How To Create And Cultivate Mood In Your Photographs

How To Create And Cultivate Mood In Your Photographs

If you’re like me, you believe that within every photo there are a multitude of layers that exist. Whether it’s the eyes of our model, the body language of the engaged couple, or the overwhelming joy and love we see expressed in the smile of a groom seeing his bride for the first time, each photo we take, each photo we see, tells us a multitude of things about the particular moment that the shutter was clicked. If we wish to convey this to our intended audience, it becomes our job to not only create the mood in our photographs, but to facilitate it, cultivate it, and keep it going all throughout the photo shoot. 

When I first began take pictures of people, I think did so in perhaps the most boring, straightforward way possible. It wasn't intentional, but I’d set up my lights, set up my camera, put the model into a specific pose, snap a few images, move around a bit and repeat the process until I felt I was satisfied with what I had gotten. As I uploaded the photos to my computer, I remember always feeling a certain level of disappointment because I always seemed to feel that I never quite captured the moment the way it had happened. Sure, I got some ok photographs, but there was no mood, there was no emotion, there was just a subject within a frame. As a young, inexperienced photographer, I leaned toward blaming everything from the model down to my camera and lighting setup. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it wasn’t their inability or any lack of specific gear, it was in fact my inability to direct and my inability to create a mood on set that led to such stale photographs. 

As I’ve mentioned before, for the longest time I tried to copy the photographers I looked up to - I followed and copied their work to the letter, watched their videos, copped their retouching style, etc. While I did manage some decent copies - er photos, I always felt that I wasn’t doing what I wanted - I was shooting my interpretation of someone else’s concept. And that sucked. The realization that I was setting myself up to be a copy of someone else hit me like a ton of bricks. I very clearly remember thinking, after one particularly similar photo shoot, “this isn’t why I picked up a camera…” 

I decided to take some time to think about it not only in relation to myself, but to every photographer I knew. Why do we pick up a camera? Why do we do this? Why do we obsess? I immediately came up with all the cliché answers that anyone could ever hope to find; to tell stories, to be an artist, to express emotions, to show the beauty in the natural world…. blah blah blah. My answers were all noise - every stale answer that I'd heard other photographers say was exactly what I found myself now saying. Ugh. 

After a bit of soul searching and several conversations with people much smarter and much more universally in-tune than I, I discovered that at least in my own case, what I wanted was for my photos to be representations - representations of my models, myself, my personality, and my life, everything that I loved and everything that I love (there, not cliche at all, eh?). I wanted to leave it all on the page, so to speak and I could only do that if I was shooting as myself. This discovery led to several more revelations. 

What is a Mood? 

When we look at a photograph, what is it about it that strikes us? For me, it’s the way the model interacts with the viewer. Is he/she looking at the camera? Are the looking off screen? If we buy into the photo as we do a movie or television show and our model then becomes our actor/actress, what is happening in that exact moment the shutter clicked? What are their thoughts? What is the mood of the photograph? In short, do we want to be there in the frame ourselves? 

Mood - to me - is ultimately what sucks the viewer in and separates a good photo from a great photos - it’s what takes us from sitting at our desk, standing in a gallery, or browsing through a magazine rack and places us firmly within the frame. We’re there. We’re feeling what their feeling, we’re seeing what their seeing. Their skin is warm, our skin is warm, their eyes are lost in the past, our eyes become lost in the past. They're hungry, we too, become hungry. The mood of a photograph is the feeling you get when you see it. If it's properly executed, it can take you on a million mile journey without ever having left the spot you're standing in.

To me, is a beautiful thing. That is why I picked up a camera. 

With all that in mind, I’ve taken some time and thought about what helps me bring about a mood to my work. What I’ve listed below is the result. While it’s not an exhaustive list and it might not work for everyone, it is currently what works for me and what I currently try to abide by.

Think about what it is you bring to the table. Each of us has different skills / talents / understandings that we carry with us. Learn to enjoy and appreciate that. Creative jealously is a useless trait and one that’ll sink our ships before we’ve even left port. I guess this relates back to being OK with what you shoot and/or what you want to shoot. Acceptance of self is a tremendous hurtle to get over, but once you do, the world will open itself up to you.

Be Mindful of What You Want (and convey that to your subjects/team, etc). There are few things more frustrating than spending time planning and shooting then getting home and realizing that somewhere along the line you veered off track and are now looking at a completely different concept. While mistakes can of course lead to new discoveries, it’s important to remember why you're shooting. What concept are you going with? What mood are you hoping to convey? Fun, happy lifestyle? Quirky senior portraits? Loving engagement session? Artistic bodyscapes? High fashion? 

