Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 10 Issue 10
October 2016
Sending some photos in an email? If you add captions, send a Word or PDF file instead!

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The problem
You're composing an email to a friend containing some photos. Since each photo is actually displayed in the body of the message, you discover that not only can you arrange them, but you can also put captions or comments underneath each one.

You then send the email, expecting that your layout will arrive exactly as you created it. However, your friend may later tell you that your captions were grouped together in one area and your photos were in another. How frustrating!

What I recommend instead
Rather than spending the time using your email software to carefully create a photo layout that is likely to be ignored, I recommend a completely different approach: Put your photos along with your corresponding captions, notes, or comments into a Microsoft Word file, and then attach that to your email instead. Word has a number of ways to arrange photos and text, will probably be easier to use than your email program, and with this method your layout will be preserved. Don't forget to change the body of your message as appropriate, e.g., "See the attached document."

Keep in mind that:
  • This assumes that your recipient has the ability to open Microsoft Word documents.
  • Inserting your photos into a Word file does not remove or modify your original photos. You'll be inserting copies of your photos into the Word file.
  • Depending on which version of Word you have and how its options are set, Word may compress its copies of your photos, which may change the way they look.
  • Email systems put limits on the size of each message. In my experience you can attach about 8 megabytes of attachments to an email before you start to get errors when sending.
If you'd rather not send a Word file, I suggest:
  • Start by inserting your photos into a Word file and adding your captions as I suggested above.
  • Use that Word file to generate a PDF file.
  • Then attach the PDF file to your email and send it.
Other ways to accomplish something equivalent
If creating a Word or PDF file sounds like too much work, here are some other approaches to consider:
  • After attaching your photos to your email, type an explanation for each photo into the body of the email, e.g., the names of each photo along with your corresponding comments, e.g., "IMG1234.JPG: Fishing with the dog, IMG1275.JPG: Wedding day sunset," etc.
  • Some email programs let you edit the (copies of the) photos that you've attached before sending, so just like writing on a real-life photo with a magic marker, you could type your comments directly into each photo if there is room in the image, you're comfortable using such image-editing tools, and you don't mind modifying the copies of the photos that you're sending.
  • You could upload your photos to a photo-sharing web site, some of which let you add captions or notes to each photo. You would send an email with a link to your "online album" instead of emailing the photos themselves. This is also a good approach if you have more than 8 megabytes of photos to share, but it makes accessing your photos more complicated for your recipient.
Why does this problem occur? Why can't my email program preserve the design I created?
For the purposes of this discussion, there are 3 categories of email programs:
  • Classic: When you attach a file to an email, some email programs simply add that file to a list of attachments, typically displayed at the top or bottom of the message window and clearly separated from the body of your message. This visibly corresponds to the way your message will be sent, with your body text in a separate section from your attachments.
  • Modern but misleading: With this type of email program, adding an attachment to a message "inserts" an item right into the body of the email. For popular files types like photos and PDFs, the item is a "thumbnail," i.e., a reduced version of the actual contents of the file, and for all other file types you'll see an icon. While this looks great, what you see is not what you will be sending. Ultimately such an email program acts just like a Classic one: Your message will be sent with the body text in one part of the message and all the attachments in another.
  • Sophisticated: A few email programs (like Outlook and Thunderbird) have a combination of options and functions that let you create an email that embeds your photos in the body and preserves that layout when sending. However, even if you do everything correctly on your end (which may include choosing HTML or Rich Text message format, carefully choosing the correct Insert function, etc.), the email program that your recipient uses may still not display your message as you intended, or may prevent your photos from being displayed at all. In addition, their email provider may treat your message as spam, which could prevent your message from even arriving in their Inbox.
The bottom line is that email programs are intended to send information. They're not really designed to create fancy layouts.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.