Story and photography by Viktoria Haack
When does a photograph change from being purely documentary to something more? Something closer to art? For me, it’s when the image either captures a mood or generates a mood or emotion in the viewer.
My personal definition of a moody image is one that captures or draws forth a sense of emotion; it expresses feelings in some way, even if just by eliciting them from the viewer. Maybe it allows us to feel the atmosphere of a landscape as if we had been there, or perhaps we feel the emotions of a person or animal depicted in an image. Maybe we begin to feel there might be a story connected to the photograph. Perhaps it leaves us with questions or we just get some type of feeling from a shot. This is my hope with the majority of my images. I want the viewer to feel something, but it’s not always easy to generate this reaction.
So, how can we create mood in our images? The initial step for me is to feel the scene. This can be akin to placing myself in a fantasy dimension where I allow a story to develop in my mind, imagining the landscape to be from a scene in Lord of the Rings, for example, or when shooting a portrait, allow myself to imagine a story developing around the subject.
One of the best ways to capture a feeling of mood is through the use of light. For example, choosing to photograph away from the brightest hours of mid-day, perhaps in the golden hours of sunrise or sunset, or by shooting pre-dawn or post sunset and even into the night. If we shoot during these periods of low light, we will very often need to use a tripod to support our camera, or if shooting a subject other than a landscape we may bump up our ISO and perhaps shoot wide open (the lens is at its largest aperture, i.e. F-stops at small aperture numbers such as ƒ1.4 or ƒ2.8). Using a shallow depth-of-field throws the background out of focus and allows our minds to do some work trying to figure out what’s surrounding the subject. When we shoot in low light there can be a mystery to the image as we try to work out what’s in the darker recesses or blurred background of the shot.
We can also shoot into the light and backlight our subjects. This again can create a very moody result. In these situations, exposing for the light may turn our subject into a silhouette, or exposing for the foreground subject may allow the background to blow out. Of course, we can also use flash to balance out the light and potentially create some beautiful, moody portraits that way.
Choosing to shoot in different weather conditions is another way to create mood in an image. Light filtering through fog or mist can be extremely emotive. Dark, heavy storm clouds or falling snow, for example, can all be great to help create an evocative feeling. As a photographer, I always welcome unusual weather as an opportunity to capture an atmospheric shot. This can sometimes mean getting wet between rain showers or wiping dampness, fog or snow off the lens.
Another way I enjoy creating mood is by using slow shutter speeds. Long exposures require us to support the camera on a tripod and generally use a remote shutter release or self-timer to prevent camera shake. For these type of shots, we need a moving element to the image; it could be racing clouds, moving water, blowing grass or car headlights after dark. Neutral density filters can be used to cut light entering the camera if we need to slow our shutter speed more than the conditions of the moment will allow. Long exposures are a great way to turn what could be a fairly mundane subject into something more interesting.
We can also create mood by carefully selecting the colour palette of a photograph. For example, limiting the image to cool blue tones, or converting to black and white during the editing process.
Editing photographs to generate mood after their capture is a great way to create an emotive image. The first step in this process can sometimes be to shoot more than one exposure. For example, when shooting landscapes, I often bracket my shots (take a series of images at incremental exposures above and below the camera’s suggested exposure) to ensure that I’ve captured the whole dynamic range of a scene. With advancements in technology and image editing software such as Lightroom and Photoshop, I find more often than not I can get by with just one RAW image as it will contain the full dynamic range of light from the scene. However, when I’m selecting which shot to process, it’s often the slightly darker images that catch my attention. I may ultimately edit the image with the better-exposed histogram, but I may choose to make my edit a little darker to mimic the feelings I experienced when in the presence of the scene itself.
Mood is often found in images that leave something out of the narrative, inviting the viewer to fill the gap. When we consciously invite mood into our work, we start to move away from just taking photographs and begin to actively create images. For me, this is when my work becomes truly creative.