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.


Story-telling through images, part of your Creative Strategy


Story-telling through images

Story-telling through images builds on our previous posts, the 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.
story-telling through images

Story-telling through images

When using images to tell a story, ensure each image contributes to the overall story. Use techniques such as composition, colour and tone to focus attention and set the mood for the story.  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 your 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. make sure that your story has a begin, middle and an end,
  4. check that you can tell who, when, what, and where within each of the images, and
  5. ensure 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 we’ve found 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 their own 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.