The Problem with Mood

In Photographically Speaking, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David24 Comments

I do a little moonlighting for a small computer and imaging company that rhymes with Snapple. They are under the mistaken impression that my nearly 40 years behind the camera means I know what I’m talking about. Still, I like the challenge. One of my first tasks as their Creative Storytelling Specialist (yeah, I don’t know what that means, either) was to help the engineers understand mood as it relates to picture-making.

So to get a head start, I did some poking around the internet in hopes that people with greater minds than I had already articulated the idea of mood. Mostly what I found was the advice to “put more mood in your photographs,” as if I were being told to add more salt to every recipe. Not helpful.

The problem with mood is it’s not really one thing. Add mood? What kind of mood? If mood is about emotional connection, as I suggested in my last article, then surely we can be more specific about which emotions. But before we disregard the advice entirely, it’s worth acknowledging that it comes from a good place, a recognition of the power of mood.

The desire for more mood in our photographs—not unlike the desire for more salt—is a desire for more flavour. Only in this case, the flavour is emotion. It’s a desire to move beyond the pursuit of perfection in our images toward something a little more poetic. Poetry is about feelings; unless you’re working as a forensic photographer, feelings are probably something you hope to stir with your photographs. And that requires interpretation. It requires making choices that sway an emotion one way or the other. It requires taking some risks because almost every choice that leads to more emotion in our images is a choice that deviates from the playbook we were all given with our first cameras. It’s a move away from average and towards more flavour. Pass the salt, please.

So back to my early efforts to articulate mood as a powerful tool (more like a toolbox, really) in photographic expression. Once I got over the confusion about why so little insightful information was out there, here are the first three realizations I had.

You Can Learn Mood

Mood isn’t the result of secret techniques, or even advanced techniques. It’s more a result of refined sensibilities. Maybe it’s also a matter of priority. It’s in looking for it, chasing it. It’s in recognizing it when you see it and knowing which choices can amplify those emotions through the image. And those are all present as visual cues that we can see and learn from. You can learn this.

Set the camera aside for a moment and think about a photograph that you love—one that stirs something in you. Maybe one of the iconic images that made so many of us feel the power of the photograph and want to pick up the camera ourselves so we could find that power and beauty. What makes you feel the way you do about that photograph? Is it only the subject matter?

I love bears, but not every picture of a bear makes me feel anything. Some make me feel bored. They lack mood. But the ones I love? It’s more than a bear. Bear in great light, perhaps. What kind of light is it, and what did the photographer do with it? Maybe it’s a bear in a great moment. Maybe it’s the camera placement or a story implied by other elements in the frame. Maybe—probably—it’s all that. Whatever it is, you feel it because of something you see. And if it’s something you can see, it’s something you can learn.

In short, don’t spend more time studying your technical tools than you spend figuring out your mood tools.

Light Is Everything

The first thing we look to when we chase mood is light. And so it should be. Light is so often the first thing that hooks us. We feel something about light that resonates with us. We feel differently about backlight than about front-lit scenes. We feel differently about softer light than light that’s more direct and makes harsh shadows. We respond to the shadows and reflections created by light. Where light is concerned, what we seem not to respond to is, well, boring light. Average light. That’s not to say you can’t make expressive photographs in boring light, but it won’t be light to which we respond but something else. A different hook. So if light is so powerful, why do photographers insist on painting with anything but light that has the power of an emotional hook? If you want mood, look to the light. 

It’s Not All About Light

At the same time, it’s not all about light. There’s a reason photographers use different focal lengths, and it’s not just to “get more reach” or get more in the frame. It’s because different lenses feel differently. They interpret a scene differently. So do the places in which we put the camera. And the weather. And our choice of moment. Of course light isn’t truly everything. All our choices, all the elements, are everything.

And that’s the problem with “put more mood into your photographs.” It’s every decision we make—or it can be. But here’s the other problem with mood: there are no rules. There are hooks, elements and choices that we do or don’t respond to, but there’s no playbook. Not really. And so it comes down to having a sensitivity to those hooks, taking risks, and knowing what stirs the OMGILT (Oh my God, I love that!). Many things stir emotion in our images—and nearly infinite combinations of them—but you won’t love to use them all. You won’t love the same colours I do. You won’t be as excited by the same focal lengths or perspectives nor drawn to the same subjects or stories.

