How to Create Drama and Mood in Landscape Photography
What makes a landscape photo standout from the crowd? Is it light, composition, creative exposure, or simply good camera skills? To be honest, it is normally a combination of all these things. However, there is also one other, key ingredient: mood. If you want your images to be truly memorable, you need to capture landscapes that evoke a genuine feeling of awe. But just how exactly do you bring drama and mood to your landscape photography?
What immediately springs to mind when you think of a moody landscape? Maybe it is a dark brooding sky, raking golden light, a scarlet red sky, a white, frosted landscape, or wisps of mist hanging over the landscape.
Truly atmospheric, magical moments are usually related to certain types of weather condition; as landscape photographers, we are reliant on the “weather gods” to add a touch of drama to our shots.
Unfortunately, the weather and light are things we have absolutely no control over. So how do we ensure that we are in the right place at the right time? There are never any guarantees as you can’t ever truly predict the weather, but good planning, experience, and intuition will help you make good decisions regarding which location to visit and when.
Lady luck also plays a role. It is true what they say; the harder you work, the luckier you get. If you wish to capture magical images, you have to be prepared to put in the legwork and graft. By regularly putting yourself in the right situations, you will be rewarded. The more time you spend behind your camera, the better your chances are of capturing those special, transient moments.
To capture moody landscapes, you not only need to have mastered camera technique, but also the skill of conveying atmosphere. Great landscapes should provoke an emotional response from the viewer and communicate a certain mood. For example, desolation, scale, tranquillity, or calmness.
Atmosphere is often short lived, though. All it takes is a small gap in dark, gloomy rain clouds to allow the sun to burst through long enough to illuminate the landscape below, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. However, with the window of opportunity often being short-lived, you also have to learn to anticipate and react to conditions.
Be prepared to wait for light, setting-up and composing your shot in readiness for the right conditions to combine. But, contrary to popular belief, you don’t always need great light to capture mood. Mist, fog, big skies and seasonal changes are all quite capable of producing magical conditions.
While all manner of things can potentially add drama to your shots, below we take a look at a handful of the best conditions and approaches for bringing mood to your photography. Remember, you will want to carry all your normal landscape kit, including a good range of focal lengths (from wide-angle to medium telephoto), plus a good sturdy tripod, ND and polarising filters, a rain-sleeve for your camera, and good warm and water/wind proof outdoor clothing and stout footwear.
The light of the Golden Hour
No other time of day is as magical as dawn and dusk. Landscape photographers commonly refer to this as the “golden hours,” when the sun is low in the sky and the quality of light is perfect for illuminating and shaping the landscape.
Light is a photographer’s language; it’s the key ingredient that allows us to convey atmosphere, depth, and the beauty of scenery. The conditions and light tend to be at their most dramatic around half an hour before and after sunrise, and around half an hour before and after the sun sets again in the evening. However, the length and quality of the best conditions naturally varies depending on the conditions, location and time of year – so don’t take the term too literally!
The light at both dawn and dusk tends to be quite similar, so to a large extent it is possible to generalise about the advantages and challenges of shooting at these times. The light is typically warm and glowing, and the sun’s low position will attractively light the clouds from underneath. Given the right cloud and conditions, colour can radiate all around the sky – so remember to look in all directions, not just towards the sun itself.
The sun is more diffused at dawn and dusk, creating both longer and softer shadows. With the intensity of the sun being reduced by its low position, it may be possible to include it within the frame. When the sun is close to the horizon, it may even be possible to capture a sunburst effect, adding further drama and magic to your golden hour shots.
Using a small aperture, in the region of f/16 or even f/22, will enhance the sun-star effect. Flare can be issue when shooting towards the light, but a small degree is acceptable and can actually add atmosphere.
Golden light is the Holy Grail for landscape shooters, with side-lighting often being favoured for its ability to define the landscape and highlight certain features found within your scene. However, the very best and most magical lighting conditions are often transient, lasting for just a short time before vanishing. Working with such unpredictable, fleeting light can be frustrating, but the potential rewards justify the unsociable hours.
Stormy skies and spot lighting
When rain or stormy weather is forecast, it can be tempting to put your camera away and do a little photo editing in the warmth and shelter of home. But clear blue skies will rarely produce good conditions for capturing dramatic landscapes and in fact dark, menacing skies can create some of the most dramatic conditions you are likely to shoot – so don’t be a fair-weather photographer.
Bad weather can produce amazing photo opportunities. Brooding rain clouds create a dramatic backdrop, particularly for views of wild, rugged coastline and windswept moorland and mountains. Even when the weather is predominantly poor, all you need is one small break in the cloud to allow a few rays of light to kiss the landscape to bring it alive.
The contrast between the warm light striking the land and the dark, grey sky above can be truly beautiful and magical, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
A forecast for sunshine and showers is often a recipe for success. Keep an eye on cloud movement and look for gaps where the sun is likely to break through – this will help you anticipate when the landscape will light up. Set-up and compose your shot – then watch and wait for the light to reach a key focal point or feature found within your scene before triggering the shutter.
Timing is everything; you want just the right interplay between shade and light. The best lighting conditions are often fleeting, and spot lighting tends to be brief – maybe only striking just the right place for just a moment or two. Therefore, you will need to work quickly.
One of the keys to working efficiently is being fluent with all the essential camera functions. You should be able to adjust f-number, ISO, apply exposure compensation, and adjust focal length and focus intuitively when required, without wasting valuable seconds.
