How To Create Mood In Color Photos

How To Create Mood In Color Photos

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In our last article we looked at several techniques you can use to capture moody images. Now we are going to explore some of the ways that you can create beautiful and evocative color photos.

Nothing works in isolation. These ideas give the best results when combined with the techniques discussed in our last article (which you can read here – Four Ways To Make Moody Photos).

Simplify color composition

Good photographers learn how to include only the things that are really needed within the frame – and to exclude anything that isn’t required. The same applies to color.

The reason that many color photos don’t work well is that there are too many hues within the image. But by thinking of your subject in terms of color you can look for ways to simplify the color content of the photo. The more you exclude, the more powerful the colors included in the image become. Bear this principle in mind as we go through the rest of the article.

This photo has a simple color composition. The predominant hues are red, orange and yellow.

Moody color photo taken at Auckland Lantern festival

Let a single color dominate

One way to create a powerful image is to let a single color dominate the composition. A relatively easy way to do this is close in on the subject to exclude any distracting colors in the background. This is easiest with a short telephoto lens such as a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera or an 85mm lens on a full-frame camera (or zooms covering these focal lengths). This is the technique I used for the photo above, and also for this photo, where the dominant color is blue. The gold Chinese symbol adds a strong accent.

Moody color photo

Photographers are limited compared to painters because, post-processing aside, we have to work with colors as we find them. A painter can use whatever colors they want, but we can’t do that. Therefore we have to develop our observational skills and look for subjects with interesting colors to use in our photos. Looking for brightly colored, interesting subjects then closing in on them with a short telephoto lens so that one color dominates is a good way to develop your observational skills. A standard lens (50mm full-frame, 35mm APS-C or 25mm Micro Four-thirds) is also good for this technique.

Use soft colors

This is a different approach to using bright colors like red, orange, blue and green. Look for soft, pastel shades instead. This is a more subtle approach and can be very effective when combined with moody lighting. This photo works because it has a lot of soft and neutral shades.

Moody color photo of buddha ornament

Take control of color temperature

Color temperature is an important factor in creating mood and atmosphere. If you are accustomed to setting White Balance to Auto, now is the time to stop. Instead of trying to capture a neutral tone, use the color of the light to your advantage.

For example, portraits often benefit from a warm color balance. The result is more flattering than a neutral color. The same goes if you’re shooting in the golden hour. Try raising the color temperature to warm up the image and enhance the natural warm color of the light.

Even sunsets can benefit from this treatment. I developed the photo below in Lightroom Classic, and applied a high color temperature setting to emphasize the warmth of the light.

Moody sunset

Alternatively, if you are shooting at dusk, then use a lower color temperature to enhance the natural blue hues of the light.

I prefer to shoot in Raw and adjust the color temperature in post-processing to suit the mood that I want to capture. I created the seascape below by setting a low color temperature in Lightroom Classic to give the image a cold, stormy feel.

Moody landscape photos

You can play on this in Lightroom Classic using Color Grading to apply a mix of warm and cool hues to your photos. That’s the technique I used to develop this portrait.

Moody color photo

Bright colors against a neutral background

Another way to use strong color is to look for situations where there are strong colors against a neutral background. For example, if you are taking a portrait, then you can really bring the colors of your model’s clothes and skin to life by placing them against a neutral background such as a grey wall, as in the portrait below. You can also experiment with using white and black as a background.

Moody color portrait of a woman with a hula hoop

Single color against a contrasting background

Some colors work well together, and others clash. This is called color contrast. If you have a photo with strong color contrast, your eye will move from one color to the other, creating a sense of movement within the image. You can use this to create strong, dramatic and moody compositions.

How do you know which colors to use? The answer lies within the color wheel (below), a tool used by graphic designers and artists to understand the relationships between colors.

Color wheel diagram

If two colors are on opposing sides of the color wheel, then they are said to be complementary. Using these color combinations in photos (all the while working to keep the color composition as simple as possible) is an effective way to create moody images.

This photo shows a red car against a blue wall. The two colors are near opposites on the wheel.

Moody color photo

Harmonious colors

The opposite approach to using contrasting colors is to use harmonious colors. On the color wheel, harmonious colors are those that are close to each other.

The photo below is an example of using harmonious colors. The main colors in the photo are green and blue, which are close together on the color wheel. The red paint on the bike is an accent color – a contrasting color (on the opposite of the wheel) that doesn’t take up much space in the frame. The predominantly cool, harmonious colors plus the visible signs of urban decay help create mood. It has a quieter, more subtle mood than the one of the red car.

Moody color photo

Toning black and white

If you are working in black and white, you can still use color to create mood. You do this by toning the image. For example, sepia toning is often used to create an image with a warm feel. Sepia tones are flattering for portraits and landscapes.

Another approach is use a blue tone. This creates a cold feel that suits wintry scenes or desolate landscapes as well as some portraits.

As toning is achieved in post-processing you have the freedom to try out a number of colors to see which effect you like best. It’s a good idea to keep your tones subtle rather than garish – sometimes less is more when it comes to creating mood.

Moody toned black and white portrait of woman


This article touches on some of the ways you can use color to create mood in your photos. It’s a good idea to cultivate an awareness of color, and to think about the colors that are going to be in your final photo at the point you take the image.

Another point to bear in mind is the treatment in Lightroom Classic. It’s quite possible that you will enhance an image by warming up the color temperature, or de-saturating some of the colors. There are lots of ways you can alter color in post-processing. Good photographers visualize some of the possibilities when they take a photo. All it takes to develop this skill is practice.

Further reading

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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