The Power of Mood

In Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David38 Comments

Photography can be many things. For some, it’s about capturing scenes. For me, it’s about conveying emotions and suggesting narratives that resonate deeply, first with me and then with the viewers who might experience the image. I’m not so much after eyes as I am hearts and minds. Mood does that.

The mood of a photograph is its emotional tone—a subtle yet powerful element that can transform a simple image into a compelling one that is more than visual but also visceral.

Mood in photography refers to the overall feeling or atmosphere an image evokes in the viewer, ranging from joy and serenity to tension and melancholy. As broad as the gamut of human emotions is, so too is the possibility of touching them with a photograph. Mood is the intangible quality of a photograph, often created by a combination of many elements, a short list of which would include light and composition, the subject matter itself, and colour. But that is a very abbreviated list of how we can establish an emotional connection—to make photographs that are more expressive on the level that makes us sigh, laugh, cry, or feel wonder when we see them.

For those who aim to tell stories with their images (and not all of us do), an image that successfully conveys a mood can evoke empathy, curiosity, or nostalgia, drawing the viewer into the story behind the photograph. Making them care. Investing them.

Mood can also play a significant role in guiding the viewer’s perception and interpretation of an image. It acts as a lens through which a visual story is understood. It changes a photograph of something into a photograph about something more specific. For instance, a photograph of a deserted house might evoke feelings of loneliness or melancholy, suggesting themes of abandonment or loss. But the same scene captured with warm lighting and vibrant colours might create a nostalgic or serene mood, changing the narrative entirely. Through mood, photographers can steer the viewer’s emotional response and shape the story being told. Both hypothetical images I just mentioned are of the same thing, but they are about very different things. That’s the power of mood.

Beyond storytelling and emotional engagement, understanding and pursuing mood can just make prettier photographs. Stronger images aesthetically. Images that stand out more because they have a distinct visual identity. Whether it’s the ethereal quality of a foggy landscape or the raw energy of a stormy sea, mood adds depth and character to photographs, making them more memorable and impactful.

Mood is often what first captures the viewer’s attention—the hook that draws viewers in to explore the image further.

Complicated images with a lot going on can take a while to figure out. The impact is spread out and sometimes doesn’t hit as powerfully. Mood is simple; it’s a feeling that requires no figuring out. Mood is seldom a puzzle.

In portrait photography, mood can be used to reveal a subject’s unique personality or telegraph how they feel. It can connect us to a subject we might not otherwise care about. The landscape photographer relies on mood to transform ordinary scenes into extraordinary vistas, capturing the essence of a place—the feeling of it. Documentary photographers use mood to make us feel empathy about social issues. Any photographer wanting their audience to feel something would be foolish to assume that subject matter alone will provoke empathy when there are much more powerful tools available, among which might be choice of moment, point of view, or the brightness of an image.

Mood brings emotional depth; it is the life of an image.

For me, mood is often the why. It’s what draws me to make the photograph in the first place. And so it is perhaps a source of consternation or confusion when I look at the work of photographers new to this craft, and even back on years of my early work and see no mood. What power they might have had if only these photographers (and I) understood the possibilities. If only I had asked better questions than, “Which lens should I use?” or “What would a proper exposure be for this?”

When you first start out, it’s probably helpful that your questions relate to focus, exposure, or lens choice. But I’m increasingly convinced those questions should never be separated from this better one: How do you want the image to feel? Because even where focus and exposure (and lens choice) are concerned, your choices about how can never be separated from your choices about why. If I can see it, I can feel it. So if you make an image darker, I will feel that darkness and its accompanying mood. If your focus is so shallow that the out-of-focus highlights become globes of light and colour and the rest of the scene softens, I will feel that too. Or if your focus is so shallow I can’t see enough detail to make sense of the story, I won’t feel the power of that story. Not a single decision we make—either in camera or with development—can’t be used to make an image that is as visceral as it is visual.

Two questions that will change the way you make photographs: How do you want the image to feel? What would that look like?

If you’re open to a quick exercise, answer these two questions for me:

What do you love that conveys mood in an image?

What makes your heart skip a beat?

Many of the elements and choices that bring mood to an image are felt somewhat universally, but the ones we most like working with, the ones we most want to see in our images, are a matter of preference. I’d love to hear what those mood hooks are for you. My top three would have to be backlight, point of view, and the mystery that shadows create in an image. What are yours? You can drop those into the comments below.

