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How to Use Light to Create Moody Images

It isn’t difficult to take sharp, well-exposed photos with modern cameras. But how do you take it a step further and create moody images that capture the spirit of a place?

What is mood?

I define mood as a feeling or emotion you get while experiencing something. For example, while travelling through Xi’an, a city in China, last year I spent some time in the city’s Muslim Quarter. I felt a mixture of things – overwhelmed by the crowds and the sticky heat, fascinated by the sights and smells coming from stalls selling home-made street food, and claustrophobic while wandering down hutongs (alleyways) connecting the main streets. Then there was the paradox of the city’s ancient open air mosque – a peaceful paradise amongst the noise and dirt of the old city.

Mood and light

The mood in this photo was created by the mix of artificial and natural light. The lights in the market stall bathe the scene in an orange glow, while the blue light of early evening creeps in at the edges.

Once you have the sense of the mood of a place, you can start thinking about how to capture that in a still frame. Part of the answer lies in composition and the subject. In this example it is obvious that well composed images taken amongst the hubbub of the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an will help capture the atmosphere. But the one thing you really have to pay attention to, the thing that will elevate your photos above the ordinary, is light.

How light and time of day affect your images

Most photographers are familiar with the idea that the moodiest, most evocative lighting comes at either end of the day, close to sunrise and sunset. Golden hour is the name for the time when the sun is close to the horizon, casting golden light that creates long, raking shadows. The blue hour is the time at dusk, or just before sunrise, when there is light in the sky and the natural color of the ambient light is deep blue.

The light at both these times is incredibly moody. Once you have found an interesting place to photograph, and identified with the spirit of the place, then you really can’t go wrong by venturing out at these times to take photos. Yes, you can take interesting photos at other times of the day, but the light won’t be as evocative.

One of the challenges of working in moody light, especially during dusk, is that light levels are low. This is less of a problem than it used to be because high ISO performance on modern cameras is so good you can easily raise the ISO to work with a hand-held camera in low light. It also helps if you have a prime lens, as this lets you use wider apertures which let more light in, enabling you to use lower ISOs or faster shutter speeds (or both). Image Stabilization in its various forms may also be useful.

Mood and light

This photo balances the orange glow from the lanterns against the fading blue light of the evening sky. I used an ISO of 6400 to work in low light shooting without a tripod.

If you are a landscape photographer, these points aren’t so important, as you would simply use a tripod to support the camera, allowing you to use small apertures, low ISO settings, and long shutter speeds (another tool for creating mood in the landscape) without camera shake.

Returning to my example of taking photos in Xi’an, I didn’t bother going out with my camera in the middle of the day (when the light was too harsh). Instead, I visited it in the late afternoon, when the fading light and encroaching artificial lights added to the mood, and helped me create a sense of place. This was as interesting time to work, as the low light and the crowds created various challenges to be overcome.

Mood and light

Look carefully at this image and you’ll see that the ground is glistening after a rain shower. Together with the out of focus orange lights in the background, this helps to add mood to the photo.

Mood and light

The green fluorescent lights in this image create a different type of mood. The fluorescent light is ugly, rather than beautiful.

Using color contrasts for more drama

One of the key aspects of light at the end of the day is that it often utilizes the contrast between orange and blue. It is something you see a lot in the landscape, with the orange light from the setting sun contrasting with the blue of the sea. Or you may have a photo taken during the blue hour, with a corresponding contrast created by an artificial light source. Sadly, the practise of using fluorescent or white LED lighting is making this less common, but it is something to look out for.

Mood and light

This photo, taken during the golden hour, shows the contrast between the orange light casty by the setting sun on the tower and flag, and the blue sky.

I recently came across an example of this color contrast in a blacksmith’s forge in Lincolnshire, UK. The forge is a historical building, and the people who work there use techniques that were used in the forge over a hundred years ago. The interior has changed little in that time – one of the blacksmiths told me that they are visited by people who remember the forge from childhood over 50 years ago, and say it still looks exactly as they remember it.

There were two types of moody lighting in the forge. One was daylight coming through the small windows, the other was orange light coming from the fire in the forge, and sparks cast by the blacksmith as he worked. I chose to emphasize these even more in post-processing, by using a split tone to give the background a cold blue color.

Mood and light

What examples of moody lighting can you think of? Please let me know in the comments.

Mastering Photography

If you’d like to learn more about creating beautiful photos with light then please take a look at my ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras.

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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