Being mindful of what you want will clear the path toward actually getting what you want (sounds easy, but it takes some of us (like me) way too long to learn this)

Speak openly and honestly with your team. This one took me forever to learn. When I first began, I had always assumed that everyone shows up to set knowing exactly what is expected of them. While that may be true to a certain extent (a makeup artist is going to do makeup, a stylist is going to style, etc), when you get down to specifics, it’s not the case. Open communication leads to less confusion and less confusion leads to better and better results. When speaking with your model, you should be able to express what you want from them - what feeling he/she should have in their eyes, what emotions they should be expressing. When speaking with your team, you should be clear in your vision. If necessary, carry a thesaurus and work your way through it, searching for common adjectives that help your team understand what you want from them and what you can build together. If you have to, bring your inspiration photos to the shoot and feel free refer back to them often.

Play the part and learn to envelop your set in the mood you want to create. If you’ve ever seen my work, you know that I shoot fun, beachy, lifestyle, sometimes sexy images. I do this not because I happen to live by the beach, I do this because it’s something that I deeply love. My childhood, teens, and twenties were spent in the sand with a surfboard under my arm (or beneath my feet) and a skateboard not far from me. When I picked up a camera, it was just a natural progression from one to the other. If you were to take me and plunk me down in the middle of a city and told me to shoot, I could manage, but I’d be out of my wits the entire time. What I mean by this is to find what you love, shoot what you love. There is a saying amongst writers that for the best results, they should write what they know. As a photographer, I know I’m at my happiest when I’m shooting what I know and what I love. I think there is a believability that is noticeable to the viewer. If I were to fake it, not only would I know it, but my intended audience would see or at least sense it as well. 

What do you want the audience to feel when they look at your photo? You already know what you want the audience to see when you take a photo, but have you considered what you want them to feel? You know, this is probably the most important thing ever. If nothing else, skip everything else I’ve written here and try shooting with this in mind. I’m confident it’ll change the way you see and shoot things.

As with all things, there are many different approaches and methods toward getting what you want. What I’ve listed here are just a few that work for me. I’d love to hear what you do to help create a mood on set and maintain it all throughout your respective photo shoots. 

John Schell | Instagram | Twitter | FacebookVimeo

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17 Comments

Peter House's picture

Awesome advice John. I think you are a true master in this regard.

Matt Owen's picture

Thank you sir, your experiences are helping all of us.

Nick Auskeur's picture

Great article. You write about photography in a way that really resonates with me and allows me to think beyond the technical. Cheers.

John Schell's picture

Thank you! I appreciate you saying that! :)

Just amazing! I just found out about you an hour ago on FRAMED and had to find everything else you're associated with. I can definitely resonate with this article

John Schell's picture

Ahh, thank you!!! Can't tell you now much I appreciate that. Look for a new Framed episode coming soon. :)

Dani Diamond's picture

John, you F****G rock bro!

David Vaughn's picture

Great advice! I constantly struggle with engaging subjects and therefore engaging viewers. I hope to incorporate some of this info into my future photos.

Great advice. For leading a team, communication is essential.

I love this! I had taken a break from photography because I compared my work too much to others and never felt "good enough". I too would try to "copy" certain things other photographers did and I was never happy with the end results. I am just now coming back and have realized I need to shoot what I love not what I think other people love or what other photographers shoot. This was a great affirmation to my current creative process. Thank You!

Very good article John. Thanks for sharing your great insights and photos.

Thomas Wickl's picture

Thank you for this Article, it really helps me a lot at this time :) Keep up the goof work!

Elan Fraiman's picture

A real eye opener for me, Thank you very much.

Roy Rivas's picture

Great article as always John!

Chris J. Evans's picture

Great article John! Add in a little chemistry between the subjects and the photographer and bam! I love the way you connect with your subjects even when there not paying attention to you. Great work.
-CJE

Michael Rapp's picture

Great article, John!
You put your finger on some of the stuff I'd been bringing back home, then going "what was I thinking?!"

Martin Beebee's picture

Great article, touching on points I think are easy to overlook and forget about when you start getting wrapped up in the details of the shoot. Stuff I'm going to keep in mind for today's shoot. :-)

I'd love to see more articles like this on fstoppers, and fewer of the "headline click generators" -- even if it means fewer overall articles.