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How to Evoke a Sense of Mystery Ins and Outs of Impressionist Photography

The Art of the Mysterious
Piha Beach

How do we capture mood in our images? How do we go about conveying feelings and emotions in our pictures? What special skills do we need, as photographers, to translate our vision into interesting photographs?

A vital part of seeing things as an artist involves imagining how a person will view your photographs. How will they "read" them? You want the viewer to focus on the subject of the photograph, while also setting a certain mood and feeling that will add greatly to the dimension of that subject. After all, it's your interpretation of a subject that makes you an artist. We use our personal feelings or impressions about a subject, and then we try to find a way to have our photographs reflect those feelings.

As a photographer you work with both light and tools (like cameras, lenses and filters), and through understanding those tools as well as an appreciation of the basic qualities of light, you present yourself with an enormous range of opportunities for artistic expression and personal interpretation.

"I arrange lines and colors so as to obtain symphonies, harmonies that do not represent a thing that is real, in the vulgar sense of the word, and do not directly express any idea, but are supposed to make you think the way music is supposed to make you think, unaided by ideas or images, simply through the mysterious affinities that exist between our brains and such arrangements of colors and lines."-- Paul Gauguin

Choosing to interpret rather than just record a subject is a process. You may start simply by looking at other photographers' work. But look at them from the point of view of a "light painting". Note where the light is coming from and how it affects the image's mood. Next, to gain confidence, photograph simple things. Study your subject in different kinds of light. See how the quality of the light, its strength and colour, affect the image's mood.

When you come to a basic understanding of light you may start to experiment with different lenses and filters, as well with different camera settings such as extreme camera angles, very long or short focal lengths, or slow vs. fast shutter speeds. Remember, there is no shortcut to experience. Playing around with light and your tools is time well spent, and can be both relaxing and fun. The knowledge gained by doing these exercises will give you the chance to develop your creative potential.

The next step in the creation of your image is to set a particular mood. Mood can be conveyed photographically in a number of different ways; first by the choice of the subject matter, and then by the manipulation of light and shade. For instance, what kind of light would you choose to elicit the emotions of mystery, darkness or wonder from viewers? Is there any particular colour that you can link with that mood? What combination of photographic tools and techniques would you employ?

A good starting point is to come up with a list of words that you associate with a mysterious mood; curious, hidden, dark, obscure, unknown, veiled, strange, secret, weird, etc. By doing so, you expand the possibilities with which to tackle this creative problem. Using low light will be a first choice to take advantage of the fact that darkness creates a sense of mystery. But you don't have to limit yourself just to low light. Photographing a subject in silhouette is another option. The reduction in visual information about the subject is a perfect solution to enhance the drama or mystery in a shot.

Natural light conditions such as fog, snow, mist, haze, rain or stormy weather are also good choices to produce mysterious and dramatic effects. Such photographs often project a sombre, dark, or reflective mood, or a feeling that there is more to the picture than meets the eye. These light conditions are also accompanied by a great reduction in contrast due to the scattering of light, with all colours appearing muted. So, using a close range of related colours like browns, tans, and greys might suggest a shadowy and mysterious mood in a composition.

Ultimately there is no right or wrong way to interpret a subject and evoke a particular mood. It is a matter of personal taste. The main goal is to explore the mystery of visual language and find new ways to express oneself. So examine, analyse, experiment ­ and have fun!

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