Photographers spend a pretty large part of the learning stages trying to master the art of the perfectly exposed photo. A perfectly exposed photo, as they would have you believe, has a classic bell curve-shaped histogram that rises in the middle and tapers off gradually towards the highlight side and the shadow side. Now don't get me wrong, I am in no way disparaging that classic histogram or the perfect exposure that goes along with it. But we should be questioning that word “perfect,” because perfect is nearly always in the eye of the beholder. And while there is a lot to be said for mastering that classically “perfect” exposure, you should not underestimate the power of also mastering the moody exposure. Read on to find out how.
[ Top image Summer left over by Flickr user MaxGag]
The word “moody,” of course, can mean different things to different people—but for photography it often refers to scenes that are dark or even a little gloomy. Now I do want to say right from the beginning that “dark” is not the same thing as underexposed. An underexposed photo just looks, well, underexposed. There's an art to creating a dark photo that looks moody, and not just like it's too dark.
Using natural light to create mood
You already know that the best light can usually be found at either end of the day—during the hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset. During this time of day, the light is low and even and also has a warm color to it, which makes not only for perfectly exposed photographs, but for photographs that have a certain golden quality to them. Now, if you want to lose some of the cheerfulness of those golden hour photos, try waiting until just after sunset, or arriving a little earlier—just before sunrise. This time of day is known as the “blue hour,” and if you want that moody, dark quality to your photos it's the perfect time to shoot.
Now remember that if you're going to be shooting during the blue hour you have some challenges. The first is the already low light, and the second is the fact that the low light gets even lower with each moment that passes.
The first thing you'll want to have with you is a tripod. With a tripod, you can use a slow shutter speed without having to worry about camera shake—which is something that will likely be required when you’re shooting during the blue hour. Tripods are great for capturing moody landscapes or stationary subjects, but do remember that a tripod won’t stop motion blur if you’re trying to capture moving objects such as people or animals. If your goal is to photograph something that’s not moving, however, you can mount your camera on a tripod, set your ISO and aperture to reasonably midrange values and still get a sharp photograph.
What if you get caught out without a tripod? Fortunately, with today's modern cameras you have a lot of options. Try turning up your ISO—if you have a newer camera, you should be able to shoot at reasonably high ISOs without noticing a whole lot of noise in your photos, but if you're unsure, it's always a good idea to do some tests at varying ISOs to see at what point your camera starts to produce visible noise.
Dungeon by Flickr user MacPepper
Another option is to shoot with a camera or lens that has a large maximum aperture, such as a 50mm prime lens, which can typically go as wide as f/1.8 or even f/1.4, depending on the model. That larger aperture allows more light to reach your image sensor, which in turn lets you turn down the ISO. This can be handy especially if you're using a camera that doesn't have a particularly good high ISO performance.
Of course you’re not always going to be out with your tripod and camera during the blue hour, so if you're hoping to find moody light and subjects at other times of the day, where should you go? Well first of all, look for indoor subjects or outdoor scenes that are well protected from the sun—deep shade like you might find in a thick forest can give you a moody photo at almost any time of the day. You can also create a moody feeling by combining different types of light—for example, natural light, especially fading light used as a backdrop against a campfire or bonfire can look really moody in a photo. Now again, I do want to caution you against deliberately underexposing your photographs, even a little bit, because underexposing can create problems with noise and can also cause detail in the shadows to become a “clipped” or lost and unrecoverable. You always want to try to get the best possible exposure in-camera, and then take your file into post-processing if you think you weren't able to capture the mood to the degree that you'd like to.
In post-processing, use the exposure tool to darken the image and change the exposure to what it would have been if you’d underexposed it in the field. Then use the highlights slider to increase the brightness of the highlights alone. The reason you're doing this is because you don't want the entire image to appear underexposed—you want those highlights to be just as perfect as they were in the original. This will create that moody feeling without an underexposed look.
Entangled by Flickr user sleepyvt
You can also try adding cooler colors to create a moody look—just go into post-processing and adjust the saturation in the blue channel. As with any kind of post-processing adjustment, make sure you’re working at 100 percent magnification so you can watch what happens to the details as you make those changes. Sometimes, especially with features such as saturation, noise reduction or sharpening, you can go too far, and it may not be obvious if you are zoomed out at the time. If you're looking at the details, you will really start to notice when noise becomes a problem or when colors start to bleed together, or when you’re getting outlining around areas of high contrast. Always make sure you stop before this point or you will end up with a photo that looks more cartoonish than it does moody.
Now what if you are shooting portraits? You can capture moody portraits as well, and you don't even need a moody teenager to do it. In most cases you can completely change the feeling of a photograph just by the way you've lit it. Try lighting your subject with a single light source—if you place that person in a darkened room next to a window, the window light becomes your single light source and the opposite side of his face will fall into shadow, which makes for what we call “Hollywood lighting.” This is a dramatic way to create a dark mood with a simple lighting technique.
Moody flash by Flickr user Daryl Brown
For an even moodier look, try making your subject appear to be surrounded by darkness. The easiest way to do this is to use a black backdrop—but you can also achieve good results with any dark-leaning background as long as you have strong light on your subject and she is standing a good five to 10 feet away from whatever is behind her.
Another great way to capture a gloomy mood is to pay attention to the weather. Fog is pretty naturally moody, so if you shoot photos in the fog there's not really much post-processing you'll have to do afterwards to give them that darker quality. Do remember a few things about fog, though—the light is very flat and there isn't going to be a whole lot of dynamic range, so though you won't need to add anything in post-processing to achieve that moody quality, you may need to make some adjustments to lift the contrast a little.
Also keep in mind that fog is pretty temporary—it rarely hangs around all day, so if you are treated to a rare foggy morning get out there early and take full advantage of it. It's also a good idea to know the area. Where does the best fog appear? Certain valleys and fields always tend to accumulate fog, so if you know where those places are you can head out early and have the best possible chance of capturing those moody images before the fog vanishes.
Like fog, clouds can also create a dark, moody atmosphere. A gathering storm always seems ominous, and those heavy clouds are a great indicator that something dramatic is about to happen—even if it's just a change in the weather. Heavy clouds tend to look more dramatic around sunset (though they can be so heavy that they block out the sun completely), but watch them throughout the day and try to photograph them at a time when there is also some sun penetrating through or some obvious texture in those cloud formations.
Buachaille Etive Mor by Flickr user chuckrock123
Sometimes you can get too much dynamic range in the sky even on a cloudy day, so if you're photographing clouds and you find that the foreground is consistently underexposed compared to the sky, try using a graduated neutral density filter. This is a filter with a dark part and a light part that screws on or slides over the front of your lens. If you position the dark part over the sky and the light part over the landscape, you'll get more even exposure across the whole image.
Moody photo opportunities often take us by surprise, which is yet another reason why all photographers should learn to pay attention to light—not just when taking photos but when walking around without a camera, too. If you're constantly paying attention to the light you can develop an instinct for it, and that instinct will really help you find and incorporate great light into your photos—moody or otherwise.
- Use natural light
- Blue hour
- Deep shade
- Settings and processing
- Use a tripod
- Use a wide aperture
- Use a higher ISO
- Don't underexpose—instead, change the exposure in post
- Try Hollywood lighting
- Use a black backdrop
- The weather
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