Three Ways to Create a Mood in Portrait Photography

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The photos we like best are the ones that evoke our emotions. We’ll look at three ways to create a mood in portrait photography

How Do You Create Mood in Portrait Photography?

Before we get into these three methods, you must determine what mood you want to establish. Is it a sense of belonging? Do you want to create something sultry or positively energetic?

Your subject can bring out his or her emotions and sensibilities, but that’s only half the job. You must complement your subject’s mood with your photography skills as a photographer.

1: Styling

Food photographers know the benefit of working with a food stylist. Portrait photographers should know the benefit of working with a good Make-Up Artist (MUA) or fashion stylist. Let’s face it, we don’t all have an innate sense of style. That goes for models as well as photographers. Working with a good MUA or stylist can set the scene for your mood.

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The image above invokes intimacy. The setting and her clothing work together to support that mood.

If I wanted to provide a sense of family or motherhood, she’d probably wear something else and have her hair styled differently. They say “Clothes make the man.” It works for women, also.

Imagine your mood. Create a scene that fits it. Then find a style to bring it alive.

Look for a setting that supports the mood of your photo. It could be in stark contrast to your subject’s wardrobe, but that kind of dichotomy works in art. The setting doesn’t have to match the wardrobe. It has to match the theme of your photo.

Some of my favorite examples of this theming comes from Joe McNally’s portraits of Olympic athletes. Naked, powerful, and athletic.

They’re America’s team. He isn’t showing them in a traditional setting, but rather showing the athletes of America in different parts of America. It’s unique and interesting, and supports the message of America’s Olympic Team.  Doesn’t matter if you’re a farmer or a stock broker. They’re here representing you.

2: Lighting

Your lighting setup has tremendous impact upon the mood your photo conveys. Try to get the viewer to match the emotions of the subject. A shot with high energy may work better if you blast everything with hard light. Something more intimate requires a softer lighting approach with dramatic light fall-off.

Shaun Tia

Shooting in low light creates a sense of mystery, as does creating a silhouette. You can under-expose your background while adding just a touch of light on your subject to keep the viewer’s eyes locked and engaged with your photo.

Use light and shadow to isolate your subject, to create a sense of form, and to create a sense of curiosity. Over-lighting a scene eliminates shadows, and with it, eliminates mystery. Make your viewer wonder just a bit. Doesn’t matter what they wonder. Let them fill in that blank on their own.

3: Post Processing

Different post processing styles can enhance your mood or conflict with it. Choose the style that works best with the mood you want to create. I love color, but the portrait below works better in Black & White. Color is a message all by itself. You can eliminate it if it becomes a distraction or selectively boost it to enhance an area of your photo.

Window Light Portraits

You decide for yourself, though.

Photographing Hands To Tell Stories

Some photographers desaturate the color in their photos and add high contrast to create a grungy appearance. You can direct the eye by sharpening some areas and softening others. The possibilities are endless, but they must be complementary to your subject and your mood.

You can create something ethereal with a composite, or make your subject hyper-realistic. The key is to balance the amount of post processing technique you use with the impact you want to create.

Otherwise, your viewers will stop thinking about the mood of the photo because they’re too busy criticizing the technique in the photo.

How to Create a Mood in Portrait Photography

Remember that most people who look at your photos don’t care about your tools or technique. They want to feel something. If they don’t, then they’ll pass over your photo in a split second. You can create a mood to keep them drawn into your portrait photography.

Before you get ready to shoot, you need to consider what message or feelings you want to share. Create a mood of some kind.

Once you understand the mood you want to evoke, then support it with your three elements.

  • Style
  • Lighting
  • Post Processing

Make sure your photo stays on target to evoke the emotion you desire from start to finish.

Photographing Hands To Tell Stories

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