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6 Ways to Add Drama and Mystery to Your Images

Recently at a get together with 6 photographer friends we started chatting about the idea of adding Drama and Mystery to images.

Don’t ask me how we got to the topic but the conversation was so good that I decided to ask each photographer for their favourite technique for creating Dramatic and Mysterious Shots.

Here are their paraphrased responses:

1. Motion Blur

opposite sides

While keeping your shots tack sharp is something that many of us aim for – slowing down your shutter speed a little and allowing moving objects in your frame to blur a little (or a lot) can certainly add a new dimension to your images.

Further Reading on Motion Blur: 13 places to take beautiful motion blur shots and How to Capture Motion Blur.

2. Silhouette

The Dance of Joy

There’s not many things more mysterious than a Silhouette. The simple outline of a person or element can convey so much – yet will also leave those viewing the image wondering about and imagining the missing details.

Further Reading on Silhouettes: How to Photograph Silhouettes in 8 Easy Steps

3. Shooting Perspective

RALLY MAGIC -  IMG_4335 ed+cr

One way to add a lot of punch to your images is to alter the perspective that you shoot from. While everyone else is shooting from the same angle – get down on the ground and shoot up or find a way to shoot down on your image. Mix it up and find the perspective that ‘makes’ the shot.

Further Reading on Shooting Perspective: Get a New Perspective by Getting High, 7 Tips for Great Low Angle Shots and 20 Examples of Low Angle Photography.

4. Dramatic Light

Ya-TAAHHHH!!!

Light is to photographers what paint is to painters. Learn to use it right and you can completely change the message conveyed in your image. Changing the angle light hits your subject (back lit, side lit etc), adding to or taking away intensity of light, reflecting it or even changing its colour all can add a great deal of drama to your shots.

Further Reading on Light: 9 Lighting Types to Harness and Improve Your Photography

5. Bold Colors

The Bamboo Forest and some great Twitter Lists to follow

Often overlooked by beginners – the colours featured in your images will often set the emotional scene for those viewing your images. The photographer I asked was a big user of bold colour in her photography but paying attention to colours of all intensities are well worth investigating.

Further Reading on Color: Captivating Color: a Guide to Dramatic Color Photography

6. Selective Focus

Buzz and the Snail

How much of your image can play a big part in setting the drama and mystery within it. Using selective focus (or having a narrow depth of field where only a small part (if any) of the image in focus while the rest is thrown out of focus) can leave much of what is in your frame mysteriously hidden (yet partially revealed) – in a similar way to a Silhouette.

Further Reading: How to Get Shallow Depth of Field in Your Photography and 13 Examples of Great Photos When Being out of Focus Makes the Shot

Of course this is not an exhaustive list and none of the six photographers would use their chosen technique or approach in every single image. They all expressed that it completely depended on the situation they were shooting in.

However – what would YOU add? What techniques and approaches have you found add to the drama, mystery and interest in your images?

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    How about some dramatic souvenirs? But in reality I know these pics look flat in front of those in the post!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/02/souvenir-watch-from-jaisalemer-rajasthan.html

  • http://www.kimberlygauthier.com Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier, Photography Blog

    These are amazing. I love posts like this, because I immediately want to grab my camera. Thanks for sharing. I got some great ideas.

  • http://366andallthat.wordpress.com/ MikeC366

    Sometimes macro can add drama and mystery to a photograph. Here is a very unique shot of one of those Amazon Forest water filled sink hole thingy…. Water at the base, rocks up the side, then the bright light of the daytime streaming in.

    http://wp.me/p268wp-3G

    Or is it just really a macro shot of my kitchen work surface at home.

    M.

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    I love reading your articles! They are a constant source of knowledge and inspiration.

    For Drama in this shot of rocks on the beach in San Diego, I used a Neutral Density filter for long exposure to smooth out the surf to make the rocks Pop…then 3 bracket HDR

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/point-loma-rocks/

  • http://mirkoherznerfoto.de Mirko Herzner

    Such simple tips but still so useful. It’s so easy to forget about those basic ideas. Kimberly is right about the immediat want to grab my camera.

