Deepening the Mystery

(© Ian Plant) Many photographers live by the maxim “always shoot with the sun at your back.” Not me. I’d rather risk it all at the edge of light than play it safe. There’s nothing I love more than a directionally lit subject which barely emerges from a surrounding inky darkness. To me, there’s something primal and mysterious about the stark interplay of light and shadow, and its ability to reduce subjects to nothing more than basic artistic forms.

I’ve talked a fair bit about capturing mood and emotion in previous posts. “Mystery,” perhaps, is just another way of expressing these related concepts. Mystery results when you successfully distill a subject to the abstract, forcing the viewer to engage their curiosity in order to make full sense of what they are seeing. Just as a good composition visually entices the viewer, an air of mystery can encourage the viewer to linger and study an image.

For the photo above, I was attracted to the strong sunset backlighting filtered through the trees. The subject—a bison scraping its winter coat off on a tree—kicked up dust around it, which when backlit created a halo around the animal’s head. I intentionally underexposed the image in order to ensure that none of the highlights were clipped, and to render most of the image in deep shadow. The composition is focused on the subtle hint of light and the basic shape formed by the bison in silhouette; it is more about the mystery than anything else.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from “safe” light every now and then. Instead, look for light’s edges, and strive to find ways to deepen the mystery. Although your technical and artistic challenges will increase, the reward is often well worth the risk.

P.S. Visit my Dreamscapes photoblog for more tips and techniques from me and some of my colleagues. Join my monthly email mailing list for photo tips and exclusive offers delivered straight to your inbox!