The Art of Mystery

by Ann de Bruyn

As a nature photographer, my primary goal is to help those who view my work to appreciate the value of pure, unspoiled wilderness. Creating captivating images that seize and sustain the viewer’s attention is key. The longer you can get someone to look at a photograph, the greater the odds that they will connect with its subject matter. In this fast-paced world where people can consume hundreds of images and videos in a matter of minutes, why should they stop scrolling for your image? While the answer is multi-faceted, practicing what I call the “art of mystery” through abstract nature photography can be very effective for creating more engaging images.

Example of abstract nature photography

This scene leaves out familiar objects, so when many people look at it, they believe it’s an aerial shot taken from high up above the landscape. These puddles reflecting light can appear to be larger branches of rivers. Regardless of how it’s interpreted, it is impossible to determine its actual size.

Of course, you could try to grab people’s attention another way. Turning up the volume by cranking saturation, radically changing the colors and shapes of objects or creating outlandish composites can result in images that scream, “Look at me!” But after a while, you’ll find the only place to go with the volume is back down. If everyone is shouting at once, no one can be heard. How much better to capture and hold a viewer’s gaze through subtle whispers and faint clues, creating a mystery for them to unravel.

Techniques For Abstract Nature Photography

Depart From The Literal

One of the ways I create mystery to lure people in is by making photographs of less literal scenes, where the subject’s identity is not easily recognizable at first glance. A composition that requires a closer look will raise questions, engage with the viewer’s imagination and intrigue their curiosity. If I can get someone to ask, “What am I looking at?” I know that I have their full attention.

When I say that in a mysterious, abstract photograph of nature, the identity of the subject isn’t immediately obvious, I’m not implying that it doesn’t have a clear subject. What I mean is that instead of the subject just being a literal object (e.g., a tree, rock, waterfall or mountain), it is more a visual element or idea, such as a design, pattern, color, shape, form or texture.

Whatever the subject is, literal or figurative, it should always be well defined, and the viewer’s eye should be led to it through the visual flow of the scene. No matter how abstract a scene is, if it does not have a subject, then it is not a successful photograph. An image without a subject is ultimately about nothing and has no story to tell.

Abstract image of icicles

Without showing where this patch of icicles begins or ends, the image makes it appear they continue for infinity. It is also impossible to know their scale since there is nothing familiar to compare them to.

Tension Intention

To create thought-provoking abstract imagery, there needs to be some tension, which comes from withholding information. If you immediately give everything away, with nothing left to discover, people will feel no urge to continue looking. However, if you only provide subtle clues, we can’t help but try and solve the riddle. By nature, human beings love to figure things out. Our minds are built for it, and we can’t stand not knowing the end of a story, particularly a story we care about. I love to read books on psychology, so I can better understand the minds of my audience, how they function and what makes them tick. As artists, we can play on these human instincts and tendencies to create work that is both visually pleasing and engaging.

To my way of thinking, a great image is one that falls between two extremes: being too boringly obvious to care about or too confusingly vague to understand. It should create tension but also offer some relief. This pulls viewers in and keeps them engaged as you continue to lay breadcrumbs that lead to your desired destination. Let them wander but not get lost. It’s easy to create a disorienting and confusing image by randomly pressing the shutter while pointing in no specific direction, but the result is nonsense because the placement of elements has no real intention. Creating an abstract image with tension and mystery and that raises questions—while having a decipherable meaning—requires deliberation.

I always laugh when photographers obsess over gear and credit the aesthetic quality of an image to the equipment with which it was made. This is as absurd as saying that what makes a novel good is the computer it was typed on. Similarly, the place, subject, lighting or weather conditions alone don’t make a great photograph. These are just raw elements that have no extra meaning on their own. Successful images come down to the way in which the photographer intentionally organizes these elements, with an artist’s eye for what to leave within the frame and what to leave out. This mindful process is how the artist gives the objects of a scene additional meaning.

Abstract image of aspen tree trunks

By creating compression and hiding where the trees begin and end, I make them appear to be stacked tightly together, and it is difficult to tell which ones are in front of or behind one another. The scene becomes more about a pattern of lines than literal trees and gives the feeling that the forest was much more crowded than it was.

