How to create moody photos

How to Create Moody Photos

Editor's note: My Lightroom Classic articles have moved to my new website Mastering Lightroom. Visit the store and get 20% off any ebook or ebook bundle with the code ml20 (valid until midnight October 21). Thanks for reading, Andrew.

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.

Moody photo of a streetlight reflected in an old car

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.

Moody portrait taken in low light

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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).

Moody portrait taken with wide aperture

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.

Moody landscape taken at dusk

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.

Moody long exposure landscape photo taken at dusk

Shoot details

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.

Moody photo of calligraphy brushes taken in China

Moody photo of details of Chinese buildings

Moody photo of statue in Chinese temple

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.

Moody portraits, one in color, the other in black and white

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.

Further reading

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. 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 is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


  1. Hi Andrew – great article. What lenses do you find yourself using for photographing details when travelling?

    1. Author

      Hi Joel, that’s easy, my 35mm f1.4 lens. I use that on an X-T1 camera which has an APS-C sensor, so it’s the equivalent of using a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.

  2. Hi there, I tend toward ‘moody’ images….but I have recently been faced with a client that wanted my specific ‘moody’ style, while at the same time wanting all images showing her face with fine facial, hair, and skin details entirely edited (i.e. high-pass, guassian-blur, matte-edit with high contrast, dark vignette, cool-toned with warm-toned facial edits….the list goes on. That is not the problem, however. She wants the blurred, back-shot, mystery of a moody black and white image or an image that is shot from a distance with no detail on the faces and matte-edited…..but she wants all of this with an up-close, face-frontal, headshot.

    I can’t do both, nor do I want to, is there any way to make her happy?

    1. Author

      Hi Sarah, sounds like a real problem! I guess your only choice is to try and explain to her that you can do one or the other in a single photo, but not both. Maybe she can have two separate portraits, one in your moody style and the other in the headshot style she wants?

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