If you haven’t ever been told “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then you probably haven’t spent much time around someone who takes a lot of pictures. Obviously the 20th century phrase is self explanatory–a picture can capture what words cannot. But now you might be thinking about whether or not we can quantify how many words are equal to one picture, and if you’re not we asked the question anyway. How many words is a picture actually worth?
You’re not allowed to call the picture “ugly” and say “one word.” Let’s also avoid the whole “if you interpret both pictures and text with your eyes then words can also be pictures on a page” thing.
Talking about the value in the unquantifiable might have been a lot more effective before we had access to the internet. Now that we’re posting everything to the internet all the time, we can start doing math.
Whenever you have something on your phone or computer, it is taking up some amount of storage. Stuff is stored in bytes, though a byte is quite small. That’s why you normally see stuff in terms of kilobytes (1,000 bytes), megabytes (1,000,000 bytes), or gigabytes (1,000,000,000 bytes). A single byte is made up of 8 bits, where 1 bit is the smallest unit of data you could have. If you’re wondering what the smallest piece of data stores, it stores a true or a false–you normally see this binary as a “1” or a “0”.
1 character is roughly 1 byte or 8 bits. In English, the average word is about 5 characters, so we’ll go with that as the length of 1 “word” for the purposes of this discussion. Putting this all together, 1 word is 5 bytes on average. Cool.
Turning Bits to Color
Next step, we have to figure out how many bits you need to get colors. Most displays are 24-bit, meaning each pixel requires 3 bytes. How did we get that? Well screens display colors as combinations of red, green, and blue. A 24-bit image reserves 8 bits for red, green, and blue respectively. 8 times 3 is 24, so you get 24-bit. That comes out to about 16.7 million different colors. Most newer smartphones have 30-bit color depth, which uses 5 bytes per pixel. Since you’re probably looking at pictures on a smartphone and the technology is moving towards it, we’ll assume our pictures are in 30-bit.
Big takeaway, 1 pixel is 5 bytes. Convenient, because we just laid out that 1 word is 5 bytes as well, so we can say 1 pixel is 1 word. An iPhone 13 has a 2532 x 1170 display, so if you have a picture of the exact resolution of an iPhone 13, then it’s 2,962,440 words.
Obviously that’s not really helpful, since images aren’t always the exact same resolution of your phone–which is why we’re not going to run the gambit of every other flagship phone on the market right now. If you’re looking at images on a computer, 1920 x 1080 and 1366 x 768 covers 40% of desktop computers, so we’ll go with that. Your monitor is probably still using a 24-bit display, which means 3 bytes per pixel. 1920 times 1080 is equal to 2,073,600. That’s 6,220,800 bytes. Divided by 5, which is 1,244,160 words. Run those same numbers on a 1366 x 768 display and you get 629,453 words.
A standard picture that you’d put in a frame is about 6 x 4 inches, so that’s where we’re going to get our number. For a picture like that, your resolution is going to be about 1800 x 1200 pixels. At 24-bit color (the color depth of most printers), that’s 1,296,000.
So you can tell people their little family photo is about 1.3 million words.
Oh, and because you were probably thinking about social media, an Instagram post is 1080 x 1080, which comes out to 699,840 words.
See which pictures are the best here.