In my last post (August 06), I discussed a few ways to improve the mood in our photographs, namely by finding stronger mood in the first place, usually by looking for more interesting light or more interesting weather. Just getting out there earlier and staying later helps. Some weatherproof gear and a willingness not to baby the camera so much that you never make the kinds of photographs you’d like to would also be an asset. But I think there is also work to be done in the darkroom—not necessarily to create mood where mood isn’t there in the first place, but to amplify the mood that’s there. To adjust it, maybe even maximize (or minimize) it.
Years ago, I wrote a book called Vision & Voice, and though it was based on a version of Adobe Lightroom that was so old I think it was coal-powered, the framework I articulated in that book remains the same for me to this day. When I develop an image, I rarely deviate from these four steps:
1. Identify Your Intent
2. Minimize Distractions
3. Maximize Mood
4. Draw the Eye
The first step is just taking a deep breath and giving some thought to what you want the photograph to feel like and what that means visually for you. Do you need it to be darker or lighter, warmer or cooler? Which tools might you need to use to get the image to feel more like the one in your mind?
The second step is cleaning up your canvas: eliminate sensor spots, tame wild highlights, straighten horizons, make basic fixes to the exposure, or crop it in a little—that kind of thing. You’re cleaning up the image so you can focus on the truly creative stuff: maximizing the mood and drawing the eye.
Maximizing the mood might mean making the image much darker. Sure, the exposure was correct, but could knocking it back a couple of stops make it feel more mysterious? Or do you want it to feel much lighter, even happy? That suggests adding exposure, lightening the blacks, and maybe warming up the image with colour temperature. Here are the three things I do most often to maximize the mood in my images:
Light or Dark?
Ignore the histogram at this point; there’s a whole lesson in there about not peaking your highlights or shadows, but for now, ask yourself what you want the image to feel like. Luminance is huge when it comes to how an image feels. Your Lightroom tools to accomplish this might be as simple as pulling back the exposure slider, but that affects the exposure on everything, and perhaps you want to keep those highlights a little brighter. Have you tried only darkening the shadows or the blacks? Maybe it’s worth asking not only if you want the image lighter or darker, but where you want that change made. That might mean “in which tones,” but it might also mean in which areas of the image. Perhaps pulling the exposure down globally isn’t necessary to impact the mood, and you’d be better off just darkening the sky with a gradient filter. That one mood could certainly amplify the mood created by storm clouds, for example.
Warm or Cool?
Warm and cool aren’t visual words; they are feeling words. We feel bluer/greener images to be cooler, and warmer images lean into the yellow/red end of the spectrum. One of the quickest ways to amplify the mood of an image is to change the colour temperature. I usually do this in collaboration with the changes I make to luminosity (i.e., the lightness/darkness of an image). It’s rarely one or the other but both.
Saturated or Desaturated?
Colours are not only a matter of whether they are warm or cool, light or dark, but also the intensity of the colour(s). That’s saturation. We feel differently about images that are more saturated than others. Hot pink feels different than pastel pink. They can both be exactly the same hue, but feel different because one is super intense (saturated) and the other is not. An image with heavier saturation feels livelier and more full of life than one that is really toned down.
I showed you two of the images below in the previous post. The first is the RAW image as shot. Then there are two versions, both with changes to luminance, colour temperature, and saturation. I think they all feel quite different. The mood changes from one to the next with just the three kinds of adjustments (though I’ve used various tools). Spend a few minutes trying to figure out which changes were made and how they made the images feel differently. I hope this short article nudges you to open some images in whichever development tool you use and play with refining the mood in your own work.
The last step in my development framework is drawing the eye, which mostly amounts to dodging and burning—though it’s so much more than that, and there’s no way to fully discuss it in one article. (If you’re interested in exploring that further, I have an excellent eBook called Drawing the Eye, which is available HERE for $16.) But think about how you might simplify your workflow by using this framework to provide some structure and, most especially, how you can refine the mood in an image to give it more specific impact.
My apologies for the shorter article this week; things kind of crept up on me. I’m also diverting some of my energy to short reels on Instagram, and between that and visits to my surgeon (“Everything is great with the amputation—go live your life,” she says) and my prosthetist (new leg comes on Tuesday!) and my new trainer, it’s been busy. I hope this finds you well.
For the Love of the Photograph,