Creating a Title for a Photo

Dancing Flames by Steve Levinson

Recently when a guest was visiting the Holiday Show at Image City Photography Gallery, we became immersed in a conversation about the titles of some of the displayed photos.  She mentioned that after reading the title of Steve Levinson’s photo series, Dancing Flames, as she stared at the images, she could actually start to see dancers within the flames. After our discussion, I began to wonder just how important is a title for our photos?

As I thought about it, I realized that deciding on a title is often a challenging task for a photographer.  How might you create a title that is appealing, intriguing and relates to the art itself?

In order to delve more into this, consider strolling through Image City Photography Gallery, looking closely at the titles of the photos on display.  Which titles catch your eye?  

Whisper of Winter by Marie Costanza

When I created the title for the above photo, Whisper of Winter, I wanted to depict what I had seen on that November day when I took the photo at Taughhanock Falls. Winter was not quite upon us, but the light covering of snow that had just fallen indicated to me that soon it would be. I loved the way the creamy waterfalls complemented the slight layer of snow surrounding it. I felt as if nature was whispering softly that winter was on its way.

As I wandered through the gallery, the following are some aspects I noticed about some of the titles that intrigued me.  Many titles compliment the photo.  In some cases the title depicts the nature of the image or loosens any complications it might have had; thus making the viewer understand the image better.  In other cases the title gives a hint of what might be going on, causing the viewer to imagine a story that might be present in the image.  Sometimes it seems that the title provides additional context to what has already been done by the photo, and some titles just make me smile or cause me to stare at the image and wonder. 

While observing the photos in the Image City Holiday Show, I came away with three categories under which the titles seem to fall: Description of the ImageMood Created; Creativity.  Each of the categories revealed that the photographer took some time to create the title of the image. There is no right or wrong process when it comes to deciding on a title for a photo.  There are just different styles used by each individual photographer.

Description of the Image

This type of title might be a description of the scene or the name of the subject, often with a catchy word or two to go along with it.   There is no need to come up with something unusual or complicated; just come up with titles that complement the subject in a simple, comprehensive manner. This might seem like an easy task; however, it is not!  

Morning Walk by John Solberg

An example is Morning Walk by John Solberg: Through this simple but concise title, the viewer might wonder a bit about the subject.  Is it the dog’s morning walk or is it the man’s morning walk?  There is no leash on the dog; thus, perhaps they are not even together.  The man is carrying an umbrella;  will he be finished with his walk before the rain hits?  

Night Skyline by Dick Bennett

Another example of a descriptive title is Night Skyline, by Dick Bennett. In this colorful image, a viewer at Image City Photography Gallery is able to recognize the vibrant lights from the Rochester skyline as they are reflected on the Genesee River, during what might be an evening in December when the red and green colors illuminate the buildings.

Mood Created

When creating this type of title, the photographer translates the mood of the photo into words. It might dramatize the moment, or make the viewer feel happiness, sorrow, anger, disgust or any other feeling that was captured.  A “mood” title might be interpreting the photographer’s thoughts or dreams using words for the viewer to connect with the image. 

For example: Sheridan Vincent titled the piece below Warm Lights, Cool City

Warm Lights, Cool City by Sheridan Vincent

When I stare at this image, I feel a calming effect.  The warmth of the lights that Sheridan captured, contrasting against the cool snow of the season put me in a pleasant mood.  Using a play on words in the phrase “Cool City,” makes me think of how cool Rochester actually is, not just in the literal sense, but figuratively as well.  We have a very cool river that cascades right through the center of the city as well as the iconic Kodak building that put our cool city on the map. 

Another example is by Luann Pero: Inspired by Joy

Inspired by Joy by Luann Pero

When I view this image, the title clearly reflects the joyful feeling that comes over me.  The vibrant colors of fall and the feeling that I typically get when the colors of fall start to emerge provide me with a sense of happiness. 

Being Creative

These titles might instantly catch the viewer’s attention and might bring a smile to the observer’s face or cause the viewer to wonder about the image.  When creating these titles, it seems that the photographer takes time to choose words wisely and carefully.

Red Oz by Dennis Adams

For example, Dennis Adams chose to call this image Red Oz. As I looked at the image, I found myself wondering if there might be a connection to the Wizard of Oz.  After talking to Dennis, he explained to me that the photo was taken in Australia, where the people call their homeland “Oz,” which is a phonetic abbreviation of the country’s name. Dennis also confirmed that the title might also cause the viewer to think about the magical land from L. Frank Baum’s fantasy tale about the land of Oz. 

Another example is Troll House, created by Don Menges.  When I saw this title, it compelled me to take some time to study the photo.  At first glance one notices the underside of a bridge, but upon pondering the parts of the image, I found myself recalling the old Norwegian folktale about the troll who lived under a bridge.  As I viewed the evening light reflected on the water under the bridge, my eyes traveled above to the patterned nuts and bolts spread perfectly across the bridge, which to my eyes, began to take the form of lots of futuristic looking trolls who were coming alive under that bridge. 

Troll House by Don Menges

When all is said and done, selecting a title for an image is completely up to the photographer who created it.  There is no right or wrong; it is an individual decision.  Often less is more.  Effective titles complement works by giving viewers relevant information that makes their experience richer, indicating its creator’s relationship towards a subject and audience, but not limiting attention to dimensions of a work that might otherwise remain overlooked, all the while leaving room for the viewer’s extended interpretation.

Environmental Fine Art Landscape Photographer John Paul Caponigro says that like your art, “titles are all about communication and titles become part of your art.” He suggests the following as a springboard for exploring your options when creating a title:

  • List the subject and date (eg. Neko Harbor, Antartica 2007)
  • State a relationship to the subject, yours or someone else’s (eg. My Mother or Her Home)
  • Use a general category for the subject, rather than an individual one (such as Statistic)
  • Name a formal element in the work (number, shape, color, size, etc.)
  • Refer to another medium (such as poetic or musical form)
  • Loosely interpret the subject; similes and metaphors often work well here (such as Smells like Teen Spirit)
  • Use a technical term related to the subject, or the creation of the work (Ascent or Descent for example)
  • Create a contradiction(think of Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe entitled This is Not A Pipe)

How do you decide on a title? In the comment section below, please share with our readers one of your images, and tell us how you create a title for your photos.

10 responses to “Creating a Title for a Photo”

  1. Marie: these are good comments in this blog, and they address a topic that I have not attended to with enough “mindfulness.” Yet, these comments of yours are reminder to tread lightly on the line between directing the observer to your intention, versus letting that observer’s emotional response be unfettered.

  2. You’ve made many good points in this post, Marie, and you’ve chosen excellent photos to illustrate them. I sometimes give my Instagram photos humorous titles. Here’s my latest one. I call it “Three Dog Day.”

  3. Good topic Marie and you dealt with it in an excellent fashion. One approach also exists which has been used by many fine-art photographers or “artists using photography”. It consists in not giving any title to one’s work. I guess one motivation might be to indicate that it is not a documentary photography (for which date, even time, and location might be important), the other one being to let the viewer drift wherever they want away without any potential direction/map given by the title. The latter approach is supposed to invite the viewer to participate in the work (by their imaginations, feelings), and to leave the interpretation of the photograph open, as a new intuitive experience. All the best,

    • Bruno, You make an excellent point! By leaving room for interpretation, the photographer can create a space where each viewer can connect with the photograph on a personal level. Your comment reinforces my belief that art has the power to evoke emotions and stimulate the mind.

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