Go DARK to create fantastic moody photos

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In photography, we’re often told that the ideal exposure is one that creates a bell-shaped histogram, smack dab in the middle of the tonal range, with a good balance of darks, mids, and brights. Even when post-processing, the general rule of thumb seems to be to keep the histogram right between the uprights; boost the shadows and pull down the highlights to create a balanced histogram, add some contrast and saturation, and voila! While this approach has led to millions of beautiful photos, what happens if it doesn’t suit the mood you’re going for?

Let me suggest an easy approach to add mood to your photos…

In post-processing, decrease the image’s exposure, then use the highlights slider, whites slider, tone curve, and/or dodging feature to increase the brightness of the photo’s highlights. The dark exposure creates the mood whereas the bright highlights maintain good global contrast which prevents your photo from looking muddy or flat. The bright highlights also call attention to the luminous parts of your photo, giving them extra draw and visual importance.

Take the following photo, for example. I shot it at Milford Sound in New Zealand. The first version is well-exposed with a bell-shaped histogram and, in post-processing, I preserved that histogram. In the second version of the image, I deliberately darkened it, then pulled the highlights back up. See how the second version has a more interesting mood? The quality of the light is more obvious as is the contrast between the light and dark parts of the photo.

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Note that I said “in post-processing, decrease the image’s exposure”. This means that, in the field, you should still follow all the normal guidelines to get a good exposure. If you underexpose in the field, you risk having a low-quality, high-noise, clipped-shadows photo to deal with in post-processing. If you get a good exposure in the field, you’ll have the best image data to work with when editing.

And in regards to that editing, I find a combination of steps works the best. I often drop the exposure (and yank the shadows up if I’m starting to clip), then pull the highlights back up. If I need a little extra ‘oomph’, I slide the whites slider up or I pull up the highlights on the tone curve. Typical adjustments might look something like the following histograms. Note how they’re biased toward the darks with a long tail stretching off toward the highlights.


The following are the results of a moody image with eye-catching highlights.

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It’s important to note that this technique doesn’t work for every photo. I’ve found it most effective with images that have a luminous quality or in situations where contrasting the lights and darks serve to highlight a single element.

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In each of these examples, the first photo has a traditionally “good” histogram, with a balance of darks, mids, and brights. Each of the second images have been “mood-ified” and have a histogram biased toward the dark side. Notice that in these second images, there is more interest and ‘punch’ and the method serves to highlight specific parts of the photo.

So… give this technique a whirl. Even though it’s not appropriate for every photo, when it does work it adds a beautiful mood and feel to your images.

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Thanks for reading and feel free to share your own images to in the comments below.

About Author Joshua Cripps

Joshua Cripps started making remarkable photos while he was still in the womb. His first significant image, titled Sonogram, was praised for its graininess, deliberate blurring of details, and gritty black and white mood. Earning two thumbs up from his parents, this photo only hinted at things to come. Since then Josh has won countless awards and accolades, including more than one “Certificate of Participation,” dozens of “Good Sportsmanship” plaques, and the coveted “Busy Bookworm” award. His mantel long ago collapsed under the weight of gold-painted, plastic trophies.

Currently Josh spends over 700 days every year in the field seeking out the finest landscapes on earth. He has a mighty beard and sings in a rich baritone. Hiking at least 45 miles to capture every photo, Josh ensures that every image he crafts represents the very heart of the wilderness. While you were reading this Joshua Cripps did 93 push-ups, won more awards, and became internationally re-renowned.