If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Picture Paints a Thousand Words

The Plays of Shakespeare

If a picture paints a thousand words then how many pictures will it take to portray a Shakespeare play. We look at how to convey a story in a single image. In our previous post about story-telling through images, we looked at the series of images typically required to tell a story, such as a wide shot to set the scene, close up of a fine detail, etc…

In this post, we are going to take it a step further by putting the old adage that “a picture paints a thousand words” to the test. We are going to see if we can tell a story, in this case, a classic, well-known one, using just one image. This is essentially an exercise to stretch your creativity as well as test your technical capabilities.

If “a picture paints a thousand words” then all of Shakespeare’s plays would require 868 photos. With an average 23 photos for each play (or one roll of film each, if you remember those days).

Picture Paints a Thousand Words - word count for Shakespeare's plays

Word count for the plays of Shakespeare, showing how many photographs would be required if a picture paints a thousand words.

Romeo and Juliet

Take one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, Romeo and Juliet. It is around 25,000 words, so with 25 photos, we should be able to portray the whole play.

Capulet’s Orchard

Let’s take one scene, Act II Scene II (Capulet’s Orchard), which is perhaps the best known, with Juliet standing on the balcony calling out for Romeo. This is around 2,000 words long, or two photos.

Word count for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene II - Capulet's Orchard

Word count for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene II – Capulet’s Orchard


Setting the Scene

So,  we want to try to paint this whole scene in just ONE, possibly two, photos, how are we going to do it?

Well, it’s no accident we call it a “scene”. This is a device that playwrights use to set the scene in which their characters deliver their lines. There is a stage, backdrop and props etc., all of which essentially constitute an image.  What are missing are the characters, their lines and how they deliver them. Somehow we need to work out how to create a single image that conveys all of the lines within this single scene into a single image.

This scene is relatively straightforward with Juliet standing on a balcony and Romeo down in the Orchard somewhere. So this image is already coming together and we really didn’t need to think too much about what it should contain. Now comes the hard part though.

Telling the Story

Images fall into one of two categories, “narrative” and “conceptual” (Kress & van Leeuwin, 1996). Act II Scene II (Capulet’s Orchard) is clearly a narrative type image, one that actively presents an unfolding of events with transitory spatial arrangements. With narrative images, the participants need to connect to one another through lines or vectors.

There can be no stronger vector than the one between Romeo and Juliet!  The question then for us is how best to depict this? Juliet is up on the balcony, looking out across the orchard uttering those immortal words…” O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” She is basically talking to herself, questioning why her beloved Romeo is a member of a rival family, while he stands unnoticed in the orchard below listening to her.

Composing the Shot

So, how would compose your image to tell this story? 

It’s night, so it’s a low key image, with dim, soft romantic lighting. Perhaps a small key light on her to emphasise her loneliness on the balcony. You will also need a catchlight or so on Romeo to show he’s around. She hasn’t seen him, so she’s looking off into the distance, but he is beneath the balcony, listening to her every word. He might be looking up, longingly at her, or he might be looking down at the ground in a pensive mood, your choice I guess.

How do you show that vector, or connection between the characters? soft romantic light? colour coordination? some emblem of love such as a dove or apple (it is set in an apple orchard after all). She might have her arms outstretched, he might have his arms reaching up to her, etc. etc.

All of this, you should be able to compose and tell pretty much the whole story of Act II Scene II (Capulet’s Orchard), in one shot.

Yes, we chose a fairly well-known story, so your audience will probably be able to fill in the blanks. Try picking a different story and play through your mind how you might compose your single shot.


Further Reading:

Kress, G.R., & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-31915-3.


Message, knowing what you want to say

Message, the importance of having one

Following our previous post, the Book of Five Rings. The master swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, talks about the importance of strategy:

“A samurai must have both literary and martial skills: to be versed in the two is his duty. Even if he has no natural ability, a samurai must train assiduously in both skills...

…The samurai pursues excellence by virtue of his strategy, in order to excel in everything. Be it winning a duel or winning a combat with several men, be it for the benefit of your master or to establish your own reputation and distinguish yourself.

That may be so, but the true spirit of martial strategy requires that you train to be useful at any moment.”

The same can be said for photographers. You may be a technically competent photographer, but without a message, how will you establish a reputation?  Do you really want to be known as the photographer with images that are in focus but have no meaning?  Without a strategy that combines both technical and literary skills you end up with sharp images of fuzzy concepts. Something, which Ansel Adams will tell you, there is nothing worse. You need both technical as well as literary skills.

