Add Words To Add Value

Sheila Atter explains why adding words to your images can add value to your work.

Posted 16/Oct/2008 - 8:34PM

Newcomers to freelancing are often advised that illustrated articles will sell better than single photographs, but for many the idea of becoming in effect a writer as opposed to a photographer is somewhat daunting.


But, just as actually going out and using a camera can help you to become more familiar with the mechanics of picture-taking, the more you write the easier it becomes. We might not all have it within us to become the author of a block-buster novel, but putting together an interesting and informative article is within the grasp of everyone. When faced with the task of adding words to pictures, many photographers seem to suffer immediate writer’s block. But it really isn’t that difficult. The secret is to build up the information gradually.

© Shiela AtterTake this photograph of a castle for example. It’s the sort of picture that almost everyone can, and does, take when they are on holiday. Should we just caption it ‘castle’?

Well, no – almost certainly we will go a little further. Perhaps ‘Karlstejn Castle’, or even ‘Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic’?

Maybe, in the interest of absolute accuracy, we will include the relevant accent and a little more geographical detail, and our caption now becomes ‘Karlštejn Castle, Central Bohemia, Czech Republic’.

But although this photograph might just sell on its own – perhaps to a guide book publisher or as an illustration in a travel magazine – it will be fighting for that spot alongside a million other very similar images.

This is where our written words can help. What can we write about this photograph that will help us to sell it?


A little research will give us plenty of facts about the castle and the area. It’s useful to remember always the basic questions Who, What, When, Why, Where and How. Jot down these headings and fill in as much information as you can.

  • Who built the castle? – King Charles IV;
  • what was its purpose? – defensive? or to impress the neighbours?;
  • when was it built? – in the fourteenth century;
  • why was it built? – actually, as a giant safe for the Bohemian Crown jewels;
  • where is Karlštejn in relation to Prague, where visitors to the Czech Republic spend most of their time? – 40km to the south west;
  • how can you get there? – a short and very pretty train journey through the picturesque Berounka Valley.

By the time you have all the information to hand, and have put it into a logical sequence (don’t forget to use the spell-checker!) you have the basis for an informative article, so have another look at your files.

Are there any other photographs that could be added to turn your words and this single image into a more interesting, and saleable, illustrated article?

What about this one of the castle’s Well Tower? It has the advantage that it is vertical rather than horizontal, which gives more variety in planning the design of the finished page.

You can almost certainly find some details about this building. Don’t forget how very useful the internet can be as a research tool – but always make sure that you rewrite the information in your own words. And what about those two flags? The Czech Republic is now a member of the European Union – how has that affected the tourism industry? Might that be another angle to investigate in a different article?

Unless you are writing for an architectural or historical magazine images of buildings can sometimes be a little bit boring to the average viewer, and this is where your imagination can help. What was it like to live in this castle? Re-enactments or ‘living history’ is a popular ways of bringing days gone by to life.

Didn’t you take a shot of those coins that were being made by the blacksmith? A nice close-up or still life adds yet more variety to your work.



© Shiela AtterBefore you know where you are you have some interesting facts that will help to sell your photographs. But you still need to do a little more research.

There are literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines published in the UK alone, and thousands more worldwide. It is important to send your work to the right one. Every magazine has its own ethos and time spent looking through recent issues is never wasted.

Before you send your package off, check back through your images again and make sure that you have offered the editor a suitable choice. Vertical images are often more useful since they fit the layout better, and it’s always helpful to include one or two that have space to drop in a headline or some copy.


It’s vital to know just how long your article must be. Some magazines publish guidelines for authors (and photographers) and you should ensure that you follow these to the letter. There are many openings for single photographs accompanied by what is virtually an expanded caption, probably about 250-300 words.

A writer who fulfils the editor’s brief is always popular. If you are asked for 1000 words then that’s what you should aim to send. The editor has a set space to fill, and although you may think that 750 words are sufficient to do justice to your subject, that won’t help to sell your submission. Equally, once you have got into this writing business, don’t be fooled into thinking that more is better. If your piece is good enough, it might be used, but it will certainly be edited ruthlessly to fit the available space.


When your article is finished and posted off, forget it! Editors are busy people and really don’t have time to deal with queries from freelancers. There are many reasons why an article won’t gain acceptance. The magazine may have covered a similar topic very recently, or have something in the pipeline. So don’t lose heart if your first attempt is rejected. But once you see your words in print you will be bursting with ideas - and the second is always easier!

Dos and Don’ts:
  • Do write on a subject that you already know about.
  • Do imagine you are telling a friend about your photographs, and just write down what you would say to them. You can tidy it up later.
  • Do check your facts.
  • Do check your spelling.
  • Do choose a suitable magazine to submit to.
  • Don’t send the same article to two similar publications.
  • Don’t pester the editor.
  • Don’t forget to check your spelling.


Words and Images © Shiela Atter



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