If necessary, practice adjusting these key shooting parameters until you feel confident. Once you are completely at ease using your camera, you can focus solely on aesthetics and capturing the very best composition and light.
This type of mixed light can create a few technical challenges. With most landscapes, you are best to employ your camera’s multi-patterned metering system – normally referred to as Matrix or Evaluative metering mode.
However, with spot lighting in particular, the dominance of shade within your scene is likely to fool your camera’s metering into overexposure. Either apply negative exposure compensation to allow for this, or switch to the accuracy of spot-metering mode. This allows you to meter more precisely; simply take your meter reading from the sunlit area of the frame.
Taking pictures in bad weather means you will inevitably get wet! You must dress appropriately for the conditions and ensure your bag and kit is sufficiently protected.
Weather is unpredictable and often very localised. Therefore, be prepared for disappointment – there will be days when you return home wet and empty-handed. However, when the weather gods are on your side, and the lighting and conditions combine as you hoped, the results will be outstanding.
When shooting in mixed weather, you may well be rewarded with a rainbow arching over the landscape, adding colour and magic to your landscapes. Nature is full of photogenic spectacles, but few are more special than this.
Rainbows occur when rain and sunlight are apparent at the same time. So a rainy, unsettled day is a prerequisite. The sun’s rays will refract and reflect off the moisture in the atmosphere, creating the optical illusion we commonly know as a rainbow.
Unfortunately, they rarely occur just where we want them to and so, to accommodate them, photographers will often need to improvise or compromise with composition – be prepared to quickly adjust viewpoint or focal length.
A complete rainbow will beautifully frame the landscape below, while part of one will add a strong point of interest and look particularly impactful placed on an intersecting third.
Learn more: How to Photograph Rainbows
Not only are rainbows colourful and vibrant, but their lovely, arching shape adds interest to landscape photos. Rainbows always form opposite to the sun’s position – so if it is raining nearby, but still sunny, look in the opposite direction to the sun.
However, taking photos with the sun behind you can prove challenging, as your shadow will stretch into frame when using short focal lengths. Therefore, be mindful of the problem, and compose shots carefully, switching to a longer focal length if necessary.
Contrary to popular belief, it is also worthwhile attaching a polarising filter. Rotated correctly, using one will enhance the rainbow’s colours. Be careful, though – if you rotate it incorrectly, you can make them disappear completely. Simply peer through the viewfinder – or LiveView – while simultaneously rotating the filter and stop when you see the colours looking most vibrant.
Finally, keep a lens cloth close to hand to wipe away any raindrops from your lens or filters.
Mist and fog
Misty and foggy conditions are eerily beautiful, simplifying the landscape and adding mystery and mood to photographs. The best conditions are often short-lived, though, and an early alarm call is normally essential.
By reducing colour and contrast – and simplifying the look of objects found within the landscape – mist and fog places emphasis on shape and form. For this reason, often the scenes that suit these types of condition best are ones containing strong, obvious points of interest – maybe a church tower, castle ruins, or row of trees. A landscape with layers also works well – for example, a scene with far reaching views of hills, mountains or rolling countryside.
Unsurprisingly, elevated viewpoints often work best. By climbing high you will be able to achieve views overlooking mist trapped in valleys and hanging atmospherically above fields or lakes. As is often the case with landscape photography, planning is important. Ideally, visit viewpoints beforehand to check their potential.
Just prior to daybreak, low-lying mist will appear naturally cool. Avoid using auto white balance, as this will often neutralise the attractive blue hues created by the conditions. By opting for your daylight preset (or low colour temperature) you will capture (or even exaggerate) these lovely natural cool tones.
In contrast, low, warm sunlight will give mist natural warmth. Fog will diffuse sunlight, and while the sun is still low in the sky you may be able to shoot towards it, as its intensity will be greatly reduced. Doing so will allow you to capture incredible, backlit images in foggy conditions.
Mist can swirl around, thicken and fade, revealing and then hiding elements within the landscape, so don’t abandon a viewpoint too soon – wait for just the right moment. Longer focal lengths tend to be more useful than wide-angles for this type of landscape – a 70-200mm tele-zoom is a good choice. Telephoto lengths will foreshorten perspective, emphasizing the conditions and enabling photographers to isolate key features emerging evocatively from the mist.
Contrast plays a key role in misty images. Foggy shots are naturally low in contrast and you will notice that histograms are often quite narrow due to the limited tonal range misty conditions produce. Although it is normally common practice to stretch histograms out during processing, by setting the black and white points to the far left and right of the graph, misty scenes don’t normally require a high level of contrast. If you later try to apply too much, you risk destroying those lovely muted tones and subtle detail. Just remember to process your raw files carefully, sensitively and intuitively.
Tips for bringing drama and mood to your landscape photography
- Don’t pack up too soon after sunset. Often, the best colour will appear after the sun has disappeared, and even once the colour and light fades, twilight has its own mood and appeal.
- Keep a torch or head-torch in your camera bag to help you safely navigate your way to or from locations in semi-darkness.
- In bad weather, don’t give up too easily. All it takes is one small break in the cloud for the conditions to instantly improve.
- Do visit woodland in misty weather – images of woodland interiors shrouded in mist can look magical and fantastically eerie.
- Using creatively long exposures can add mood and a feeling of motion to your shots. Long exposures can be achieved naturally in low-light, or using Neutral Density (ND) filters.