Your Turn. There’s a Prize.

Are you up for an exercise? How about if I put a prize on the line? In the comments on my blog, tell me about that photograph I asked you to imagine a few paragraphs ago. Describe it. Tell me why you feel the way you do about it. It’s probably not just one thing, but many. What gives that photograph its mood, or what makes you feel the way you do about it? Don’t hold back. I’ll draw one person’s name from the comments below for a free enrollment in my next course, which may or may not be coming out soon and is all about mood and making photographs that elicit a more powerful emotional response. Who’s in?

Updated: On May 20 the blog had a catastrophic meltdown, threw a complete wobbly, and then died. We restored it but 50 of your really thoughtful comments got erased. We’re working to restore them but it’s not looking good. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. There was some really good stuff in there….😞

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. Take 2:
    It was snowing so hard that you could hear the silence. Oversized, thick snow flakes in the foreground create a textured curtain. Peering through them i can see the small, colourful shapes of people snowshoeing far in the distance. They are the only colour among the tall, grey trunks of trees. The trunks, white on the side where the snow sticks, disappear into white sky above, white ground below. Their vertical shapes create the illusion of folds in the fabric of a curtain. They also add tension to the otherwise very soft and quiet mood. We get the uneasy feeling that all the trees look the same, the path is quickly being obliterated, and we’d best catch up to the other people. It’s easy to become lost, our call would be absorbed by the felted snowscape, and darkness comes early at this time of year.

  2. Last week I randomly picked up a book of Steve McCurry photos. His portraits blew me away. I already knew his Afghan Girl but the book was full if images that were equally compelling. His focus on the eyes, side lighting to hide one side of the face and the colors of the clothing really hit me. The eyes of his subjects tell the story and are so expressive. Seeing many of his portraits in one place gave me a real sense of his style and how he consistently uses light, color and focus to draw you into the image.
    Also, I noticed the similarities between the style of his photos and a number of your photos. I mean that as a compliment!

  3. The photos I’m thinking of are from a series that Christina Merk created of draft horses. All of them have the same power and beauty that drew me in – it helps that I love horses.

    The horses were all moving and the sense of freedom and joy shone through. The strength and grace of each animal came across beautifully – I wanted to be in that field, watching those horses all day. Those photos took my breath away – especially one of a black stallion with his long mane streaming behind him in the wind.

    The lighting was soft, with a dreamy, often dark, with dramatic effect.

  4. Darn, my comment also seems to be gone 🙁
    The digital world can be as ephemeral as the snowscape I wrote about. Since i wrote off the cuff, i did not keep a copy. It was a description of a hike on a snowy day and, just like the snow, it disappeared. The soft sigh of snow…
    Please let me know if you’d like me to try again.

  5. My image is taken from a series of images created by Guy Duley, One Second of light. The image was taken in Angola in a hut where widows congregate after their husbands and in some cases entires have been killed in the civil war.
    Smoke swirls upward from the red-hot embers of a fire that has burned down through the night, situated in the middle of the hut. The white smoke spirals upwards and through the hole in the roof of the structure made from baked cow dung. A woman wrinkled with age beyond her forty years, hands gnarled and swollen from hard manual labour, in the field outside the hut pokes the fire back into life with a stick and her breath, the fire begins to flicker into life
    Across the room a small window framed by sticks projects a light warmed by the early morning sun, casting orange beams into the smoke, The light defused by the smoke cannot hide the skin on her hands that look like leather work gloves, the beams light create a high contrast on the skin. The light illuminates’ other widows in the hut creating a corridor of light focusing your attention toward the woman at the fire.
    The image has been created in black and white removing the distraction of the red-hot embers and other colours generating a mood and emphasising the harness of the world that these women live in.