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    The example shot for dramatic light is awesome! Great idea, I am guessing the photographer was standing in front of a mirror as the Super Man logo is backwards.

    For a recent photo, I used layer masks to combine two shots to create drama for a photo essay I titled, “The Future is on the Street”

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/11/30/the-future-is-on-the-street.html

  • http://custompinoyrides.com THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com

    This is totally true, especially in my line of photography.

    I do Automotive Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    Not so much on the mystery part but really more on the drama bit, I use all of the above to make the photos really stand out.

    1. I use motion blur to give the notion of fast paced action. Either the subect (car) stationary and the background moving, or the subject moving, and me moving with it. E.g. Rolling Shot.

    2. For silhouettes, though not used very often, I sometimes use this to show the lines and curves of a particular car or its body kit.

    3. For shooting cars, it’s always more dramatic if you shoot it from a low perspective. Usually headlight or tail light level. These are views that you don’t often see in person, as you’re usually viewing cars from above going down. But shooting down and low gives the cars more “attitude” and “personality”, as if you’re looking at it eye-to-eye. It’s more of like automotive portraiture so to speak.

    4. As for dramatic light, this is one of my favorites, as I love shooting with off-camera flashes. This, in my opinion, is what separates the pros from the amateurs. You can do so much more with off-camera flash. I always tell people that I shoot with available light. Yes, my flashes are always available, any time of the day. Hahaha!

    5. For selective focus, this is most effective when shooting detail shots, such as emblems, and other individual parts of the car. The key is finding the areas where you think the designers spent countless hours integrating onto the car. If they put it there for a reason, the there must be something visually appealing to it. So shoot it!

    Just my two cents!

  • http://vandemarkdesigns.blogspot.com Anna VanDemark

    Great article, Darren! As far as mystery goes, I like to use selective focus and lots of soft edges. A Lensbaby works well when seeking mystery in an image, especially when one wants to do the work in camera. In the link below, I used a Lensbaby Composer with the f/2.8 ap ring to accomlish this.

    http://vandemarkdesigns.blogspot.com/2012/02/note.html

  • JohnP

    Shooting with the intention of later converting a suitable image to black & white which can add drama to some images by making the viewer concentrate on the image without being distracted by colours.

  • Scottc

    All great ideas, I’d recommend Film Noir as another way to add some drama.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4557804773/

  • http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com Jeff E Jensen

    These are all great suggestions. I love the new stuff and the reminders that I get by reading your work.

    Here’s some pretty cool shots that use the silhouette technique:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2011/09/yoga.html

  • ccting

    Wow…. wow…. wow… wow…

  • raghavendra

    fun in photography is a good thing
    i have made a drama and mystery

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/p/cat-story.html

  • Robert

    these are very good tips, thanks for the insight

  • Lettisa

    as usual, great article!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/50259324@N08/ Stefano
  • http://theartisticlife.wordpress.com Jennifer Lycke

    Great ideas! Can’t wait to grab my camera and experiment this weekend!

  • http://www.creativevision-foto.com Constantine

    All very good suggestions, except the last image is, in my opinion, a great example of how NOT to do it. I love selective focus, but the trick – applicable to anything you do, really – is subtlety. The blurred background in the last image is way overpowering – with overly saturated colors and too much contrast, while the blurring looks too obviously enhanced in post-processing. Looks as if a newbee Lightroom user went to town… What’s the first thing you see in that image? The snail? Nope. It’s the acidic image of the blurred kid in the Buzz Lightyear costume that burns your eyes – even if you are trying to stare at the snail… Rubbing my eyes… A great idea, in general. Bad sample photo. No offense…

  • marty

    The corollary to dramatic light, sorta shown in the example in the article, is simply a large percentage of black intergal to the image. That means not just a dark back-ground (a la back iit subjects) to separate/highlight the foreground, but a shape/form inter-twined to the overall “design” of the image. What is lit is not necessarily dramatic lighting. It’s more a function of negative & positive areas being integrated. The negative may not be black, though to my eye, it lends the most impact.

