Using Colour to Create Mood

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You have reached the archive of articles posted on my personal blog. This blog is no longer updated, but you can read my latest articles at my new website The Creative Photographer and find my photography ebooks at my new store.

Thanks for reading! Andrew.

Chinese Lantern Festival, Auckland

Last week I looked at several techniques you can use to create moody images. Now I am going to explore some of the ways that you can use colour to create beautiful, evocative images.

Nothing works in isolation. These ideas give the best results when combined with the techniques discussed in my last article (which you can read here).

Simplify colour composition

I’m a big fan of simplicity in composition. Good photographers learn how to include only the things that are really needed within the frame – and to exclude anything that isn’t required. The same applies to colour too.

The reason that many colour photos don’t work well is that there are simply too many hues within the image. But by thinking of your subject in terms of colour you can look for ways to simplify the colour content of the photo. The more you exclude, the more powerful the colours included in the image become. Bear this principle in mind as we go through the rest of the article.

The photo at the start of the article has a simple colour composition. The predominant hues are red, orange and yellow.

Chinese Water Dragon

Let a single colour dominate

One way to create a powerful image is to let a single colour dominate the composition. A relatively easy way to do this is close in on the subject to exclude any distracting colours in the background. This is easiest with a short telephoto lens such as a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera or an 85mm lens on a full-frame camera (or zooms covering these focal lengths). This is the technique I used for the opening photo, and also for the photo of the lizard above, where the dominant colour is green.

Photographers are limited compared to painters because, post-processing aside, we have to work with colours as we find them. A painter can use whatever colours they want, but we can’t do that. Therefore we have to develop our observational skills and look for subjects with interesting colours to use in our photos. Looking for brightly coloured, interesting subjects then closing in on them with a short telephoto lens so that one colour dominates is a good way to develop your observational skills.

Dongtai Road Antiques Market, Shanghai

Soft colours

This is a different approach to using bright colours like red, orange, blue and green. Look for soft, pastel shades instead. This is a more subtle approach and can be very effective when combined with moody lighting. The photo above works because there are a lot of soft and neutral shades within the image.

Bethell's Beach, Auckland

Take control of colour temperature

Colour temperature is an important factor in creating mood and atmosphere. If you are accustomed to setting your white balance to auto, now is the time to stop. Instead of trying to capture a neutral tone, use the colour of the light to your advantage.

For example, portraits often benefit from a warm colour balance. The result is more flattering than a neutral colour. The same goes if you’re shooting in the golden hour. Try raising the colour temperature to warm up the image and enhance the natural warm colour of the light.

Even sunsets can benefit from this treatment. I processed the photo above applying a high colour temperature setting to emphasise the warmth of the image.

Alternatively, if you are shooting at dusk, then use a lower colour temperature to enhance the natural blue hues of the light.

Bethell's Beach, New Zealand

I prefer to shoot in Raw and adjust the colour temperature in post-processing to suit the mood that I want to capture. I created the seascape above by setting a low colour temperature in Lightroom to give the image a cold, stormy feel.


In Lightroom 4 you can use a mask to create different colour temperature values to parts of the image. I did that with this portrait, applying a warm colour balance to the girl, and a cold one to the background. You can also do this in Photoshop by using masks and colour balance adjustments.


Bright colours against a neutral background

Another way to use strong colour is to look for situations where there are strong colours against a neutral background. For example, if you are taking a portrait, then you can really bring the colours within their clothes and skin to life by placing them against a neutral background such as a grey wall, as in the portrait above. You can also experiment with using white and black as a background.

Single colour against a contrasting background

Some colours work well together, and others clash. This is called colour contrast. If you have a photo with strong colour contrast, your eye will move from one colour to the other, creating a sense of movement within the image. You can use this to create strong, dramatic and moody compositions.

Colour wheel

How do you know which colours to use? The answer lies within the colour wheel (above), a tool used by graphic designers and artists to understand the relationships between colours. If two colours are on opposing sides of the colour wheel, then they are said to be in opposition to each other. Using these colour combinations in photos (all the while working to keep the colour composition as simple as possible) is an effective way to create moody images.

Red flower

Here are a couple of examples. The first shows a red flower against a green background, a common combination found in nature.

Island Bay, New Zealand

The second shows a contrast between orange and blue.


Harmonious colours

The opposite approach to using contrasting colours is to use harmonious colours. On the colour wheel, harmonious colours are those that are close to each other.

The photo above is an example of using harmonious colours. The red telephone box is complemented by the red colours of the girl’s clothes. The effect would be completely different if she was wearing green or blue – those colours would clash with the red telephone box creating an entirely different composition.

Xin Yi

Toning black and white

If you are working in black and white, you can still use colour to create mood. You do this by toning the image. For example, sepia toning is often used to create an image with a warm feel. Sepia tones are flattering for photos and landscapes.

Laguna Blanca, Bolivia

Another approach is use a blue tone. This creates a cold feel that suits wintry scenes or desolate landscapes as well as some portraits.

As toning is achieved in post-processing you have the freedom to try out a number of colours to see which effect you like best. It’s a good idea to keep your tones subtle rather than garish – sometimes less is more when it comes to creating mood.


This article just touches on some of the ways you can use colour to create mood in your photos. I think it’s a good idea to cultivate an awareness of colour, and to think about the colours that are going to be in your final photo at the point you take the image.

Another point to bear in mind is the post-processing treatment. It’s quite possible that you will enhance an image by warming up the colour temperature, or de-saturating some of the colours, for example. There are lots of ways you can alter colour in post-processing. Good photographers visualise some of the possibilities when they take a photo. All it takes to develop this skill is practise.


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One Response to “Using Colour to Create Mood”

  1. Baart1980 says:

    Great article, thanks !

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