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. Fog is its own mood and creates wonderful effects in images. POV, lens, and settings massage it, and done well, the viewer is immersed into a sense of place. Unlike trying to create mood, fog is a mood, as well as a catalyst for creative thought and photographic ideas

    On the other hand, a personal favorite technique to experiment with creating a mood …, to draw the eye of the viewer … or invoke curiosity or some emotion is through over exposure.

  2. When I can see and “feel” the pain, anxiety, happiness, sadness, sorrow, or joy of the subject of my photo…then I have “mood”. This can even be a scenic, not just a person, but I tend to lean toward people or animals when I seek out mood.

  3. Emotion draws me to the composition… the technician figures out the technicalities… then emotion kicks in again. Simple, perhaps not easy .

  4. For me, mood is created by mist and warm colours.
    Light reflecting on water and creating beautiful abstract art works lets my heart skip a beat.

  5. When I think of “mood” I immediately see fog. But I also think of morning light, when the sun illuminates just a small part and the rest is still in the shade. And then, of course, a combination of the two…

  6. Mood for me when traveling is often a captured detail or unposed moment that describes a characteristic of a place, of the people, and the colors. In landscapes, nature or urban settings, it’s fog, mist, silhouettes and again the colors

  7. Fog is my number one mood conveyor and light from broken clouds that spotlights different areas of the landscape will make me pause and wait, taking pictures as the light plays across the scene.

    1. I love candid photos. They capture mood so beautifully. Consideration given to the use of colour in an image also helps convey mood. Light and shadoes, etc. The list goes on.

  8. For me, colour and the lack of colour play a big part in a photo’s mood. Looking at a stunning sunset or a monochromatic image does something to me that is all about how the images affect me.

    1. I primarily photo places – big and little. Small details can capture mood but so too does big open space…

  9. People create mood more than places on their own. Yes, a big landscape or a waterfall in full force or grand architecture can impress upon us their power, but simply a child crying, or a mother smiling, or an old man with loneliness in his eyes, or a cute baby will far more easily create their own mood in a photograph. Most people engage emotionally to the mood of other people. This mood can then be amplified with the right choice of colour, especially white balance or monotone.

  10. I prefer humour as a way to move my mood. Particularly everyday observational humour from the likes of Elliott Erwitt and similar.

  11. my two are
    * Back Lighting – it shows something that is not always evident
    * Atmosphere elements – smoke, fog, haze for the way it obscures the details and causes me to write more of the story

  12. Negative space can work in a variety of situations. Contrast in content between the background an subject.

  13. First thoughts on “mood”: lighting (which would be both shadows and light flashes, focus (which might be movement, blur), and tone (in color, the palette:muted, stark, etc,: in BW, contract or muted).

  14. David! My mood hooks are white balance, the colors in the frame, depth of field and lighting (I’m a sucker for cross lighting).



  15. Your discussion of “Mood” and “Emotion” is particularly relevant to me. For years I was so occupied with capturing a literal representation of a scene as I saw it. To modify a scene was somehow irreverent. This was partly due to the fact that I was selling stock photography which often needed to represent reality (although that has transitioned in recent years).

    Since stock photography has become less profitable I have transitioned to art photography which has no limits unless I insist on setting those limits. I am realizing that I am really just limiting myself and my ability to create images can and should communicate a mood. With so many digital tools available now that can completely change the original capture the possibilities are endless!

  16. My mood hooks: silhouettes, especially partial, landscapes with a small human figure, black and white and sepia, simplicity/minimalism, human-animal interactions, remnants of the past in rural settings.

  17. David:

    I agree that your images need to have something to say, and the best images convey a mood, a feeling. At the same time, one must remember the perception wheel: no matter what effort you put into your images, every viewer will add their own history, vision, memories and feelings. It’s unlikely they will see all that you do. That’s okay. In fact it’s to be expected.

    I would also add that the technical aspects of photography are important as Capturing the image in the camera is only the first stage of the process. So much more happens with what you do with the image after you’ve captured it. I don’t intend to launch a fierce .jpg vs. raw debate here. Both have their place and there are advantages and disadvantages to both, but it’s important to understand that digital cameras don’t capture images. Digital cameras capture Information, and that information can be represented in a way that makes it look like an image. This distinction is more relevant for those who have worked with film. All things being equal, raw files capture More information (and yes, all cameras capture raw files, but not all cameras give the user access to them).