Less Is More

Even more important than what you include, I would argue, is what you choose to exclude. You might exclude something from your composition for several good reasons: It detracts from the scene, it goes against the theme, it’s overpowering, it’s uninteresting, it’s not visually pleasing, it throws off the balance or it’s redundant. But if you hope to create a sense of mystery in your image and build tension for the viewer, you need to go even further.

One of the easiest ways to hide important information about a subject and create mystery is by practicing exclusion. When you include everything, it may result in a pretty scene, but you give it all away; very few questions remain. On the other hand, when you intentionally exclude context such as the light source or objects that can give away the scale, setting, brightness or identity of your subject, you create a stage for the viewer’s imagination to run wild. Instead of telling the viewer what it is a photograph of, you leave that open to their interpretation.

Hiding The Light Source

When I scroll through social media, I can’t help but notice that most images include the sky. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. In many of my images, I also show the sky, but sometimes doing so creates an artistic limitation that I think is rarely considered. When you include the sky in your scene, not only does it inevitably make it feel more literal, but it also restricts how you can develop the image in post-processing. The sky will almost always be the brightest part of your scene, especially when there is no direct light on the landscape. This is because the source of all natural light comes from the sky.

By showing the light source, you give a reference as to how the light should be—has to be—in the rest of the landscape, since the light hitting anywhere else can’t be brighter than where it’s originating from. This inhibits your ability to raise the luminosity of your subject as much as you need to really help it stand out. If you’re not careful, at a certain point, your subject will cease to look realistic and instead create distraction for the viewer. They will fixate on thoughts like, “Why is this so unnaturally bright?” instead of the scene itself.

Image illustrating hiding the light source in an abstract landscape photograph

I photographed this scene almost an hour after sunset. There was only a faint, ambient light softly illuminating the landscape, and the lack of direct light washed out its color, making it appear whiter. Since I excluded the light source, I was able to overexpose it and raise the luminosity extensively in post-processing to bring out the soft highlights and shadows and give it this serene, ethereal, pure feeling.

If you exclude your light source, you don’t give the viewer any reference as to how the light actually was in the scene. This allows you to raise the luminosity as much as you want without leaving any hint as to how much you have departed from reality. Thus, hiding the light source can create a pleasant confusion for the viewer and complement the abstractness of a scene by making objects more illuminated than they would be in reality. An example of this is shooting scenes in the soft twilight and raising their brightness when they are actually very dark. This can contribute to an ethereal, dreamlike and mysterious look in a scene.

Omitting Context

When we show what surrounds our subject (location, season, time of day, etc.), we provide context. Sometimes this benefits an image by adding to the mood or story. A photograph that clearly represents the fall season by including colorful leaves can make it feel more peaceful and inviting. A scene that shows surrounding snow and bare trees can make it feel quiet and cold. But sometimes, providing context for certain subjects by showing their surroundings makes them feel too ordinary, e.g., a frozen puddle. This can cause the viewer to fixate on the literal object while overlooking artistic elements like pattern, shape and form. It causes you to just see a frozen puddle along the trail rather than an intricate display of repeating lines created by its cracks and ripples.

When trying to create images that portray wildness and pristine nature, giving context can also be detrimental to a photograph. Say you find a nice stand of trees alongside the highway. If you include the highway, passing cars and guardrail in the foreground, your image will take on an entirely different feeling than if you were to exclude those man-made objects altogether.

Abstract image of snowy aspen trees

I photographed this beautiful stand of snowy aspen trees right off the side of the road. I was standing behind a guard rail, shooting from a distance, but you wouldn’t know it from the way that I isolated the trees without revealing their location.

There is no way for the viewer to see what you don’t show. Take advantage of this and only show what you want them to see. You can create a completely new scene and story this way and give the feeling of remote wilderness even while shooting in your own suburban backyard. Without context, people are forced to ask questions, further adding to the mystery of the scene.

Removing Scale

Scale is another very powerful visual element that should be created intentionally. Sometimes revealing the scale of something can be very visually striking, displaying its insignificance compared to a vast landscape, for example, or showing how it dominates the landscape by dwarfing everything else around it.