  • http://www.karenskellyphoto.com Photographer Glenwood Springs CO

    I totally get the motion blur on the first image – that’s not too hard, but why are the two burred women so huge?
    Was this two images blended together?

  • Maja

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/maja_petkova/5833700701/' title='Me, Myself & I' url='http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2475/5833700701_2393288835_z.jpg']

  • http://webbypics.com Amanda

    How is this for creating mystery with motion blur? It’s my attempt at something more abstract.

    I’d love to hear your feedback! Thanks!

    http://photographypocketbook.com/abstract-photo/

  • http://digital-photography-school.com/ Darren Rowse

    thanks Constantine – in actual fact there was very little Lightroom in that shot and none around creating blur – it was shot at f1.4. Appreciate it isn’t going to be for everyone but was hoping it’d illustrate the point. Will go back to my practicing position :-)

  • http://www.creativevision-foto.com Constantine

    Darren, I sure hope my criticism wasn’t too harsh. ;-) I have been following your site and have seen many of your stunning photos! The image in question – without a doubt – illustrates the point, and I guess that’s what matters in the context of this discussion. I guess I was just being too picky, and since this site is dedicated to giving the best of advice to photo enthusiasts, I thought it would be appropriate to point out that an image may not work as intended if the background (or any secondary element of the photo that is not meant to be the primary subject by the photographer) – blurred or not – still remains too strong and overpowering. At least that was my first and lasting impression of the image. Anyway, thanks for the great content in this site. Always pleasure to visit.

  • http://digital-photography-school.com/ Darren Rowse

    no offense taken – actually one of the reasons I liked the image was that my Son was the main focus of the image – to me the snail was secondary in this shot while my boy was what I was hoping people would be drawn to…. guess it depends on how one looks at it but points taken :-)

  • http://www.bhavenjani.wordpress.com Bhaven Jani

    What a co-incidence. I just ended up taking a few pics that fall into 4 out of these 6 approaches. And the silhouette one is eerily similar to the one up here. You can check out my travel pics at http://www.bhavenjani.photoshelter.com and my travel blog at http://www.bhavenjani.wordpress.com Look forward to your comments.

  • http://ww.flickr.com/calinrett Calin S

    Amazing tips and comments! Will put them into practice.

  • Bruce T

    These are great articles but I just wish you would include the lens used and data info.

  • http://jimhuntphoto.com jim

    Motion blur won me $200.00 in a photo contest!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/22176685@N07/6720322731/

  • OnyxE

    I’m not sure if this is drama or not; I did darken and posterize it. The other shots I’ve seen in these posts are amazing!!!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/marionlynne777/6113541133/in/set-72157626888625689/lightbox/

  • john j

    I used selective focus to show an encounter with a deer in the forest. The deer is also perfectly silhouetted against a bright patch of grass, but that part was purely coincidental.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gtyellojacket/5982415979/in/photostream/

  • Francis

Some older comments

  • Francis

    February 20, 2012 08:45 am

    Monotone and silhouette

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/francisverana/6286553151/in/photostream

  • john j

    February 19, 2012 09:08 am

    I used selective focus to show an encounter with a deer in the forest. The deer is also perfectly silhouetted against a bright patch of grass, but that part was purely coincidental.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gtyellojacket/5982415979/in/photostream/

  • OnyxE

    February 18, 2012 10:06 am

    I'm not sure if this is drama or not; I did darken and posterize it. The other shots I've seen in these posts are amazing!!!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/marionlynne777/6113541133/in/set-72157626888625689/lightbox/

  • jim

    February 18, 2012 06:52 am

    Motion blur won me $200.00 in a photo contest!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/22176685@N07/6720322731/

  • Bruce T

    February 18, 2012 05:44 am

    These are great articles but I just wish you would include the lens used and data info.

  • Calin S

    February 18, 2012 12:13 am

    Amazing tips and comments! Will put them into practice.