    Capturing the image is the first stage, and in that stage one Begins to imbue intent. This can include cropping/ formatting, perspective, DoF and so on. To that end, having some idea of lens choice, exposure compensation and more is important to capture the information you need to bring your vision to life. The second and possibly more important stage in this is processing that information and making it look like an image. Once you click the shutter you can’t recreate that moment (especially with available light.)

    Again, there are two camps here: those who enjoy raw processing and image manipulation and those who don’t – but make no mistake… I find it funny when I read comments like, “I don’t manipulate my images; this is straight out of camera.” This is a lie. It always has been. One has the choice between using the raw data captured at time of exposure and using one’s own skill with software and the processing power of a computer to create a final image, or using an algorithm created by a camera technician and the processing power of the camera to create a final image. No rights or wrongs, but for digital images those are the only two choices. Shoot film and scan it? You now have a digital image and all that implies

    As Alain Briot once wrote, when asked, “Do you manipulate your images?” Just Say Yes. Capture as much information as you can at the moment of exposure, and then use that to make your image express what you want it to say.

    My 2¢


    To manipulate means (in part), “to handle, manage, or use, especially with skill, in some process of treatment or performance”. Not such a bad thing at all.

  18. Sunset and sunrise provide very interesting moods from warmth to a cooler. The black and white is interesting to focus the attention on the subject and evoke a transcendent mood.

  19. Thank you David for touching on mood, a subject much less talked about by most photographers than other technical stuffs, perhaps because it’s intangible and hard to decipher, but no less important in deciding whether an image works or not, in terms of striking the emotion of the viewers.

  20. I am actually reading onJapan ink painting that is all about mood and emotion. I am trying to develop a photo project inspired byJapan ink painting. I would like to hear you on that.

  21. This does not apply to every picture, but when the condition is right for some, a desaturated monochrome set of colours, particularly those trending towards the low key or dark end of the spectrum, often create mood that resonates deep within, a mood denoted by looking somewhat at the world with watchful eyes and heightened sensitivity, a slight hint of detachment too.

  22. Twilight, makes me sad that another day is gone, a general feeling of a lingering ending
    sunrise, hope, joy
    fog, conveys mystery and peace ,..,head space that one can put any emotion they want.,

  23. Speaking of mood in portraiture, I just received my second Blurb book (thanks to one of your master classes). The title is “Pow Wow—Portraits of Honor”. Honor is the overwhelming emotion I feel at every Pow Wow I’ve attended. All the portraits, which were taken during the dances, are B&W with a slight sepia tone. A friend asked me why the pictures weren’t in color since color is so prominent at Pow Wows. My answer was that color will overwhelm your eyes and you will likely miss the emotion being expressed by the dancers, and that is what I want the viewer to see and feel. The sepia tone is an homage to the 18th century photography of Indigenous Peoples.

    1. Obviously I meant to write 19th century. As I left the house I thought, did I just write 18th century? Mea culpa.

  24. Last summer we took a cruise to Alaska. As we were passing through the Grenville Channel were the 3000 foot tall mountains come within 1/8 mile of the boat, the weather was foggy, drizzling, with a bit of rain. I was in seventh landscape heaven. The railing was mine entirely. Later that evening before a show, the Captain spoke and apologized several times for the bad weather earlier in the day. I thought the weather had been PERFECT! All in your perspective, I guess.

  25. Fog makes
    my heart skip a beat! I love the peace , serenity, and calm it invokes in my soul.

  26. Elements that hint to a sense of the “out-of-sight.”
    Fog, mist, shadow, shadow, contrast, and shallow depth of field can create emotional atmosphere that engages my imagination.

  27. Beautifully conceived & framed starting point for this particular conversation, David.
    Thank you.

  28. To me, “mood,” is a certain something that draws a viewer into an image, could be of any subject really, just so long as it contains a story, or feeling that goes beyond just the image itself. Hard to explain, easy to see or feel.

  29. Serenity created by a single element in soft snow. Mysteriousness from a semi dense fog. Joy of capturing warm colors of a sunrise or sunset through mist.

  30. I love the look – the feel – of MIST.
    A misty early morning scene reminds me of gliding through water in a kayak – a peaceful, easy feeling (apologies to The Eagles).

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