Digital Photography 101: How to capture mood in your photographs

Finding emotion and soul in digital pictures

Digital Photography 101: How to capture mood in your photographsThe most memorable photographs are ones that evoke a certain mood or feeling, but figuring out how to capture that mood in your own photos can be somewhat difficult. After all, modern cameras excel at taking very pretty pictures with excellent exposure and perfect focus, but sometimes that's not at all what you want. Sometimes it's the "flaws" in a photo that make it truly evocative.

Capturing mood in photographs is definitely an art, not a science. However, there are techniques to it, both in how you take the picture and in post-processing. Of course, how you go about making your viewers feel a certain way will depend on what mood you're trying to evoke; a bright, happy, nostalgic photo is very different from a dark, misty, pensive photo. A picture that evokes anger or loneliness will look much different from one that evinces joy. How you use and manipulate color, light, texture, and shape will all affect the mood of your photos.

kmg 630 mood happy child flickr aloshbennettThe window to the soul
The most obvious way to portray emotion in a photograph is to shoot someone who's obviously feeling a strong emotion. Whether it's displaying anger, sadness, joy, or thoughtfulness, the human face is infinitely expressive. But don't just take a picture of a person's face and call it a day -- there's much more to an emotional scene than just the tears or smiles. Pay attention to lighting and focus. A narrow depth of field will help concentrate the scene on your subject.

The positioning of the camera in relation to the subject is also important. Having the lens at your subject's eye-level will help convey a feeling of strength and a sense of equality to the viewer. If you position yourself above your subject, this might imply vulnerability, while if your lens is below your subject, they will look more imposing. Consider the impression you're trying to create. The distance between the camera and your subject is another way to enhance mood. A subject who is very small in the frame helps give a feeling of loneliness and solitude, whereas drawing in close enhances intimacy and a feeling of trusted friendship.

kmg 300 mood lonely flickr bertkaufmannEmbrace the mood
Usually when you think of "moody" photographs, you think of somber, shadowy, low-key scenes. To capture these types of feelings, look for days when the weather matches the mood. Low clouds, fog, and dim light will all help portray that gray feeling. You might even want to embrace the grainy nature of shooting with a high ISO (which is helpful in low-light anyway), to add to a feeling of gritty imperfection.

Color your emotions
Color plays a large roll when creating a mood in pictures; darker colors tend to evoke a darker mood, with blues and grays enhancing an introverted scene. You can manipulate the tone and colors of your photos using a program like Photoshop, or you can use lens filters or your camera's internal settings. Warmer colors enhance a feeling of happiness or nostalgia; yellow, soft orange, tan, and sepia all help to convey feelings of contentedness.

kmg 300 mood nostalgia flickr charissejoychuBreak the rules
One of the best ways to summon the dream-like quality of memory is to break some of the rules we've talked about in other columns. Position your subject with the sun behind them and overexpose a bit for a bright, diffuse light. Keep your depth of field narrow, and your subject slightly out of focus. Lower the color saturation in post processing to give your photos a faded feeling.

If you're looking more to create less pleasant emotions like anger or stress, go for oversaturated colors, sharp corners, and jagged edges. Use very high contrast to create a feeling of tension. Unusual angles and perspectives throw off your viewer just enough to be unsettling. 

Set the scene
In many ways, you are at the mercy of the environment, at least in terms of creating the mood you're going for. If it's a bright sunny day, it's going to be very difficult to create a dark, moody picture of a subject outside, and you'll have a hard time capturing a soft, diffuse light at noon. But if you have the flexibility to adjust when and where you take your photos to make the best use of the light and setting, you'll have much better luck capturing emotion and sharing it with your viewers.

kmg 630 mood sad little angel flickr dsharonpruitt
Don't be afraid to use props and acting to create the scene you're looking for. Like the method acting techniques actors use to get into character, tell your subjects to think about the emotion you want them to portray. They should imagine themselves in a situation where they would feel that emotion, and try to ignore the camera and really feel that emotion deeply.

As with all photographic techniques, conveying mood and emotion takes practice, trial and error, and a little bit of luck. It's also a great time to practice photo editing techniques -- just don't forget to save a copy of the original so you can go back to it if you want to!

[Writing credit: Katherine Gray.  Image credits: Victor BezrukovAlosh BennettBert KaufmannCharisse Joy ChuD. Sharon Pruitt]

Thanks to our friends over at Tecca for submitting this post and you can find more How-to tech articles & Gadget news at  And, as always, feel free post your own "mood shots" over at the Steve's Facebook page!