Story-telling part of your Creative Strategy



Story-telling builds on our previous posts, importance of having a message and using a framework such as Japanese aesthetics where we talk about how to kickstart your creative juices. Here we talk about the art of story-telling as a way of focussing your message.

Typically story-telling requires the following images:

  1. Signature Image: the main image telling the overall story,
  2. Portrait Image: the main character in the story,
  3. Wide Image: setting the scene and giving a sense of place of where the story is told,
  4. Detail Image: closeup fine detail, and
  5. Action Image: showing the main character doing what they do.

Images for story-telling

By story-telling through a series of images you concentrate upon each image and what it is trying to say and how it contributes to the overall story. This encourages you to utilise techniques such as composition, colour and tone to ensure the subject is the focus of attention and set the mood for the story and so on.  By using a series of images to tell a story you a setting yourself a framework to work within, which as we discussed in a previous post is a useful technique to force yourself to be creative.

Having to think about what each image is trying to show and how it will contribute to the overall story and how the images blend together in terms of tone or colour etc. will help you to be creative. Using story-telling to get your creative juices flowing is another useful technique in your arsenal of tools.


Call to Action

Next time you are out and about with you camera, take a more documentary approach and have a go at story-telling:

  1. think about the story you wish to tell,
  2. plan the content for each of the image elements (portrait, action, etc.),
  3. check that your story have a begin, middle and an end,
  4. check that you can tell who, when, what, and where within each of the images, and
  5. check that your images come together to tell a story.

Of course it doesn’t have to stop there, you can try and squeeze the whole story into a single image and set yourself a real challenge.


Creativity : A Japanese Aesthetic jump-start

Jump-starting Creativity

In a previous post we examined the importance of knowing what you want to say. We stressed the need for a strategy combining both technical skills as well as message.  In this post we take this further.

Stuck for inspiration? Wondering how to jump-start your creativity? Something that I have found particularly useful is to set some constraints to work within. Yes, ironically, constraining yourself sets you free and gets your creativity flowing. By forcing yourself to work within constraints you make it necessary to think. You need to use your technical skills to overcome the self-imposed constraints.  With necessity being the mother of invention, you are literally forced into being creative. As you think yourself out of the constraints, you will be surprised how well you can jump-start your creativity.

One such set of constraints is the aesthetics of Japanese art.  My apologies up-front for any errors in my interpretation and understanding of Japanese art and aesthetics.

Japanese Arts

There are many traditional Japanese art forms. Geidō (芸道?), “The Way of the Arts”, refers to various disciplines of traditional Japanese arts. Each with it own set of rules designed to teach appreciation of the process of creation as much as the final product.

  • Geidō (The Way of the Arts):
    • Noh (theatre).
    • Kadō (flower arrangement).
    • Shodō (calligraphy).
    • Sadō (tea ceremony), and
    • Yakimono  (pottery).

Each of these art forms requires deliberate, precise execution in order to achieve the desired aesthetic.

To introduce discipline into their training, Japanese warriors followed the example of the arts of systematised practice through prescribed forms called kata, or detailed choreographed patterns of movements. Just practising, over and over with your equipment to get a fluidity of movement.  Getting to know your equipment and how it operates.  Dare I say, becoming one with your equipment.  All this helps free your mind so that you can focus on creativity.  The less time you spend thinking about how to set your f-stop and instead focus on what it is you are trying to say, the better.

Ultimately, the objective is to reach a state of “Mizu no kokoro” or “mind like water,” which refers to the reflective quality of water; or the instantaneous ability to react to stimuli.  Being so familiar with your equipment that you can instantly react to an opportunity will open the flood-gates of creativity.

Japanese Aesthetics

The second element of this strategy focusses on the message itself. What is it they you are trying to say through your photograph.  Once again, setting constraints can set you free.  Try focussing on Japanese Aesthetics as a framework and see if you can create images to express the following aesthetic concepts:

Japanese aesthetics

Using Japanese aesthetics as a framework to jump-start creativity

    • Miyabi (elegance, refinement, courtliness).
    • Shibui (simple, subtle, unobtrusive beauty).
    • Iki (simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, originality).
    • Jo-ha-kyu (modulation, timing).
    • Enso (perfect circle).
    • Hondadori (alluding to a previous form).
    • Kintsugi (golden repair).
    • Wabi-Sabi:
      • Datsuzoku (unbounded by convention, free).
      • Shizen (without pretense, natural).
      • Seijaku (tranquility).
      • Koko (basic, weathered).
      • Kanso (simplicity).
      • Fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity), and
    • Yugen (profound, mysterious sense of the beauty).

You might want to consider these aesthetics to jump start your creativity.

Take Home Message

Jump start creativity by setting rules. Try creating an image that embodies Hondadori, Koko, and Yugen.  What springs to mind is to emulate an Ansel Adams black and white print (Hondadori), of a weathered landscape (Koko) giving a sense of profound natural beauty (Yugen).

Give it a go and see what you can come up with.  Mix and match constraints, challenge yourself. Create your own constraints. Aim to see if you can create images that speak to people, allowing them to appreciate the intended aesthetic quality.

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.