Tag Archives: Mystery

The simple secrets of the single subject shot

Cabbage - the single subject photo allows an in-depth study of the subject

Cabbage – the single subject photo allows an in-depth study of the subject. Getting the shot to work is a matter of how you present it.

Working with one item in a picture helps you get deep into the concept.

Using almost any perspective, you should be looking to bring out the character of your subject and explore its nature. To portray your subject well you should think of these simple ideas.

A while ago I asked members of the 365Project what I should consider when doing a single subject photograph. The ideas below are developed from that discussion.


Many simple subject shots have no background. Put the subject into the centre of the viewers vision and fill the frame. My cabbage (above) is an example. However, if you have got a background make it simple. This is a great way to use a high-key shot. A bright featureless background throws the subject right into the foreground. The bright background highlights the subject and focuses the viewers attention. Alternatively, dark backgrounds can be good too. Remember that they also need a bright subject to carry them off if you are exploring the nature of your subject, and not just portraying its moodiness.

Focus, Lighting, colour and Texture

In a single subject photograph you explore your subject. The character of something is shown by its shape and form. Lighting and colour bring out the shape and form by exploring the shadows and textures. Lighting is key to the success of the shot particularly by creating texture. Remember, as you take a low angle of light across the surface of something you create more texture. The light and shadows are longer and darker with a small angle. Pay attention to the lighting and colours that make that texture stand out. Really accentuate the contrast of light and dark as well as colour variation.

Perspective or the angle of viewing

Perspective is particularly important in single subject shots. It is easy to make a single item look flat – especially if it has little surface texture. Consider what angle you photograph your subject. Try to show its perspective – the diminishing size with distance from the eye. If that is not possible show the form by exaggerating curves or by capturing angles.

Normally many of the objects we look at are seen from above. It’s natural really since we hold things in our hands and look down. To bring out the character of your piece viewing it from a different perspective helps to highlight its character. You are forcing the viewer to look at it in a new way. Show it from below. Or take a shot from the side – any angle showing shape and form which is different to a normal view. Try to show how the subject varies its shape with distance from your eye. Exaggerate it if necessary. I find using a wide-angle lens in close up often brings out the shape and perspective fully. You will need to experiment.


Filling the frame is not essential. The rule of thirds is a great way to display simple shots with one subject…

Composition is important to draw the viewer into the image.

'Rule of Thirds'
A powerful compositional tool.

Other placements work too. Normally central placement in a scene is boring. In single item shot a central placement with a square crop is quite fashionable at the moment. Try anything to increase the interest value and draw the eye.

Don’t show it all

A feeling of mystery is a great way to pull the eye to a subject. Consider cropping your subject hard so that some of the shape, form and texture of the subject is left to the viewers imagination. You don’t need to show the whole subject for it to become alive in the viewers mind. Unless you intend it, be careful not to create an abstract when cropping hard. A single subject photo is about your subject. An abstract is about the attributes of the subject. Often the eye cannot see the whole subject in an abstract and people may not know what they are viewing. This would not be showing the character of the object. It is a fine line. What you are intending to show should be clear. That is the key to success.

My thanks to the members of 365Project who contributed to this discussion and to my thinking on this subject. The discussion on this, including some excellent example pictures is still available. Please do visit: Single subject photographs External link - opens new tab/page.

Five tips to create a winning image with ‘mystery’

"Mysterious Landscape". Creating an air of mystery draws your viewer into the picture

“Mysterious Landscape”. Creating an air of mystery draws your viewer into the picture.

Keep the viewer looking and you have a winning image

Sometimes it’s what the viewer cannot see that makes the image powerful. The ultimate aim of your picture is to draw the viewer into the image and keep them there thinking about what they see. One way to do that is to create a mystery…

Something unseen

In a previous article I discussed the way a title is part of your overall communication. You can capture the imagination of the viewer by hinting with your title. Something that cannot be seen, but could be there, draws the attention. The viewer wants to find what is behind the hint. Give them something to look for but don’t show it. Mist is a great device for this. The very thought of a misty forest is primeval and mysterious.


Darkness creates a sense of menace if it is done right. Anything with lurking shadows and moody lights creates the sense that something may be there – but not quite seen. This is a situation ripe for the use of under-exposure and low lights. It does not have to be a night scene. However, use of low lights, threatening colours and impenetrable shadows brings on the mystery. Mood and threat make a great combination. Both urban scenes and moonlight landscapes are ideal. I am sure you can let your imagination run wild!

Around the corner

I used to manage parks. When we were designing new landscapes we often tried to give an air of mystery. People enjoy going to parks much more if there is a sense of the unknown around the next corner. Walks and views were designed to give people somewhere to go where they could not initially see the destination. So it is with photographs. Create a path, steps, road – anything – that leads somewhere you cannot see. Make the viewer look down the line expecting to see something, which at the end, is not there. An implied destination is a great way to draw in the viewer.

Hidden faces

One thing humans love to see is a face. We train ourselves from birth to take in peoples faces, understand them, communicate with them. Deprive the viewer of a face and the mystery is on. Masks are great fun. A deliberately hidden face is an immediate mystery. Wide-brim hats in dark places are powerfully mysterious. We have a compulsion to find out who the mystery person is – and it immediately captures our attention.


Perhaps the most timeless way of creating mystery is to fool the eye. You know something is wrong and you cannot see what. Your eyes tell you one thing, you feel there is something else. A good illusion has you visually chasing around the image to find the issue. If you create a good illusion you will have a great image based on mystery. There are lots of places on the web to find out about photographic illusions.

There are other ways to create a sense of mystery. We would love to hear about mysterious images you have created. Please leave a comment below with a link if you have an image online.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

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