This example provides a description that gets more and more specific. An interesting way to think about it is: does the first sentence provide a good overview of the image? It should do this, so the reader is oriented to the image, and has a context for understanding more details.
Alt text: An outdoor garden on a sunny day, overlooking a forested valley. The garden is made up of five raised beds, about 3 feet by 5 feet each. Nothing appears to be planted, but one of the garden beds is sprinkled with mulch. To the left of the beds, there is a wooden bench. At the bottom of the picture, a coiled hose is partially visible.
If the image is a photograph of a person, you will probably want to first give an overview of the scene, including things that immediately jump out at you such as special photography effects or anything that is prominently portrayed in the image. Next describe the setting, expressions, and if applicable, any action taking place. Finally, describe what the person is wearing. The order is general – if the image is of a clown, you may want to describe their outfit earlier — but if they are jumping through a flaming hoop, the action may take precedence. Use your judgment, and don’t be afraid to ask for help or a second opinion!
Alt text: A light-skinned young man stands in a stairwell in the day-time, with his hands in his pockets. He gazes off to the side and his mouth is closed. He has a close-cropped beard with a thin mustache and solid dark eyebrows. He wears a black New York Yankees cap, waist length black leather jacket, white t-shirt, and black pants.
Alt-text: Curved, straight, thin, thick, solid, and broken lines, some of which have straight crisp edges while others are imperfectly straight with fuzzy edges.
In the surrounding text and caption within the body of the book, it is explained that the image is a drawing of lines. We have therefore not included the word “drawing” or “illustration” at the beginning of our alt-text. The text discusses the quality and interpretation of different lines in general, but does not discuss specific lines from the image. Thus, we do not have to describe all 8 lines individually, and a Long Description is unnecessary. Instead we just need to provide a little more information that can help the reader fully understand the passage, such as the visual effects of hand-drawn versus digitally drawn lines. The passage refers to the effect briefly but without the alt-text, the reader might not be able to easily glean this from reading the text.
For a more esoteric example, let’s take a look at a page from Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances:
Alt-text: A drawn representation of the Rema-based Doppler effect, as described in the text.
In this example, in the book Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen, the narrator describes the Doppler effect in relation to how he perceives his wife. It’s somewhat confusing conceptually, but actually quite well described in the text: “Let us imagine a source from which a Rema look-alike emerges every second. If the source is stationary, and I am stationary, then every second one of these Rema’s will pass me by. But if the single observer…begins walking toward the source of Remas, then a Rema will pass by me more frequently than every second, even though Remas are still exiting the source at the precise rate of one per second.”
Therefore, only simple alt-text is required, as the author has done the heavy lifting!
[Text on page]: He did not have to stay in the water long, before he was quite well done, and as hard as a brick all the way through; so, untying the rag, he jumped out of the kettle as tough and as bright as any hard boiled Egg. The calico had marked him from head to foot with big, bright, red spots, he was as…
Alt-text: A smiling Humpty Dumpty jumps out of a pot which is sitting on a fire! The brown pot has a smiling face on its curved side, and yellow and orange flames move around the pot like they are dancing. Humpty Dumpty is stained with a red stripe around his middle, and red spots below – it almost looks like he is wearing polka-dot underwear.
Since the book is for children, simple language has been used (i.e. pot instead of kettle), and an effort has been made to match the tone of the story.
Use Present Tense / Action Verbs
Here is an example from Ian Grandin’s Age of Discovery:
Alt-text: A line drawing of a man with no skin, demonstrating the musculature of the human body. With one raised arm, he takes a step. He is in a field dotted with foliage and ruins of ancient buildings.
In this example, the first sentence describes the main purpose of the image, and the following sentences use present tense and active voice to provide an engaging description.
Example 1: Objectivity and People
Let’s take a look at this stock image:
Alt-text: A group of 5 people – men and women – stand in a circle with their arms around each other; they are smiling and looking down at the camera which looks up at them from the centre of their circle.
For most purposes, this alt-text would be enough. But, if a longer description was needed, based on the context, something like this would work:
Long Description: Five people – three women and two men – stand in a circle. They are all smiling widely and have their arms around each others’ shoulders. The upper portion of their bodies and their faces are visible as they lean forward and look down at the camera, which is in the middle of their circle; it appears as though they are looking at the reader.
Counterclockwise from the left: a dark-skinned young woman with black, natural, chin-length hair. She wears a white blazer over a dark green t-shirt. Next to her is a light skinned middle aged man with short blonde hair. He wears a blue sports jacket and a gray collared shirt with a necktie, decorated with narrow diagonal lines. Beside him is a medium-light skinned, middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and beard. He has a closely trimmed beard and mustache. The man wears a dark gray blazer over a white checkered shirt and a maroon tie. Next to him is a dark-skinned, middle-aged woman with a round face and natural, mid-length hair. She wears a patterned white wool high neck sweater. The fifth person is a light skinned, middle aged woman with chin-length blond hair. She wears a cream color jacket over a powder blue blouse.
Alt-text: A newspaper ad for a 1984 Mercury Marquis Wagon. One picture is of a brown, wood-paneled station wagon in a field. The other is a blue station wagon, on a road by a beach.
This objective description simply describes what the image show — no more, no less!
Do Not Censor
This image is from the British Museum:
Alt-text: Four nude satyrs engage in drinking and revelry. One leans back on his hands, balancing a cantharos on his erect phallus. One pours wine into the cantharos; another stands behind him, holding a cantharos overhead. To the right, the fourth satyr dances around another cantharos, set on the ground.
This is a mild example, but nevertheless demonstrates the importance of not censoring — readers need to know what is in the image, even if if may be sexual, violent, or other uncomfortable topics to describe.
You don’t want to be like the early British Museum, and erase an important part of history, like they did in their earlier images:
Alt-text: The text on the sign reads “Votes for Women”. The three women wear long dresses and wide brimmed hats with elaborate decorations on top. The women to the left and right wear sashes with illegible text (only some letters are readable: SUF; WO); the woman in the centre stands behind the large sign.
Alt-text: Cover page of the June 28, 1919 edition of The Evening World. The top headline (in large block letters) reads “Treaty Signed; War Over”. Other headlines from the cover page read: “Wilson Leaves Paris; Sails Sunday”; “Germans Pledged to Act In Good Faith”; “City’s Bells Ring Tidings as Peace Treaty is Signed; Fleet Joins in Celebration”; “Treaty Severe on Germany, says Wilson, but Imposes Nothing She Cannot Do”; “Guns Boom, Planes Fill Air; French Crowds Cheer Peace”.
In the alt-text we created for this newspaper page, we made a judgement about how closely a reader would read it. Some may read more than what was included in the alt-text, but providing the main headlines is sufficient.
Don’t Rely on Captions
This example is from Margaret Trudeau’s Changing My Mind:
Alt-text: Margaret sits in a wooden rocking chair, holding a baby Justin in her arms as she smiles down at him. They are both wearing light, white clothing.
In this example, we have a caption that does not describe the image well, for readers who need alt-text. Therefore, more description is needed in the alt-text to explain that Justin Trudeau is an infant in the image.
Introduction to Reviewing Alt-Text
Guide for Reviewing Image Descriptions
This guide shares a short checklist of items to review when reading or editing image descriptions. Whether you wrote them yourself, or someone else wrote them, this guide will help ensure the quality of descriptions.
Subject(s): Digital Marketing, Ebook Production, Image Descriptions, Website Accessibility
Resource Type(s): Checklist, Standards and Best Practices