The mystery of a good photo is to include an element of mystery. When I say “mystery”, I mean something that the mind cannot resolve. This is what keeps us looking longer at an image. We are trying to figure it out, letting our imaginations play in the unresolved space.
A mystery can be as simple as a path that curves around a corner. Where does it lead? Or a portrait of someone looking intently off screen. What are they looking at? Sometimes the subject is obscured by fog or bright light. We keep looking to see if the subject will be revealed. Sometimes the subject itself is just so unusual, we keep looking to try to make sense out of it, as is the case of the photo you clicked to get to this page. After all, what is a dragon doing in a desert sunrise shot? When someone asked me where that was taken, I said, "On my home planet." To be more precise, it was in Borrego Springs though It does seem otherworldly.
Moon ring over tree
Here is another shot from Borrego Springs. It is a ring around the moon with some wispy clouds, stars and a foreground tree. You have to take a moment to try and figure out what you are looking at.
While I go out of my way looking for unusual subjects, most to the time my best shots come because of adverse lighting or weather, including the shot below.
Point Lobos late afternoon
I took this shot at Point Lobos in the late afternoon. It was cold, windy and the light was poor. The sun behind the cypress trees was too bright and the foreground too dark. It was too windy to bracket several exposures so to prevent overexposure of the highlights, I had to shoot the image two stops to the left, leaving the foreground completely black until I developed it.
At the time I thought, I'll come back in the morning with the sun at my back and the shot will be great. I was wrong. The shot was completely uninteresting. What makes this image work is the part of the image you can't see - the area around the sun and the fog around the point. This was the first time I really understood the value of mystery in a photo.
Yosemite Valley with morning fog
I get really excited when I see fog in my travels. Clouds and fog create mystery and movement that makes photos interesting. This image has just a touch of fog. We still know what we are looking at, but it makes the image much more interesting than a clear view of the valley. The other value of fog and clouds is that they can add drama and a sense of temperature to images.
Yellowstone winter scene
Again, this is much more interesting than if there were no fog.
I think you will see what I mean when I contrast two images below.
Lunar eclipse with clouds
In addition to creating a mysterious mood, the clouds in the second image provides depth of field and almost a story. I can almost imagine walking on those clouds, where the clear sky moon seems disconnected.
Clouds on their own provide mystery through their suggestive but not definite forms. Our imaginations can run free in a cloudscape.
Clouds over Mt Carmel Junction
More clouds over Mt Carmel Junction
Rocket launch at sunset with crescent moon
Night shots have an inherent mystery to them in part because the camera can see so well at night. This shot of a rainbow with stars is a perfect example. The image is striking because it is impossible for us to see a lunar rainbow with just our eyes.
Close ups are another way to create mystery. The photos below were taken at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Mist and a lack of context add an element of mystery.
Travertine in mist
Icy stream in East Zion
Air bubble under ice, East Zion
In summary, most of the shots I decide to print have an element of mystery to them. I hope this helps you to take better photos yourself.