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One of the things that elevates the work of the best photographers above that of everybody else is mood. Defining mood is a little tricky. Here’s my definition:
A moody photo is one where the light and composition combine with the subject to create an image that generates an emotional response from the viewer.
My dictionary says:
Giving an impression of melancholy or mystery.
An interesting definition – melancholy and mystery are powerful, emotional words.
Mood doesn’t happen by accident. Good photography is more than knowing how to use your camera, important though that is. You also need an understanding of composition and light. Your photos will get better (and moodier) as your appreciation of light and composition grows deeper.
There are principles you can learn to help you create evocative images. Here are some of my favorites.
Shoot in low light
This can be challenging but the efforts are worth it. Think of it backwards. What’s the worse light you can take photos in if your aim is to create mood? A really bad place to start is to take photos in bright midday light in the middle of summer. There’s a limit to what you can do with such high hard, bright light.
What’s the opposite of this? It’s low light. The sort of light you find at the ends of the day when the sun is rising or setting (the golden hour). It’s the blue light you get after the sun has set at dusk (the blue hour). It’s the soft, beautiful, subtle light ideal for portraits that you find in the shade. It’s the beauty of soft sunlight breaking through autumnal leaves at the end of the day.
Take the time to develop your understanding of the nuances of light and the way light affects the mood of your photos. You will be rewarded by better images that evoke strong emotional responses from the viewer.
I’ve been taking a lot of portraits recently, and I’ve taken some of those (such as the one below) in fading light at the end of the day. These are challenging conditions and I have to use prime lenses, wide apertures and high ISOs to get the image. But the results have been worth the effort – there’s something a little special about the quality of light at this time of day.
Pay attention to the background
Like it or not, the background is an important element of most photos. Your subject may be stunning, but a distracting background weakens the composition.
Strong photos go further – the background works with the subject to make a better image.
There are two approaches to background. One is to use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. This is an easy technique to master and a popular one to use. It’s easiest if you own a prime lens (which have wider maximum apertures). I made this portrait with an 85mm lens set to f1.8).
Notice that the background is dark as well as out of focus. Dark tones are mysterious. The viewer has to fill in the gaps with their imagination. This helps add mood.
You can also obtain blurred backgrounds (although they won’t be as blurred as the one in the above image) with zoom lenses by setting the widest aperture. Just remember these three principles:
1. Use the longest focal length of the zoom lens.
2. Get as close to your subject as possible.
3. Move the subject as far from the background as you can where possible (this mainly applies to portraiture as people are easier to move than inanimate objects).
The other approach is to use a narrow aperture to get the background in focus. The idea is to use a background that complements the subject and forms part of the story.
You’ll see this technique used a lot in portraiture and documentary photography, where the background relates to the people or person who is the subject of the photo. It’s also the traditional approach to landscape photography.
I selected an aperture of f16 for the next photo as I wanted everything to be in sharp focus.
Long exposure photography
This applies mainly to landscape photos, although you can apply it to other subjects with a little imagination. Slow shutter speeds are really a result of shooting in low light, with a narrow aperture (for good depth-of-field) and using a low ISO setting (such as 100 to obtain the best image quality). In these conditions the required shutter speed will be anything from around 1/2 second to 60 seconds or more. You’ll need a good tripod and a cable release to keep the camera still throughout the exposure.
The result of slow shutter speeds is that anything that moves during the exposure becomes blurred. This creates mood, and it’s really effective whenever there is water or sea in the image (which is why so many photographers use long exposure techniques to take seascapes).
You can see that in the photo below, made with an 80 second exposure.
This is a technique I use a lot for travel photography. I like looking for details that capture the spirit of the place that I’m in. These photos were all taken in China. The bright colors and evocative details caught my eye.
Photographing detail seems to work best when the light is low. The mood comes from the combination of the evocative detail plus beautiful light.
Convert to black and white
This is another of my favorite techniques. Black and white photos have a timeless mood all of their own. Color is so strong that it is a dominant aspect of just about any color photo (more on that in a bit).
But strip away the color and you are left with the building blocks of any good photographic composition: line, shape, tonal contrast, pattern and light.
I converted the portrait below to black and white. It was taken in low light and both versions are moody, but the mood in each is different. The black and white portrait has a different feel to the color one.
Tip: The best way to work in black and white (with a digital camera) is to shoot using the Raw format but with the camera set to monochrome. When you play back the image on the LCD screen it is displayed in black and white, which helps you judge how well the image works in mono. If your camera has an electronic viewfinder you’ll see it in black and white there too. But by using Raw you have a full color file that you can convert to black and white any way you wish in post-processing.
The role of color
There is one element that helps you create moody images that I deliberately haven’t discussed – color. That’s because it merits an article all to itself. You can read that article here – How to Create Mood in Color Photos.