Creating a Sense of Mystery


     I have been amazed and awestruck by nature ever since my first experiences as a child; watching from the shore as crashing waves created thunderous vibrations and sounds, lying on the grass looking up at clouds and finding shapes that resembled mythical creatures like dinosaurs and dragons, climbing the pepper tree in my backyard and counting all of the ants that would spill out upon removing pieces of bark, or getting stung by bees as I closely observed them buzzing around the ice plant that surrounded my childhood home in southern California. The mystery of nature is what has always kept me intrigued, and caused my continually growing fascination with it. Something about "...the boundless and the fathomless...” (John C. Van Dyke - The Desert) essence of nature has always enthralled our species and drawn us towards her.

     Now, as a nature photographer, I am always trying to create or rather preserve a sense of that mystery within my images. When I think of my favorite photographs that were taken by others or myself–the ones that keep me coming back for another look–they are the kind that make me feel a sense of curiosity and wonder, leaving me wanting to know more about them.

"By creating photographs where the content or orientation is not immediately obvious, a surreal, mystical feeling may come through. I would rather make an image that asks a question than answers one; that intrigues and arouses curiosity in the viewer. I appreciate a photograph that grows on me and endures more than one that has initial impact, explains itself immediately but then quickly fades from memory."

- William Neill

     Just like in any good movie or story, they don’t outright show you at the beginning everything that will happen, the overall message, and how it will end. This would eliminate every reason for following the story all the way through, because we would no longer need to. Curiosity dies the moment we know what to expect. The imagination would have no space to draw conclusions and predict where the story will lead or how it will turn out, and with all the questions answered, nothing else would make it interesting. In a mystery movie, what keeps us glued to the screen is the desire we have to know who dunnit? Which they purposely save until the very end, because afterwards, there would be no reason to keep following; upon the reveal, the tension is relieved and the curiosity satisfied.

"Cosmic Space"

     When a photograph is very obvious, ordinary, and instantly reveals everything we might wish to know, it doesn’t create any interest in order to sustain our attention. One of the best ways to draw and sustain attention is by leaving many questions unanswered. This causes us to wonder and leaves space for the imagination to draw its own interpretation of the scene or of certain elements within it.

     Mystery creates a fuller experience and causes for deeper examination which will keep people looking until they have answered all of their questions or have accepted defeat. Psychology studies have shown that “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) If a task is too easy for us, we become bored, if it is too hard, we give up. A perfect image is right in between the two ends of the spectrum where it is not so ordinary that it becomes boring and not so complex that it becomes too difficult to connect with. The artist must give just enough clues–perhaps by including easily distinguishable objects–so that the viewer can instantly begin to connect with the image upon viewing it, but further effort and examination are required to fully understand it.

     Not every image in a portfolio will be equally mysterious, nor should they be. Some falling into the abstract category and others being more literal representations. A portfolio of images will be most enjoyable for us to look at if the difficulty of understanding fluctuates from one scene to another, some being easier or quicker to interpret while others leave us scratching our heads for several minutes or even indefinitely. The more variety you have in your portfolio the more you can get away with extremes in either direction of the scale. You need to give viewers a break every now and then in order to not lose their attention completely by becoming visually fatigued. You also need to throw them a challenge now and then in order to sustain their attention and prevent them from becoming bored.

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art...”

- Albert Einstein


I like to think that when someone looks at this image they wonder things like: Where do the icicles end, or do they continue on forever?

How big are they? Where could this have been taken? Where was the photographer standing to get this perspective?

     One way to leave questions unanswered within a scene is by excluding much of the surrounding area, not showing the edges of objects or where they begin and end. This removes context for the subject which causes us to wonder about things like where it is located, the scale of objects, how long the scene/pattern/design continues on for, what the surrounding area is like, or even what the subject actually is.

     Ordinary objects can become mysterious when we show them in a different way, making them resemble other objects or elements of nature or become something entirely new altogether. This can be done by getting unique perspectives that we don’t usually get to see them from, or by magnifying them beyond what the eye is normally capable of seeing. When an object ceases to resemble what it is literally, the imagination begins to try and figure out what it is. This can lead people to see all sorts of different things, drawing their own personal interpretations of the scene.

