Good photography, just like any art, should tug at our heartstrings. Images should make us feel one way or another, and if they don’t, we tend to ignore them. What you photograph is important. We’ve shown how subject selection can seriously impact the mood of your photos. But there’s something else that goes beyond this. As you’re about to learn, lighting is just as important. I’ll show you why.
We all have a strong emotional connection with light. We know how we feel on a bright sunny spring morning and on a gloomy cloudy day. At night, when there is no light, we feel a little on edge because we can’t see what’s around the corner. And what about the faint glow of a fire in the middle of the winter? That’s the kind of light we associate with a feeling of warmth and comfort.
It’s no stretch to say photography taps right into this emotional connection. A mostly dark photograph automatically conveys a sense of looming terror, and a photo of a candlelit dinner makes us feel at home. You just can’t deny these things. They’re in our everyday experience.
But good “mood lighting” isn’t always about these pre-conceived feelings. When used with the right subject, it can enhance a feeling that’s already present. Just have a look at the girl above. You can immediately feel her loneliness, but that’s not only because she has a melancholic look on her face. Something else is going on behind the scenes.
To take this photo, the photographer shined a spotlight on her, illuminating most of the frame while a small part remains in complete darkness. The darkness represents her feelings of isolation and uncertainty. It is an amorphous mass that she, and the viewer, do not fully grasp or understand. The combined effect of her expression and the lighting creates something that tugs on your heartstrings from both sides.
What else can you do with lighting?
Mood lighting can accompany any kind of picture you take. Some of the more artsy photographers use it to give landscapes a kind of sleepy haziness that’s reminiscent of a lazy summer afternoon. Have a look at this one.
It kind of makes you want to fall asleep but in a good way. The photo immediately gets you to think of early mornings just after the crack of dawn. Sometimes it makes me think of a late afternoon nap when you wake up just as twilight hits.
What’s the best way to use lighting for mood?
This is one of those few areas where the things we see with our eyes informs our photography. Certain times of the day will already have a kind of mood, but we can also create the right lighting conditions to convey a feeling. The key is to capture the light in the right way.
Here’s a good example. Let’s say you’re taking pictures in candle lit room. Someone is standing in front of a few candles, and you want to capture the mood. What do you do?
- Take the picture on automatic with the flash like your normally would.
- Switch to manual mode and take a longer exposure.
If you answered number two, you’re on the right track. To get the most out of mood lighting, you need to allow the lighting to do the work for you. As soon as you introduce flash, it literally ruins the mood. In order to take the picture above, the photographer had to ask the girl to stand still and hold the candle for the duration of the rather lengthy exposure.
Play with shutter speed to create different moods
Shutter speed controls the lightness and darkness of the photo. In a lot of situations, you don’t even need to create your own lighting. You can modify the mood by adjusting the shutter speed up or down. To make ominous looking clouds, try picking a faster shutter speed. Here’s what you’ll get.
The faster shutter speed allows less light into the camera, darkening the clouds. Because they are darker, they appear to hold more water. To your eye they might appear normal, but in the resulting image they portend a looming disaster.
It ultimately comes down to either controlling the light source itself or controlling the shutter speed in the camera so it looks like you have different lighting. Here we’re controlling the shutter, and the result is dark and ominous clouds.
Light and mood are as inseparable in photography as they are in our daily lives. Take a lesson from the fear you feel walking alone at night and the togetherness you get from sitting in front of a campfire. It will tell you a lot about the way light affects mood in the pictures you take. In many ways, you already know what you’ve set out to learn.
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