  • Bhaven Jani

    February 17, 2012 07:00 pm

    What a co-incidence. I just ended up taking a few pics that fall into 4 out of these 6 approaches. And the silhouette one is eerily similar to the one up here. You can check out my travel pics at www.bhavenjani.photoshelter.com and my travel blog at www.bhavenjani.wordpress.com Look forward to your comments.

  • Darren Rowse

    February 17, 2012 02:05 pm

    no offense taken - actually one of the reasons I liked the image was that my Son was the main focus of the image - to me the snail was secondary in this shot while my boy was what I was hoping people would be drawn to.... guess it depends on how one looks at it but points taken :-)

  • Constantine

    February 17, 2012 01:08 pm

    Darren, I sure hope my criticism wasn't too harsh. ;-) I have been following your site and have seen many of your stunning photos! The image in question - without a doubt - illustrates the point, and I guess that's what matters in the context of this discussion. I guess I was just being too picky, and since this site is dedicated to giving the best of advice to photo enthusiasts, I thought it would be appropriate to point out that an image may not work as intended if the background (or any secondary element of the photo that is not meant to be the primary subject by the photographer) - blurred or not - still remains too strong and overpowering. At least that was my first and lasting impression of the image. Anyway, thanks for the great content in this site. Always pleasure to visit.

  • Darren Rowse

    February 17, 2012 10:19 am

    thanks Constantine - in actual fact there was very little Lightroom in that shot and none around creating blur - it was shot at f1.4. Appreciate it isn't going to be for everyone but was hoping it'd illustrate the point. Will go back to my practicing position :-)

  • Amanda

    February 17, 2012 08:28 am

    How is this for creating mystery with motion blur? It's my attempt at something more abstract.

    I'd love to hear your feedback! Thanks!

    http://photographypocketbook.com/abstract-photo/

  • Maja

    February 17, 2012 07:54 am

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/maja_petkova/5833700701/' title='Me, Myself & I' url='http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2475/5833700701_2393288835_z.jpg']

  • Photographer Glenwood Springs CO

    February 17, 2012 06:08 am

    I totally get the motion blur on the first image - that's not too hard, but why are the two burred women so huge?
    Was this two images blended together?

  • marty

    February 17, 2012 04:52 am

    The corollary to dramatic light, sorta shown in the example in the article, is simply a large percentage of black intergal to the image. That means not just a dark back-ground (a la back iit subjects) to separate/highlight the foreground, but a shape/form inter-twined to the overall "design" of the image. What is lit is not necessarily dramatic lighting. It's more a function of negative & positive areas being integrated. The negative may not be black, though to my eye, it lends the most impact.

  • Constantine

    February 17, 2012 04:30 am

    All very good suggestions, except the last image is, in my opinion, a great example of how NOT to do it. I love selective focus, but the trick - applicable to anything you do, really - is subtlety. The blurred background in the last image is way overpowering - with overly saturated colors and too much contrast, while the blurring looks too obviously enhanced in post-processing. Looks as if a newbee Lightroom user went to town... What's the first thing you see in that image? The snail? Nope. It's the acidic image of the blurred kid in the Buzz Lightyear costume that burns your eyes - even if you are trying to stare at the snail... Rubbing my eyes... A great idea, in general. Bad sample photo. No offense...

  • Jennifer Lycke

    February 17, 2012 04:20 am

    Great ideas! Can't wait to grab my camera and experiment this weekend!

  • Stefano

    February 17, 2012 12:48 am

    A low angle and vivid colour shot.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/50259324@N08/5218274290/in/set-72157625491049294

  • Lettisa

    February 16, 2012 09:41 pm

    as usual, great article!

  • Robert

    February 16, 2012 05:27 pm

    these are very good tips, thanks for the insight

  • raghavendra

    February 16, 2012 12:49 pm

    fun in photography is a good thing
    i have made a drama and mystery

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/p/cat-story.html

  • ccting

    February 16, 2012 12:21 pm

    Wow.... wow.... wow... wow...