  6. The image I have in mind is about skepticism. My son, my grandson (1.5 years old) and myself were sitting at a table. My son and grandson opposite to me. I had the camera pointed towards them waiting for an interesting moment.
    I took some picuteres, but the one I love most is the one about skepticism. My son is looking sceptically to me, so right towards the camera. His son is looking to his father on his right side, also sceptically. I don’t remember what my son did, but for my grandson this was more interesting at this specific moment that he interrupted his painting.
    There a two sceptical gazes in this image which lasted may be only a fraction of a second and I think I was prepared (lucky) to capture these.
    We were sitting outside. As it was cloudy the light was very smooth. So the light did not contribute to the mood, but this was not necessary.
    As the distance between me and my (grand)son was near, I used a wide angle lens but I also see neither a positive nor negative contribution to this emotion / mood.
    Important is the POV in combination with the wide angle lens so that I could capture these two gazes in one picture.

  7. My comment also got swallowed up by the internet, but I had it saved elsewhere! Here’s what I wrote:

    Thank you for this essay, and for the opportunity to gush about a photograph that moved me. Just yesterday (May 18th), a friend shared a photograph she had submitted to a dog photography challenge theme we are participating in. The challenge theme we were creating for focused on processing our images in monochromatic tones. My friend’s photograph took my breath away. It features her light-colored dog posed on a rock set against a cliff with a waterfall. The waterfall is streaming down in multiple streams around the space where the dog stands. The dog is looking up and in the direction of the largest stream of water. It feels powerful and emotional and wild and alive. And and and! The use of body position, tones, shutter speed for the water, how the light moves through the image, and framing of the dog have me so inspired.

    1. Author

      I love this! Thank you so much for re-posting it, Marika!

  8. Phooey, I don’t see my comment here either so will try to recreate it but am grateful I can finish my thoughts!

    If you make me pick just one image, I choose Fan Ho’s White Windows, though Her Study and Hong Kong Venice could all be easily tied for 1st place. A commonality amongst these three images is how small the people are in their surroundings and their surroundings are dark and ominous-looking creating a sense of people fighting for survival in a harsh environment.

    In White Windows, a woman in light colored clothing has a baby strapped to her back. She has stepped out of the shadows and into a shaft of light and she’s about to step out of the light and back into the shadows. The baby is looking at the photographer, which makes a very strong connection with me. We see only a slice of a narrow alley with very tall buildings. This gives me a sense of being stuck, of confinement, because I don’t see any escape routes. I can’t see the sky, or the top of the buildings or where this alley starts and ends. But for me, the most compelling part of this image is that I cannot see where the woman is going. She is not headed to an obvious doorway, or stairs and she’s only a few feet from a wall. It gives me the sense that she can’t go anywhere, she’s headed to nowhere.

    The light is coming from the upper left and it makes the open but dirty windows glow white. The windows seem to belong to apartments, or maybe a factory, but there’s hope in them. They are open and bright and welcoming and the complete opposite of the ominous and bleak environment. They offer the light in darkness, the hope in despair, that maybe there’s another world on the other side of those windows that is warm and offers the possibility of a better future for the baby on her back.

    What initially drew me to the image was contrast; the blacks and the whites, but most notably, so much more black than white. I have struggled mightily with those who have told me there’s too much black, or not enough detail in the blacks, but every time I tried to “fix” that, I felt it ruined my image. I loved that Fan Ho told an amazing story without worrying about all of the details in the shadows. That it was the light that mattered. This image was one of the first images that actually made me feel, not just think, “ooh, that’s pretty”.

    Fan Ho’s images aren’t pretty, but they’re beautiful and they make me feel.

  9. I’m sure you will know the photograph I’m thinking about by Paul Nicklen. It was taken from the inside of a cabin with a polar bear peeking through the open window. Having read his story behind it I know that he intentionally lit the oil lamp next to the window providing a warm glow to contrast with the cold snowy world beyond the window. The look of curiosity on the bear’s face is calming, not threatening. The photograph is layers of contrasts… warm and cold, human-made and natural, and apex predator as something else.
    The photograph gives me hope that we, humans and non-humans, can possibly go-exist if we only try harder.

