Building Mood Through Color

If you're like me, you have probably gone to take a photo of a beautiful sunset, but it just doesn't look as spectacular as it did in real life. While the sky is on fire, your photo looks dull and lifeless. 

Chances are you already know that color has a major affect on how an image looks, but color can also impact how your photographs are perceived. There are fields of study that look at the effect color has on our psychology; it is fascinating how different hues can elicit emotional responses within us, and even change our mood. 

As photographers we can take advantage of this. We can to go beyond recreating what we see, and use color to build mood within our images and bring our artistic vision into reality.


Reality Versus The Image

We like to think that reality is constant, and that it is the same for everybody. Aside from the obvious contradiction of color blindness, it's impossible that we all see the same thing.  With all of the minor differences in how we perceive the world around us, is it any surprise that we may not all see color the same way?

This is true for your cameras sensor as well. Because of the limitations of the technologies we use, they cannot reproduce everything we see. For this reason, when we create and edit a photograph we are always fabricating an image, even if you are simply trying to match what you saw in reality.

This fabrication can be pushed to create surreal images, or used more subtly to impart your intent on your image.


Building Mood

Every element of photography that we have covered so far has been a part of building an image bit by bit. With basic editing you can take your photograph out of camera, and adjust it to better match what you had envisioned when you made your photo. The two main ways to do this is with tone, and saturation.

Image Tone

Tone is also known as white balance, or color temperature, and is measured in kelvin. I will be covering this more next week, but at its basic, it is a spectrum from yellow to blue. Adjusting the tone of your image will change how everything in the image looks, which you can use emphasize the mood in your photograph. 

More yellow images are typically perceived as warmer, or  more inviting. Think sunsets on the beach, or an outing with close friends. Blue tones on the other hand are seen as cold, or foreboding. Think Winter storms, or abandoned buildings.

A scene will naturally have a certain tone depending on the light, but you can adjust it to better match what you want. Giving an image a contrasting atmosphere than what would be expected can be used to dramatic effect. 

Blue tones over an everyday scene will give the photograph a sense of tension; something will feel off. The opposite is true as well, giving a normally less pleasant scene a warm cast can make it seem more welcoming, or even nostalgic.

Although, this won't always be the case. Ultimately each image should be approached on a case by case basis depending on your goal for the photograph.

Hover over images for more info



Just like tone, saturation can have a subtle (and not so subtle) effect on the mood of your image. The level of saturation can make your photograph, lets say a picture of an empty beach, feel like a tropical paradise or a desolate waste.

When you press the shutter button though, your sensor will capture what it will. In the end it is designed to "see" colors a certain way. 

Although, by shooting in certain conditions it is possible to influence what it sees. Midday sun will washout colors reducing saturation, while rainy days will make them pop.

You can also (and most likely will) change saturation through editing. In higher-end editing programs you can even tweak saturation by individual color for a more nuanced effect.

Hover over images for more info


Color Theory

As you advance, you can move beyond the basics, and focus more on balancing your photographs with color. Color theory is a deep subject that I won't be able to get very in-depth with, but we can go over the basics to give you an idea of how to apply it.

The Basics

At the foundation of color theory is the color wheel. I am sure you are all familiar with the simple version of this, but a complete color wheel consists of more than just 12 colors:  it's more like millions! They include everything from hue (actual color) to saturation (the vibrancy), and sometimes even luminance (how light or dark the color is).

Using this wheel artists can work to create harmonious color arrangements using a variety of techniques. This involves choosing a dominant color, a secondary color, and occasionally more.

Dominant Color

As its name implies, the dominant color is the most prominent hue in your image. It will set the mood for your photograph, and can change how other colors in your image appear (like the old optical illusion). Using similar (monochromatic) colors through out the image will give it a coherent feel that really pushes your intended feeling.

Secondary Color

The secondary color can be used in many ways. It can draw attention to a certain part of the image, highlight the subject, or it can be the focal point of your photograph.

Ideally, a secondary colors will be complimentary (opposite the dominant color on the color wheel) or analogous (nearby the dominant color, i.e. yellow and green).

Hover over images for more info


Additional colors

You can always have more than two colors in your photograph, but the more you include the more difficult it can be to balance the image well. Below are a handful of links to resources that can help with creating more complex compositions.

An introduction to color theory by Pixel Magazine

Ted Gore's color theory and landscape photography

A very in-depth technical look at color by Dave Morrow


In Practice

Every decision we make as photographers, even the minor ones, has an impact on our final images. When you consider everything you have to think about, it can be overwhelming, but having a vision before you start creating makes all of the decisions much easier. Both before, and after you press the shutter button. 

Since we all perceive reality slightly differently, every photograph you make will be a creation of how you uniquely see the world. Knowing this, it is important to be deliberate while you work so your vision isn't lost. Be aware of the tone and energy of your scene, the various colors and how they interact. Think about how you can use them to your advantage, and how you can best arrange the frame to highlight your desired mood.

Like the rest of the elements, there is a lot of variety in how you create using color. With time and practice, you will be able to build your ideas into amazing photographs.