  • Jeff E Jensen

    February 16, 2012 11:14 am

    These are all great suggestions. I love the new stuff and the reminders that I get by reading your work.

    Here's some pretty cool shots that use the silhouette technique:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2011/09/yoga.html

  • Scottc

    February 16, 2012 09:38 am

    All great ideas, I'd recommend Film Noir as another way to add some drama.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4557804773/

  • JohnP

    February 16, 2012 09:29 am

    Shooting with the intention of later converting a suitable image to black & white which can add drama to some images by making the viewer concentrate on the image without being distracted by colours.

  • Anna VanDemark

    February 16, 2012 05:50 am

    Great article, Darren! As far as mystery goes, I like to use selective focus and lots of soft edges. A Lensbaby works well when seeking mystery in an image, especially when one wants to do the work in camera. In the link below, I used a Lensbaby Composer with the f/2.8 ap ring to accomlish this.

    http://vandemarkdesigns.blogspot.com/2012/02/note.html

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com

    February 16, 2012 04:10 am

    This is totally true, especially in my line of photography.

    I do Automotive Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    Not so much on the mystery part but really more on the drama bit, I use all of the above to make the photos really stand out.

    1. I use motion blur to give the notion of fast paced action. Either the subect (car) stationary and the background moving, or the subject moving, and me moving with it. E.g. Rolling Shot.

    2. For silhouettes, though not used very often, I sometimes use this to show the lines and curves of a particular car or its body kit.

    3. For shooting cars, it's always more dramatic if you shoot it from a low perspective. Usually headlight or tail light level. These are views that you don't often see in person, as you're usually viewing cars from above going down. But shooting down and low gives the cars more "attitude" and "personality", as if you're looking at it eye-to-eye. It's more of like automotive portraiture so to speak.

    4. As for dramatic light, this is one of my favorites, as I love shooting with off-camera flashes. This, in my opinion, is what separates the pros from the amateurs. You can do so much more with off-camera flash. I always tell people that I shoot with available light. Yes, my flashes are always available, any time of the day. Hahaha!

    5. For selective focus, this is most effective when shooting detail shots, such as emblems, and other individual parts of the car. The key is finding the areas where you think the designers spent countless hours integrating onto the car. If they put it there for a reason, the there must be something visually appealing to it. So shoot it!

    Just my two cents!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    February 16, 2012 04:02 am

    The example shot for dramatic light is awesome! Great idea, I am guessing the photographer was standing in front of a mirror as the Super Man logo is backwards.

    For a recent photo, I used layer masks to combine two shots to create drama for a photo essay I titled, "The Future is on the Street"

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/11/30/the-future-is-on-the-street.html

  • Mirko Herzner

    February 16, 2012 03:08 am

    Such simple tips but still so useful. It's so easy to forget about those basic ideas. Kimberly is right about the immediat want to grab my camera.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    February 16, 2012 02:51 am

    Hi

    I love reading your articles! They are a constant source of knowledge and inspiration.

    For Drama in this shot of rocks on the beach in San Diego, I used a Neutral Density filter for long exposure to smooth out the surf to make the rocks Pop...then 3 bracket HDR

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/point-loma-rocks/

  • MikeC366

    February 16, 2012 02:47 am

    Sometimes macro can add drama and mystery to a photograph. Here is a very unique shot of one of those Amazon Forest water filled sink hole thingy.... Water at the base, rocks up the side, then the bright light of the daytime streaming in.

    http://wp.me/p268wp-3G

    Or is it just really a macro shot of my kitchen work surface at home.

    M.

  • Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier, Photography Blog

    February 16, 2012 02:10 am

    These are amazing. I love posts like this, because I immediately want to grab my camera. Thanks for sharing. I got some great ideas.

  • Mridula

    February 16, 2012 01:57 am

    How about some dramatic souvenirs? But in reality I know these pics look flat in front of those in the post!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/02/souvenir-watch-from-jaisalemer-rajasthan.html

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