  10. David, I want to leave you two images from Watergate Bay, near Newquay in Cornwall, UK. It’s normally a busy surfing beach (which I’ve visited many times) but on one day in May 2015, heavy sea mist had rolled in. The beach was deserted. Lifeguards were sitting in their truck with nothing to do. The outlines of cliffs were only faintly visible. Warning flags flew fitfully. The mood was one of gentleness, isolation, thoughtfulness, and lots more. I’ve never seen it like that since, but it stays in my memory.

    1. I was checking online to see if there were things to do when I visited my daughter in Leeds and an exhibition by Ian Beesley in Saltaire popped up. A few black and white photos accompanied the article, and my reaction to one took me by complete surprise….thinking of it now even makes me cry. A old woman sitting in a wheelchair holding a photograph of a child to her face…caressing her cheek with it, her face full of love, anguish, yearning. I read the description and I sobbed. For me Ian has captured raw emotion that I physically respond to….I can feel pain in my chest, I cannot not cry when I see this image, talk about and think about it. I will go see his exhibition with some trepidation about how I will cope seeing the photograph in a public space such is the emotion that I feel about this image. This will stay with me forever and I am in awe of Ian’s ability to produce a piece of work that to me has made such a powerful connection. Exhibition is called ‘Life goes on’ and the photograph is Dolly

  11. One of my own photographs comes to mind in regard to your thoughts about mood. It was a great lesson for me in contemplating exactly what it is in a photograph we respond to. Some years ago I walked out early one morning after a heavy snowfall with nothing but an old three megapixel cell phone in my pocket to see if there was an electrical line down across my long gravel road. The light certainly was strange and amazing, the smell of the air, the beautiful snow covering everything. I was filled with an intensity of peace, an inner stillness, feeling completely present in the moment. Without really thinking about it I pulled out that three megapixel cell phone camera and took a few photographs. One of those photographs called “The Way Home” was later chosen as a winner in the Project Imagina10ion photo contest out of thousands of photographs much to my amazement and many many people have commented to me about how that photo affects them emotionally, even though one could say it’s only a simple landscape. This is what I’ve come to believe and understand about how and why that photo and perhaps any photo can affect us through “mood.” We all are actually light… our bodies are literally made of the same substances as the stars! We are consciousness and if you reada bit about the theory of non-locality in quantum physics, you might contemplate that if two electrons once connected are forever connected no matter how far apart they are in space or time, then is it not reasonable to think that the state of consciousness one is in when they take a particular photograph might be communicated through a field of consciousness that connects us all? That what we felt in the moment that photograph was taken could be felt by others viewing it, not only because of photographic elements in and of themselves, but through our connection as conscious living beings? One other example comes to mind. Just recently I took a quick cell phone photo of the morning sunlight shining through and backlighting an oregano plant that’s sitting on my porch railing. After posting it on Facebook for fun a friend surprised me by commenting that it was one of her all time favorite photos of mine because she felt my love for the plant coming through that photograph.

    Not sure if mine was one that got lost but I happen to have composed it in a different program and hadn’t deleted it so I’m putting it here again.

  12. [Oh dang 🙁 My comment was one that got lost to the ether. I don’t think I can remember everything I wrote the first time, but I’ll try.]

    In speaking of mood, I immediately think of the photos from Larry Towell’s _The World From My Front Porch_ because I had the pleasure of seeing some silver gelatin prints from that collection recently. One of my favourites is the photograph of Larry’s daughter Naomi, looking about 6yo, standing in the corner of an abandoned farmhouse under the fascia of the second floor stairs and on the top landing of the basement stairs disappearing into the dark in front of her. She is standing next to a window with a three-pointed arch (resembling a church window), with a tree in the yard framed neatly so that the window is almost a painting. 

    The photo is all mood to me, principally because of the quality of the light inside the building contrasting with the bright daylight and open space beyond the window. The light reveals and hides the decay of the interior wallpaper, ceiling, and floor, making me feel sad about the deterioration of a home for a family I’ve never known, making me think about unfeeling time, how brief our time is to enjoy the things we have, and other existential notions.

    The highlights and shadows are beautifully balanced and structured. Naomi and the tree, alive and growing, balance each other and are set out apart from the dead building.

    Naomi is also examining something (it could be a shell?) in her hand that I presume she found in the house. Her presence, a wispy and clean contrast to her surroundings, makes me think of my childhood exploring not abandoned houses but houses under construction in our suburb. The photo reminds me of the childhood freedom exploring dangerous places our parents wouldn’t want us to play in without close supervision.

    And I think for Naomi, the farmhouse is not a sad place but a slightly magical place. If there are ghosts, she’s not afraid of them. She wants to talk to them and find out if any kids lived there and what happened to all their toys.

    The overlapping moods I feel when looking at this image are why I love it so much.

  13. The one I have in mind is by Elena Shumilova and is of a small girl hugging a huge dog. They have their backs to us and are looking towards a foggy landscape. There is a dirt road that meanders off into the distance, into the fog. The colors, the lighting, the distant scene obscured by fog all contribute to the mood. The figures are centered with the moody day all around them and heading off into the distance. Yet, even though the world around them would suggest that they are the only two living beings for miles, the little girl is with her big dog! Therefore, it seems like everything is going to be okay and it’s even a little bit magical.

    However, the mood in that photograph isn’t just about a photographer’s heart, skill, available light, or the contrast between the foggy solitude and a loving relationship. As a fellow human (at least, I think I’m human), I bring something to that photo, too: Shared experience.

    For example, even though I’ve never had a huge dog, I know how safe a beloved dog can make you feel, I know how lonely a foggy morning on a dirt road can feel, and I remember what it felt like to be a small child. All of this impacts my experience with this photo I love so much. And, in the the case where I might lack experience (like, in seeing a wild rhino first hand), I would love to see one in the wild and wishes like this are a share human experience. (PS Your photo, above, fills my heart with awe!)

    So I wonder if mood is really about recognizing those very human moments that inspire specific emotions (I’m talking high percentage linkages, here), photographing what you can, and strengthening the experience via editing. Maybe the trick is about visual metaphor–learning what they are, how to photograph them, and how to enhance them in just the right way that adds to the emotional impact that’s already there–all while “salting” and “spicing” it up in just the right way that your voice comes through, too.

    Then again, is there really enough time for all of that? Maybe we just need to develop our craft and chase not just the image, but our own human hearts. If something inspires us, it’s probably going to inspire others. So then, it’s a matter of quality which comes from chasing, photographing, and learning how to do it better and better and better.

    Which, in the end, is why I’m such a huge fan! You help us do that and have fun at the same time. Thanks David!

  14. The photo I’m thinking of is of horses running in the morning sun. There is a touch of fog, but it is bright, and the horses are backlit, so the manes and tails are haloed and a-glow, and the hooves are a bit blurred with the motion. The mood is freedom and joy – the light, the warmth, the motion all says “come play with us!”

  15. The photo that I took of an elderly man completing a ritual of washing his hands in the Ganges River in India is one of my most favourites that has mood. He is very intent on what he is doing and that shows as he oblivious to anything going on except the task at hand. There are shadows that don’t distract from the image but do enhance his physique and his wrinkles. The shadows also enhance the mood (and colour) from the water dripping to his right which almost appears to be running into the bowl he has at his side. The light heightens his look by enhancing his clothing and the tones of his skin.
    Here is the link to my photograph:
    Ritual from JunePry Award winner on VIEWBUG.

  16. The image I have in mind is a bunch of buildings half shone on by a beam of light after a rainstorm. The sky which the buildings were standing against was still very dark, with patches of dark clouds hanging around a deep blue background. A beam of light was piercing through from behind and hit on the buildings. The buildings were only half lit up cos the angle that the light was coming from, the buildings in front casted a shadow on the lower floors of those at the back. So the whole picture is intertwined with areas with varying degrees of brightness and darkness. The lower left and upper right corner is almost in complete darkness. This contrast of light and shadow is one of the keys elements building up the mood of the picture.

    The buildings were mostly with white walls, those with colours were of very pale pink and purple, giving a mostly monotone colour profile. This, together with the dark blue sky, created a sober and sad feeling that adds to the mood.

    Finally, the scene gives an impression of a ray of hope after something difficult, adding a hint of upbeat mood to the lingering dark tone.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.