However, the effect that can be created by entirely eliminating the scale of your subject is also something that should be equally considered while creating compositions. By removing scale, a small formation of ice can appear enormous, or a trickling cascade can seem like a waterfall. And removing scale doesn’t just apply to making small objects appear larger. It can also be applied to grand landscapes, especially aerial scenes, making them look miniature.

Example of an abstract photo of nature that appears to be something it isn't

While many people view this image as a small, intimate scene—resembling an agate—it was actually a very large scene, photographed from the air around 1,000 feet up. By excluding the horizon and any recognizable objects, I made it nearly impossible to determine the actual scale.

Removing the scale of the scene by hiding all references is among the best ways to create an abstract image full of mystery, one that plays with the viewer’s imagination. It will cause them to sit and wonder, “How big is this scene?” It is also a great way to avoid betraying your presence as a photographer. When people look at my images, I don’t want them to think of them as photographs in the sense of knowing where I stood, what lens I used or how far I zoomed in. An awareness of the photographer creates a sense of separation between the scene and the viewer. Instead, I want them to be fully immersed in the scene itself, as if they were looking through a window into a new world.

The best movies are the ones where, for a moment, you forget that you are watching a movie altogether, and your body and emotions react as if you were living the experience yourself. If you become too aware that you are just watching a movie, you are immediately pulled out of the story, and it ceases to affect you.

Optical Illusion

What I enjoy most about photographing abstract scenes is the ability to depart from reality and create entirely new worlds that don’t exist in actuality. Purposely not showing where things begin and end is a simple way to compose surreal-looking images, even from ordinary scenery. By not revealing the edges of your subject, you can create the illusion that patterns, layers and designs continue on forever, making them feel much grander than they really are. A carpet of leaves that feels endless, like it could cover the entire world, is much more powerful than just a small patch of leaves along the side of the road.

Abstract image of fall leaves floating in water

Since you can’t see where this puddle of floating maple leaves begins or ends, as it overlaps the edges of the frame, it appears to go on forever. One can now only guess its true size since I have omitted that information.

You can also build a disorienting effect that raises questions by scooting further back and zooming in to create compression along with tighter framing. This brings everything in the scene to the same visual plane while at the same time hiding where objects begin or end. It disorients viewers, as it’s hard to tell whether objects are in the foreground, middle ground or background, and as a result, makes them try to figure it out. It can also create the illusion that there is no space between them. An example of this would be shooting a group of trees and excluding the bases of their trunks and the tops of their crowns.

Variety In A Portfolio

While I’m obviously a huge fan of mysterious abstract scenes, I think that somewhat literal scenes also have a place in every nature photographer’s portfolio. It is important to have variety in a gallery or group of images, with some creating tension and others providing relief. Too much of the same thing over and over again causes viewers to become visually fatigued and lose interest. For nature photographers, it is great to show a wide range of subjects that express the incredible diversity of our planet.

It should be noted that none of the above techniques apply exclusively to abstract scenes. To a lesser extent, they can be used in every image you make in order to create mystery and raise questions. The degree to which you practice them should always come down to what it is you want to show and the story you want to tell. Let the lighting, subject and mood of the scene dictate the direction you take.

Gaining a deep understanding of the principles and techniques I have shared with you will help guide you in creating your compositions. You will also find yourself less limited by your surroundings and weather conditions and more capable of arranging compelling photographs, no matter where you go or the time of day. Whatever kind of photographer you consider yourself to be, I believe that with a decent technical understanding and enough creativity, you can make even ordinary objects look extraordinary. The only limit is your imagination.

As a photographer working to inspire an attitude of conservation in a world that values natural places less and less each day, I intentionally create images to show others that wilderness has much more to offer us in its unspoiled state than anything we could possibly extract from it materially. I feel it is important that I make photographs that are unique, revealing a side of nature that people have never seen before—to show the world as it looks through my eyes. When I share an image, my one hope is that people will feel the grandeur of nature, appreciate its incomparable beauty and be carried away by its mystery.

See more of Eric Bennett’s work at bennettfilm.com.