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Capture a sense of mystery by leaving some things to the imagination

Added on Tuesday 12th of October 2010 05:24 am EST



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When you go on your next photo shoot, don’t assume that you have to capture every detail in your pictures. Some of the greatest shots you’ll take are the ones where you let your viewers fill in the missing image elements with their imaginations.


One of the most gratifying purposes a photograph can serve is to capture the emotion of a moment—the intersection of a certain place and time—so you can share it with others. But even a technically perfect photograph doesn’t always convey the richness of an experience. Unless the viewer was there, she doesn’t know what that special moment smelled like or felt like—whether it was cold, barren, warm, or nostalgic.

One way to capture this subjective aspect of a scene is to leave some things to the viewer’s imagination, just as Romantic and Impressionist painters did to imbue a sense of mystery and wonder. Giving a viewer this opportunity to connect with a digital image can make it resonate more. Let’s explore a sampling of these techniques for achieving similar effects in photographs.


It’s not about being right

To start, we’ll set one thing straight. While many things might be said about “correct” composition, e.g., techniques to avoid blemishes in your pictures that might distract viewers, we aren’t going to talk about that at all. Instead, we’ll explore the opposite end of the spectrum. We’ll start by presenting the idea of reducing context, depth, and color richness. Normally, increasing these things might seem the best way to produce good digital images, but we’ll show how less context and depth can help convey a certain mood.

Then, we’ll take a look at how back lighting and zooming in on distant objects can help evoke an impressionistic quality. Of course, if you apply these techniques to emphasize the subjective element in your photographs, you’ll probably please some viewers and displease others; that’s what subjectivity is all about. But for those who want more than just the perfect, sharp, technically correct photograph, these impressionistic, subjective-oriented techniques can help make viewing your photographs a much richer experience.


The flattening technique

We’ll begin our journey with an idea we find useful in many contexts. Much of what you’re likely to hear about good composition boils down to increasing the related qualities of context, contrast, and depth. For instance, you may seek lighting that brings out the richness of colors; you may try to frame a subject to give it a sense of context using foreground elements; and so on. Sometimes, however, by having less depth, less contrast, and less context, you can slightly disorient viewers to make them more susceptible to the emotion you want to convey.


Avoiding context

Consider the image in Figure A. Our intention was to capture the diversity of colors reflected in a pond. To focus on this one element of the experience, we chose to minimize the amount of context. For instance, many nice pictures of objects reflected in water show both the objects and their reflection. We removed context by showing just the reflection and only a minimal amount of shoreline and foreground vegetation. The result is an image that lacks depth in the usual sense, but focuses the viewer’s attention on the array of colors and the distortions created by the ripples in the water. Bottom line: showing only the reflection can say more than showing the subject with its reflection.



Minimizing color

Let’s leave this breadth of color behind now, and instead look at an image with minimal color depth and no foreground elements. Weather played a big role in achieving the grayscale effect shown in Figure B. This much-photographed waterfall seems perhaps more mysterious when seen with this bleak lighting. A more traditional way of photographing the falls would be to show them with a tree in the foreground to provide some sense of context. For...


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