How To Add A Sense Of Mystery To Your Photos

How To Create A Sense Of Mystery In Your Photos


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After writing about low light photography, I wanted to look at other ways you can add a sense of mystery to your photos. Low light is often mysterious and evocative. But how can we use other techniques to make photos that are mysterious? That’s a question I’ve been thinking about lately.

Drama and mystery go together. Mystery is related to drama. Places, people or things seem mysterious because of the stories we tell ourselves about them. We also take visual clues from television shows and movies. The creators use techniques like color grading, shooting in low light and using dark, shadow-filled backgrounds to add mystery. These are all ideas we can use with still photography.

Creating a sense of mystery in photos of places

It doesn’t matter whether you photograph places on your travels, or close to home. The techniques used to add a sense of mystery to your images are the same. But it’s easier to make mysterious photos when you’re traveling. That’s because the places you travel to are mysterious to you, compared to places which you know well.

What makes a place mysterious? One of the keys is light. For example, when I was in northern Spain we had lots of cloudy evenings. The light was softer than in southern Spain, with still conditions. Put this together with empty, unexplored beaches, cliff-tops, mountains and forests. You have all the ingredients to make mysterious photos.

Now imagine the same scene under the harsh light of the midday sun. It’s completely different. The mystery has gone. So that gives us the first principle when it comes to capturing that elusive sense of mystery. Make sure you’re on location with your camera when the light is beautiful, evocative and mysterious. From there the rest falls in place.

I made the photo below late one cloudy evening. I found a ruin on a deserted part of the coast, without anybody else around. Ruins are mysterious. The combination of cloudy weather, low light and a glimpse of the sun through the clouds added a sense of mystery.

Mysterious landscape photo

The cloudy weather helped me make more moody photos of northern Spain. In the photo below, I used a neutral density filter and a long exposure (180 seconds) to blur the water and the clouds. It also blurred the figures on the far jetty. The blur adds a sense of mystery because we can’t see the details, only silhouettes and blurred shapes. Our imaginations have to fill in the details.

Mysterious landscape photo

Creating a sense of mystery in towns and cities

The same idea applies in urban environments. I visited street markets in Xi-an, China, at dusk. Imagine one of the busiest street markets you’ve ever seen. The sky going dark blue as the light fades, lots of lamps and fluorescent light, with dark shadows in between.

This is one of the photos I made.

Mysterious China

But it isn’t just the low light that makes the photo mysterious. It’s the bokeh (aperture f1.2), the dark shadows in the background, and the steam coming from the pan.

The shallow depth of field blurs the background. This makes it mysterious, because we can’t see what’s there (the shadows emphasize this). But’s it’s sharp enough to hint at it. We can see the out of focus dishes, what looks like people sitting at a table. Our imaginations fill in the gaps.

Another way to create a sense of mystery is through anonymity. Take the photo below as an example.

Mysterious China

I made it in the same night market. The rolling pin was the first thing that caught my attention. Then I saw the spider tattoo. That made me wonder – why did the man have the tattoo? Did it mean anything? So moved in close and captured the detail. What’s going on here? We don’t know the full story, and we can’t see the man’s face, so there’s space for the imagination to work.

Creating a sense of mystery in portraits

You can take the same ideas and apply them to portraits. To create a mysterious portrait think about the location and the quality of the light. Use wide apertures and shadowy, blurred backgrounds.

I made the portrait below in a forest. I looked for a spot in a clearing with an interesting tree in the background. Light poured through the gap in the forest canopy. The portrait has low light, lots of shadows and a ton of mood. Few things are as mysterious as shadows in a forest. Again, it gives the viewer’s imagination space to work.

Mysterious portrait

Add a sense of mystery with color grading

You can see similar ideas at work in the portrait of a blacksmith below. There are lots of shadows, moody lighting and a great location. But I also color graded the photo in Lightroom Classic, adding blue to the shadows and orange to the highlights.

Mysterious portrait

Color grading is a technique used in television and the movies to add mood and create atmosphere. The Harry Potter movies are a great example of this, and the other principles listed here. The most intense, mysterious scenes use low light and shadow to set the mood. It’s enhanced by color grading that becomes darker and bluer as the series progresses.

Summing up

When it comes to adding a sense of mystery to your own photos, remember these three principles – evocative light, dark shadows and blurred backgrounds. That keeps it simple and you can’t go wrong if you pay attention these three factors. You should also think about your location. Is it naturally mysterious, especially in certain weather conditions? To finish off, you can use post-processing techniques like color grading and masking to enhance the mood.


250 Creative Assignment Cards

Creative Assignment Cards

We all love mysterious, moody photos, and our Creative Assignment Cards contain assignments that encourage you to explore all aspects of creating mood in your photos, from using low light to through to the light and weather.

Designed for your phone, you get 250 assignment briefs and inspirational photos, all at your fingertips in an easy to nagivate format so you never get stuck for ideas again.


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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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