Clear Message

Going from Fuzzy Concept to Clear Message

Strategy, helping to keep you focussed

Miyamoto Musashi concludes that:

“Swordsmanship limited to techniques alone can never rival the principles of Strategy.”

As a photographer you need a strategy that combines both mastery of technical skills as well as of literary skills (message).  You need a strategy that will help you to excel as a photographer.  That will establish your reputation as a photographer with something to say. That will enable you to master the tools of the trade as well as develop your creativity and message.  Strategy will give you focus, will help you to get to a level with your craft, such that at any given moment you can spring into action and deliver the goods.

Take Home Message

Stay focussed on mastering the technical skills of photography. However, do not forget your literary skills so that you can produce images that pack a punch through the messages they contain. Such a strategy will help to establish your reputation as a competent (if not masterful) photographer with something to say worth listening to through your photographs.

Workflow and the Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho)

Workflow, what the masters can teach us

Workflows comprise an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of actions to achieve an objective.  As we set off on this journey of a thousand miles along the path to creative photography, it is important to have an objective (or else we risk wandering aimlessly in the wilderness). It is equally as important to have a repeatable pattern of actions or workflow so that we can reach the same objective over and over.  If your objective is perfection then wouldn’t it be nice to be able to achieve that objective repeatedly?

With this in mind, I’d like to establish a few milestones for our journey. Just so that we all know the general direction of travel and if we stray too far from the path to remind us to get back on track.

Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho)

In his “Book of Five Rings“, Miyamoto Musashi, the 17th century master swordsman, describes the phases of battle through a five step workflow as he teaching sword skills to his pupils through five chapters or books:

  • The Book of Earth, is an introduction to the fundamentals, discussing martial arts, leadership, and training as “building a house“.
  • The Book of Water describes Musashi’s style of fighting with two swords “Ni-ten ichi-ryu”, or “Two Heavens, One Style”. It describes basic techniques and fundamental principles.
  • The Book of Fire”  talks about the heat of battle, and discusses issues such as timing, and
  • The Book of Wind” and “The Book of the Void“, discuss enhancements such as other styles and the importance of a correct mindset.

The Modern Workflow

In our journey together, we’ll work our way through the entire creative workflow.  Following the path laid down by Miyamoto Musashi we’ll adopt a similar approach:

  • Pre-Shoot where we will learn the fundamental building blocks (The Book of Earth) before going into battle (metaphorically), as well as become familiar with the tools of the trade (The Book of Water),
  • Shoot we will learn how to keep cool during the heat of “battle” (The Book of Fire), by correctly using our tools as well as getting our rhythm and timing right, and
  • Post Shoot we will learn how to enhance the image during the post processing stages (Book of Wind and Void)

Throughout the creative workflow we will look at being creative from start to finish and ensuring that every little move or technique is brought to bear at all stages to enhance the message of the image.

creative workflow

Workflow at its most basic


Final Word

Wax on, wax off

Throughout the Book of Five Rings there is an emphasis upon good old fashioned hard work, slogging away until you get it right. Repeating over and over again until the actions become second nature. Well, I hate to break it to you, but not much has changed, if you really want to master your craft you need to do the graft.

In the movie Karate Kid (the original) Mr. Miyagi teaches his student Daniel the noble art of karate.  All summer long he has Daniel wax his car (“Wax on, wax off“) and paint his fence etc. In the remake (which I must admit I prefer), Jackie Chan has Jaden Smith take off his jacket and hang it up repeatedly. In both cases, the students think they are wasting their time doing boring repetitive chores but when it came time to flex their muscles and actually do some karate, they find that all the “Wax on, wax off” pays dividends as their reflexes are tuned and the moves come easy.

Well, it’s the same with photography, if you put the time in learning the basics in the PRE-SHOOT stages, then when it comes time to spring into action during the SHOOT, you’re at an advantage, you don’t need to think about depth of field, speed etc., it comes naturally (well almost), so you can make the most of any opportunity and spend less time thinking about techniques and more time creating images.

I hesitate to say “lens on, lens off” but getting to know you camera is vitally important, mind just don’t do what this guy did.

Becoming familiar with your gear and constantly practising your technique will stand you in great stead.  It does require discipline and application but is worth it in the long run.  Ultimately, it allows you to focus on the creative aspects and in making images rather than fumbling around trying to adjust settings.


Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

…. so get shooting and get all those practice shots out the way.