The terms "cutline" and "caption" are sometimes used interchangeably and they're often confused. A caption is your headline—words that typically appear above a picture or image to describe it. A cutline appears below the photograph or image.
Rules for Creating a Good Cutline
The easiest and most common mistake when creating a cutline is to let it run on far too long. In most cases, the photo accompanies an article or other text, and that text will tell the full story. Your job isn't to repeat all that. Your job is to cut to the chase. So unless the photo is going out as a standalone, you don't have to explain too much. The viewer will have the press release, op-ed, or other material that goes along with the image, so all that's needed is a little context.
A cutline is written like a straight news piece boiled down to a single sentence. The sentence should include the five W's of pertinent information: who, what, when, where and why. In some cases, this may require more than a single sentence, and it's OK to expand a little when it's absolutely necessary to cover all five W's, but you'll still want to focus on being brief.
Always write the first sentence of the cutline in the present tense. The photo captures a moment that was occurring as the image was snapped and your words should mirror that. If you must go into additional sentences, present tense is optional with the remainder.
Take extra care to make sure you've correctly spelled the names and/or locations of anyone or anything appearing in the image.
Photo Cutline Example
John Doe (who) apprehends an intruder (what happened, written in the present tense) late Sunday night (when) at his home (where). The intruder was attempting a home invasion (why).
Assuming you've covered the five W's—and that you've done so accurately—you've done your job. That's it. You're finished. If an editor wants to take it from there and add something, that's fine. In fact, the newspaper or blog staff may rewrite the cutline if the photo needs to be cropped down to fit the appropriate layout or if it can be stretched out and expanded to fill space. You've provided the necessary basics, and you've confirmed that those basics are, indeed, fact. The worst thing you can do is provide erroneous information.
A Word of Warning
Newspapers, blogs, and websites have to identify who's in the photo and who took it. They call this a "photo credit." By their very nature, cutlines must include these photo credits. Newspapers and blogs are sensitive about not printing photos that don't have a photo credit because they don't want people submitting photos that they don't have permission to publish. So make sure you've got the right photo credit and that you include it in your cutline.