"Mystery is the magnet of inquiry"

- Edward Counsel

"Molten Mud"

FAQ: What is this a picture of? How large is this scene? Was it taken from the air, high up above, or is it a smaller scene? What do the colors come from? How far does this pattern of lines continue on for? 


FAQ: I can see that it's a photo of two leaves, but what is that behind it? What causes that array of vibrant colors? How long does it continue on for? Where would this have been taken?

FAQ: The curves and shape of this makes it looks like a living, organic object, such as the tentacles of a squid or seaweed, but I can tell that it's not. So what is it actually made of? What is it that I am looking at? Where would you even find something like this? How large or small is it?


FAQ: What is this a photograph of, is it flowing water? Is the subject moving?

     Another way to create a sense of mystery is by photographing the scene in unusual lighting. Apart from being visually pleasing, lighting can also create more interest when it is less obvious as to what kind of lighting it is and where it is coming from. This can also create interesting optical illusions in terms of the depth of the scene and which objects are in front or behind one another, creating compression and causing the viewer to look more closely as they try to make sense of it all.

"Familiar Faces"

FAQ: This appears to be a photo of tree trunks, but which ones are in the front and which ones are in the back? What is creating that soft, warm glowing light that appears to be coming from below? Is the entire forest this dense? How far do these layers and layers of trees continue on for?

"Art Bars"

FAQ: How large is this scene? How compact are the layers of sandstone here? Could you walk between them? What are the different warm and cool colors coming from? It appears to be glowing from within but what would cause that? How long does it continue on for? What else could be down at the end? How were these different geometrical shapes created?

     Lighting along with weather conditions can also add even more levels of mystery to a scene, when it is less traditional and more unique from what we are used to seeing. Dramatic light and shadows in a photo are more intriguing and further engage the senses, causing us to ask more questions and pay more attention while looking at it. When looking at ordinary lighting that is too ‘on the nose,’ the mind will quickly create a judgement about it and move on. 

"Towers Of Silence"

Dappled lighting–when patches of light illuminate the landscape through gaps in a cloudy sky–isn't the traditional lighting we usually see places portrayed in. It can also amplify the mood of a stormy day and make the scene more mysterious as certain sections are lit up and others are hidden in strange shadows.


In this image, which also features uncommon dappled lighting, the mysterious mood is accentuated by the unusual light and shadows. The subject is intensely illuminated in a spotlight while the majority of the scene around it is in darkness, almost like an actor on stage.


The jagged, rugged profile of these imposing peaks is accentuated by atmospheric, stormy clouds swirling around it. The lighting is also untraditional as it is hitting part of the peaks while the rest of the scene is in darkness, amplifying the mystery of such impressive mountains. This also leads into another subject: creating mood, but mood and mystery are not entirely the same. 


Beaches and coastlines are usually associated with sunny, pleasant weather. The mystery of this dramatic, fantasy-like coastline with incredible rock features was further amplified by the stormy and intense lighting. The violent waves in the foreground also make it seem a bit larger than life and add to the foreboding, dramatic scenery. Again, this ties in with creating mood in a scene.

     As with everything in life, it all comes down to finding the perfect balance, both in each individual image and throughout your entire portfolio. Going too far in either direction will have the same effect, people will not enjoy viewing your images. While impressing others probably isn’t the top priority or main motivation for most of us, I think it is still important to impress ourselves with our work and create scenes that we personally enjoy looking at. I also feel that, as nature photographers, the more fully we can convey the places we photograph, the more people will feel connected to those subjects. The more profound the experience we can provide for others the better, as people will feel a stronger desire to preserve and protect the little wilderness that we still have left.

     Exercise: Below are some more examples of images that convey a sense of mystery in some way. Look through them and see what kind of questions arise for you, and think about what it is about the scene that causes you to have them.

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