Photos are tools to tell stories. How you choose to capture what you see in front of you depends on many things. One aspect is what balance you want to strike between clarity and mystery. Do you want to create immediate recognition, or do you want to play with leaving out key parts to make people engage with your scene a little more. To become intrigued. These choices are fully up to us as photographers which is why it never bores to capture stuff. Our choices determine the way we can work with the out-of-focus ability of the gear we use, how wide or close we want to go, what choices we make to include or leave out elements of the scene before us. For certain scenes where you want to play with this tension between clarity and mystery, you would need at least two shots to setup and allow both aspects to really work. For others, you can combine it into one shot.
Let me show you some examples of what I mean by sharing a few scenes where I played with clarity and mystery in two shots that go together. In the this example, I classify the first photo below as 'mysterious' because it does not yet reveal everything and all in the shot. There are some cues in the marble, for some people this will be a tell this is set somewhere in southern Europe. The curves of the wall might be another giveaway. The photo works because of the contrast between the red shirt of the father as well as the scale and proportions of the scene.
I usually play with these more mysterious photos to accompany others that have a lot of clarity in them, like the one below. This is the church the father and child are sitting in front of and in this photo all is revealed. It is a very functional photo and its goal is to show the full scene. I have still played with framing here but using the street as a way to frame the cathedral but the overall goal of this photo still is clarity.
Both photos work well on different levels, and together they bring across a good overview of the scene as well as some of the more intangible aspects of it that give it its meaning. In this case I worked with different focal lengths. The more mysterious first photo was shot at 75mm, tightening what is in the frame so I could leave out certain elements. The second photo that shows the full cathedral was shot at 28mm, ideal for creating clarity.
The next set comes from Sevilla, Spain. The first photo is hard to make sense of, what exactly are we looking at here? And that makes it interesting. The color contrast and the flow of lines help here too.
Contrasting the mystery in the first shot, the second brings immediate clarity. You can see this is a roof structure which provides shade and also houses a walkway with great views over the city. Contrary to the first example of the cathedral above, these were both shot with the same (28mm) focal length. I just framed it very differently to isolate the structure from all surroundings which brings in the mystery in the shot. Also here, together they work well to bring the wonder of this pretty amazing structure across while also giving you information of how it sits in its surroundings.
The next example takes us to Dubai, its old town to be precise. In this case, I will start with the clarity shot. Just an alley that shows the characteristic colors of the stone and the wooded sticks that extend out of the facades. Many birds rested on these sticks. This photo is nothing special but it does its job to place you in the scene.
To accompany this photo with a bit more mystery, I took the shot below. Same focal length (75mm), but this time I captured the wooden sticks and a bird from behind a see-through wall. This time, the shapes are still recognizable but it brings the viewer in as it has to decipher what is shown.
The patterns give away we are in a place of Arabic history, and the sticks are visible too. The colors come through and help position you as your eyes scan the photo. On its own it would be a bit much mystery, but together with the clear shot before, it works as a duo.
The last double-take example comes from Arizona in the US, in a place where it is almost impossible not to shoot mystery shots. Again, let's start with the clarity photo. Normally, the mystery shot is harder to do. You have scan the scene and see what angles you can take to bring some sizzle to your photo. But in this narrow canyon in Arizona, getting the clarity show was the hardest. I wanted to bring some clarity on the proportionality of the scene so I took this photo of my wife entering the very narrow canyon (almost hidden in the middle of the frame). You see the size of the walls, and you also get a sense of the erosion patterns on the stone, so it's a good clarity setting shot.
Inside, I was able to take the mystery shot. The canyon was so narrow that it was easy to find abstract lines and colors because of the way the light came in the canyon. The combination with the photo above works to both place you in the scene and get a less defined, more intangible feeling of what it was like to be there.
Let's shift gears a bit and let me show you a couple of photos that have mystery in them, but that work well as a single photo. This is harder to do as you have to show enough clarity to make sense of the scene. The first example below is from a former airstrip in the heart of Berlin, Tempelhof. The airfield is no longer in use and it is now enjoyed by the people of Berlin to jog, barbecue and hang out. We were there on a scorching day and the place was absolutely packed. Before I show you the one shot I ended up with, let me show you just how crowded it was as that led to my decision to frame it differently. The next photo was shot from eye level and I did not like it as it was just a mess of elements in the scene and the wideness of Tempelhof airfield got lost in all that detail.
I walked away from the biggest crowds and decided to bring the camera almost to ground level. This eliminated pretty much all crowds in the frame and brought in the vastness of the place that was so impressive. I framed the shot to include the end of the marking on the runway which added a piece of mystery next to the tower in the background. All I needed was an element to capture the leisure aspect of the scene and I found it in the form of a runner that was passing by. I kept the same focal length again, but bringing the camera to ground level changed the scene.
When playing with mystery and clarity, the key question is whether your mystery shot carries enough clarity in it. If not, you probably need a second accompanying photo. But sometimes, a mystery shot is enough on its own. Here is a street in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens, Greece. This is scene as I saw it. The lamp shades looked funky and nice and so I took a shot of the street.
It's a rather bland shot, and the lamp shades don't really pop very well. So I reframed and ended up with a photo that had enough clarity in it to tell the viewer this was in a street but the lamp shades are working much better as the main event.
The same point is underlined by the next photo of a row of typical Amsterdam warehouses. I used the building in front of it to hide most of the warehouse in the shot. I then framed the shot so I got an out of focus part of the chain of the bridge, as well as one of its pillars, to indicate we are on a canal but without showing the actual water. For me, this makes it a more exciting photo with still enough clarity in it to place you in a scene.
The chain of the bridge is a clear visual design cue. Playing with objects that immediately place the viewer in a scene without showing the whole view is a trick you can use to create mystery photos. The scene below is a shot of an effect pedal at a concert and together with the blurred people in the background, you know immediately this is a live concert. Alternative to a full frontal shot of the band's leading man, this is a more mysterious way to capture the scene.
Lastly, a key trick you can use to bring some mystery to your photos is to play with the angle as well as the depth of field. The last photo is a shot of my acoustic bass guitar but by taking it from an unusual angle with very shallow depth of field, it makes the shot more interesting.
This is part of a series on photographic principles I've learned over the years. From one amateur to another. Check out the blog for the full series (work in progress).