of the bicycle, not the bicycle in the playground… the other one, you know, the bicycle on the grass, shot from below, through the spokes up at the sky.”

Wouldn’t “Spoked Sky” be easier? Especially in online photosharing communities, where there are many millions of images, titles will help you organize, identify, and discuss images, as well as make it easier for search engines to find them. Bland and obvious titles won't distinguish your images from others. "Beautiful sunset" produced half a million hits on google (as of the writing of this sentence). No matter how hard you try, or how good your shot is, you're going to have a really difficult time creating a truly unique photo of a sunset, or of almost any subject, for that matter. Any type of photo has probably been done many thousands of times over. However, what might make your shot unique is the title you create for it.

The title/image synergy

As I mentioned at the start of this article, titles can be an important part of the creative process. Words and images interact in all sorts of fascinating ways. You can use a title to steer the viewer towards ideas that you really want to convey, which is critical for conceptual photography. You also can use the title to invite people into your subjective experience of the image. We often use photos to share our thoughts, feelings, and lives with others. If a title helps people appreciate what you intend to convey about yourself, then go for it.

The title can add a layer of meaning that is not immediately obvious in the photo. A title can even be playful or provocative by contradicting the qualities of the image. For all these reasons, when you're browsing a collection of photographs created by someone else, as in online photosharing communities, don't simply focus on the images. Pay attention to the titles too. They might help you better understand and appreciate photos that you would otherwise overlook.

Some titles might pop into your mind right away. You know what the image says for you. In other cases, you might have to think about it for awhile. That process can be fascinating, and valuable. You know you like the photo, but may not be sure why. Searching your mind for a title might clarify that for you. It may help you uncover the subconscious feelings, memories, and fantasies that you associate with it, which is probably why you took the shot in the first place, even though you might not have been fully aware of those motivations at the time. Coming up with a really good title might also help you alter and refine the photo. The title gives you a direction for post-processing and image manipulation. It’s an excellent exercise in bringing composition in line with the idea you want to convey.

Quotes and lyrics as titles

Famous quotes and lyrics from songs might serve well as a title. When I'm examining one of my images, a word might come to mind. Say "fishing," for example. If I'm intrigued by the idea of using a quote for a title, I'll enter "quotes about fishing" into google and then go to one of the websites that produces a list of famous quotes about that word. Invariably, as I read through the list of famous quotes, I find one that I really like and fits the image well. In flickr, I have a whole set of images with quotes or song lyrics as the titles.

When it feels right

You’ll know when you have a really good title. It feels right. It sticks. Weeks, months, even years later, you’ll remember it. It’s a perfect wedding of words and image.

Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this article in flickr?

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Conceptual Photography
Categorizing Images

Image Descriptions

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche