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How to Capture Mood and Atmosphere in Your Photos

Why is it so difficult to capture the cozy ambiance of a cafe in a picture? Or the casual atmosphere of a warm bonfire with friends on a summer night? Learning how to capture mood and atmosphere of a scene is a skill that is elusive for many photographers.

A man fishing, in a photo that has been taken to capture the mood and emotion of the scene.

This is because the finished product isn’t only about getting the technical settings and composition correct. The image needs to evoke something in the senses; it has to capture the visceral aspects of a scene, the sights, sounds and smells so that every time you look at the picture, you are brought right back into the moment.

As always, rules in photography are made to be broken. So this list is meant to help you explore the creative aspect of how to capture mood rather than a firm lecture on how x will help you accomplish y.

Here’s a rundown of some of the things to consider when you’re trying to capture the mood, atmosphere, and emotion of a setting. Your goal; looking at the picture later brings you right back into the moment.

Candid Versus Posed

Photography is artificial. That little black box that you use to take pictures necessarily is always between you and the subject. That’s why it is really impressive to see photographers who can take incredibly natural pictures – almost as if a camera wasn’t even involved in the process.

Two boys canoeing, in a photo taken to capture the mood and atmosphere of the shot.

When capturing a moment, your goal should be to take a candid photo, where your subject(s) are unaware of the camera. This helps to create a final image where the viewer feels like a fly on the wall. A picture where everyone is staring straight at the camera, on the other hand, pulls the viewer out of the moment and draws attention to the artificiality of the process.

Walk into a room with a camera and you can see how everyone changes the way they smile, their posture, etc. Everyone wants to look good for the camera. But by being super aware of the camera, the mood of the moment is lost.

Of course, it’s not always an option to take a candid photo. This is where you need to have the skill to make a natural picture by giving direction or helping the subject feel comfortable to the point that the shot looks real, rather than staged.

Consider the Lighting

Lighting always plays a huge role in your image. To capture the atmosphere of a specific moment, your goal should be to emphasize that lighting as much as possible. Typically, a warm or cozy setting will involve soft lighting. For example, with a summer evening comes soft orange light and a radiant glow outlining people lit by the sun.

So how can you show this? Experiment with shooting with the sun behind your subjects. A camera on automatic mode will struggle with this and will make your overall exposure too dark. Try either adjusting your exposure compensation to shoot a brighter picture, or go full manual and explore the creative possibilities!

Shooting into the sun also often results in lens flare – and you can use this effect to your benefit as well. Lens flare can help add a real mood of summer and warmth to a picture.

A warm, summery picture of a couple driving a car - capture the mood and atmosphere of the shot.

Low light pictures can also really stand out. The soft glow of a bonfire or candlelight often throws deep and intriguing shadows. To capture this, you need to consider the direction of the light. Someone looking away from the light source will have their face in deep shadow – and it likely won’t make for a very interesting image. But, by turning them back towards the light, you can really bring out texture and personality.

In low light, your camera will often tell you there isn’t enough light and will flip on the pop-up flash. What should you do then?

Ditch the On-Camera Flash

Using the flash on your camera is a sure way to add an unnatural feeling to an otherwise warm and cozy atmosphere. The main reason for this is because there are different temperatures of light. Some types of light look warmer; some look colder.

The light from your flash is balanced to match the type of light you’d find under the midday sun (daylight). Light from a bonfire or candle, however, contains a lot more orange. The light from your flash will look very blue in comparison, and this mismatch of colors is easy to recognize in the finished image.

Light from the flash is also on nearly same the angle as the image. Since we don’t normally view people or objects with light coming from the same angle as our eyes, this looks strange. This also has the effect of removing the shadows and textures that give the image a sense of dimension.

Of course, the reason your camera will want to use flash is because there isn’t much available light. This brings us conveniently right to the next point…

Use a Wide Aperture

If you can’t add light with flash, you’ll need to find another way to collect enough light to capture the image. This can be done by opening up the camera’s aperture. Aperture is measured by f-stops, with a lower f-stop number (like f/4) meaning that the lens is opened wider to let in more light.

A boy looking at a lantern, where the photo has been taken in low light - capture the mood and atmosphere

Prime lenses, or lenses that don’t don’t zoom, can typically open to a wider aperture. For this reason, they are an ideal choice for capturing the atmosphere of a setting when there isn’t much light to work with.

Besides just gathering more light, a wide aperture will give your image a more precise point of focus (shallow depth of field). Whether the focus is on a person or a detail, the viewer gets a sense of being close and intimate with the scene.

The bokeh, or out of focus area created by using a wide aperture, also throws the background into a creamy blur, which both helps to remove any clutter from the shot and lets our imagination wander to fill in the blanks.

Show the Setting and Environment

A man on a sailboat, with the photo taken to show the setting and capture mood

Whether you are using a wide aperture or not, you’ll want to show the setting the get a clear sense of content. Capture the details that make the setting memorable and put everything into context.

A technique I like to use is to include an object or person in the foreground of the shot. By framing the shot with foreground elements, I can create the illusion of being a participant in the event. This technique also gives a strong sense of depth to the image, which can help make it a more memorable photo.

A man on a mountain, taking a photograph

Capturing Emotions

More often than not, our fondest memories are closely tied together with the people we experienced them with.

For this reason, a good way to capture the essence of a moment is to get a shot of people interacting with each other. It can be through buoyant smiles, a tight hug, or a tear of joy rolling down a cheek.

A soccer player is nervous as her team takes penalty shots - capture mood

It isn’t always so easy to spot these little moments, and they also tend to disappear quickly. Likewise, it takes a bit of observation and creativity to find the moments that really bring out the drama or happiness of a scene.

Bringing out the Textures

Maybe you can’t capture sound and smell with a photo – but you can appeal to those senses by bringing attention to details that are familiar and remind us of a distinct sound or smell.

The sharp texture of stone or the gritty feeling of sand are very familiar to us, so having those textures prominent in a picture helps us experience the image more strongly.

A man explores a snowy entranceway, with sharp textures giving the photo a mood

Editing Your Photos

Often, you can really bring out the mood of a shot during the editing process. Whether you are using Photoshop or a simpler editing program, here are some tips for emphasizing the style you want in your final image.

Consider how color influences your photo

Color is important for establishing the mood of an image. Muted or darker colors can give a feeling of reflection, sadness, or calm. Brighter and vibrant colors, on the other hand, suggest happiness.

Color temperature

A picture’s white balance can be set or adjusted to bring make an image feel hotter or colder. The difference between a warm summer evening and a cool winter’s night should be evident in your pictures.

White balance works on a sliding scale from yellow to blue. Experiment to find the right setting for your image. If you shoot in RAW, you will be able to freely adjust your white balance without any quality loss in your picture. If you shoot JPG, there won’t be nearly as much leeway.

A photo edited in two different ways, showing how white balance can influence the mood of an image

The strong blue tones in the original image on the left feel calming and introspective, while the edit on the right feels much more energetic. These two versions also give a very different impression of how warm or cold the morning was.

The Film Look and Experimenting with Black and White

Some editing styles can help invoke a sense of nostalgia. The “film look” adds a feeling of timelessness to a picture, even to those who are too young to remember the days of taking and developing pictures on film.

An image of a snowboarder, edited in a nostalgic and retro style

The editing of this picture gives it a retro feel, as though it was taken several decades earlier.

If you want to play around with this style, there are many different presets and filters that can get you started. This style will typically desaturate colors, remove some contrast, and add some grain.

Converting your image to black and white can also give your photos this sense of nostalgia. Play around with your edit and see what you can come up with!

An image edited in black and white to give it a feeling of melancholy and emotion

A black and white edit on this image makes the mood feel much more melancholic or thoughtful.

So good luck with your practice of taking images that capture the mood, atmosphere, and emotion of a scene. Until scientists invent a time-machine, it’s the best way we have to travel back and experience a friendly place or memory once again.

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Frank Myrland
Frank Myrland

is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he’s been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

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