How to Create Mystery in Your Photos

September 22, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |


Something half-glimpsed in the shadows can often stay in our minds longer than an image fixed in our minds in the cold, clear light of day - developing in the imagination to achieve a significance it may not actually deserve. Quite simply we want to know more about the object half-seen. Pitch-black shadows create indifference but a suggestion of detail is intriguing. As an added bonus, dark tones can signify different moods, such as sombreness or melancholy, depending on the context.

It is possible in black and white photography to achieve mystery in high-key images, though I have yet to see a colour image of this sort that convinces me. But white can signify purity or simplicity and lend an ethereal quality. Think of a mountain peak partially veiled in cloud: a mysterious, evocative image. Think of the same peak in clear conditions: an illustration.


An image containing incongruity is quite simply one that prompts us to ask a question such as, ‘What are those men doing with a canoe on a glacier?’ It is no accident that my example doesn’t specifically relate to expressive landscape photography. In what we might call ’pure’ landscape such incongruities often point at manipulation (either during or after the making of the image) since true incongruities in the landscape are either very rare or their significance arcane. Erratic boulders are examples of such an incongruity but they have no strong connotative force except, one presumes, amongst geologists. But incongruities are reasonably common in other genres, particularly social documentary or wildlife photography, where facial expression or gesture or any of a thousand other signifiers can seem ’out of place’.

How to Create Mystery in Your Photos

Mystery is a rich seam of opportunity for the photographer. How you mine it will depend upon your individual approach to photography. I am not advocating mystification or deliberate obfuscation in order to suggest some spurious ‘deeper’ meaning. I have proposed the inclusion of the different mysteries in order to add depth, texture and nuance to photographic images, to go beyond the mere clinical recording of a scene which the photographic process seems to invite. Often these visual mysteries are present in a finished image but by accident rather than by design. All I want to do is bring them to your attention so that their inclusion might become deliberate.

Throughout this article I have talked of using mystery as a tool to hook the viewer, as a subtle compositional device, but we shouldn’t forget that mysteries can be deep, unanswered and perhaps truly inexplicable questions. The perception of mysteries and the struggle for revelation of an accompanying truth is one of the principal concerns of artistic endeavour. Reality is no less mysterious than the realm of the imagination, so this is an undertaking in which photographers should feel as able to take part as any other visual artist.

Mysteries lie all around us, even in the most familiar things, waiting only to be perceived.
Wynn Bullock


David Ward is one of Britain's most accomplished large format photographers. He has a very varied knowledge of photography, acquired while working for previous advertising, design and publishing clients. Over the years David has photographed everything from dogs to food to racing cars but landscape photography has always remained his passion.

In recent years he has concentrated his efforts on leading photography workshops for photo tour company Light & Land, taking groups to places as diverse as Utah and Norway. His emphasis in teaching is on the photographer's vision, rather than on what equipment is being used, and he passes on his knowledge in a uniquely humorous and accessible manner. Light & Land runs a broad range of photographic workshops for all levels of photographers – both in the UK and worldwide – full details can be found at

David has recently hosted Landscape Beyond - a hugely successful exhibition of his work at Londons OXO Tower gallery which was also the launch pad for Davids most recent book of the same title.

All images in this article © David Ward

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