Leveraging Visual Language and the How to Capture ‘Mood’ in a Photo

Redwoods, ferns, and rhododendrons, northern California

I often hear photographers express frustration with their images, saying something like, “My photographs don’t capture what I really see.” But cameras actually do a great job of capturing what things look like. I think what people really mean is that their photographs don’t capture what they felt when they made the exposure.

I vividly remember a day in 2011 among the redwoods of northern California. My wife and college-aged son were ahead of me somewhere along the trail, while I became completely engrossed in photographing redwoods and rhododendrons enveloped in fog.

The forest was quiet, save for the occasional buzzing call of a thrush. It smelled of earth and decaying wood. The giant trees soared hundreds of feet above me, their tops almost obscured by the fog, while below, random bright spots of pink – the rhododendron blossoms – shone like beacons in the mist. As I moved down the trail, I felt as though I’d been transported back in time millions of years, to an ancient, primeval forest.

I spent hours wandering down the trail, photographing as I went. On my way back, the sun started to break through the fog. One scene drew me in. The sun was illuminating a swath of ferns on the forest floor, giant redwood trunks soaring out of sight above, and a lone rhododendron tree below. I examined the scene from several angles and set up my tripod at the spot that seemed to work best.

The resulting image became, for many years, my favorite photograph of redwoods, because to me it captured the feeling of that primeval forest.

A photograph can reach viewers on many levels. It could be a visual surprise, showing us a piece of the world in a way we haven’t seen before. It could make us laugh, or wonder, or convey a sense of mystery. Or it could simply be beautiful.

I enjoy viewing and trying to make all those kinds of images but the photographs I respond to most evoke an emotional response. And that, to me, is the overriding goal in my own work: to make photographs that convey a mood or feeling.

I think many other people would like to do the same thing. I often hear photographers express frustration with their images, saying, “My photographs don’t capture what I really see.” But cameras do a great job of capturing what things look like. I think what people really mean is that their photographs don’t capture what they felt when they made the exposure.

There are so many things that contribute to what you’re feeling at the moment you press the shutter and many of those aren’t visual: sounds, smells, the wind, the temperature, the people around you, and the experiences leading up to that time. In fact, every experience you’ve ever had in your life affects how you perceive that moment.

A photograph is only a rectangle with lines, shapes, tones, and colors on a flat surface. That’s it. It’s not easy to take that limited palette and communicate what it felt like to be in a particular place at a particular time. But we all know it can be done because we’ve seen photographs that strongly convey a mood or feeling. You may have achieved that yourself.

Capturing a mood with any kind of consistency involves every aspect of the art of photography, including light, composition, field technique, equipment, and processing. Those things are just the beginning. You also need to become fluent in the visual language of photography in order to convey your message. To make images that evoke emotion in others, you need to tune into your own feelings about the place you’re capturing.

Visual Language

Sand pillows, Death Valley NP, CA, USA
Sand pillows, Death Valley. | Curves, lines, smooth textures, pastel colours and gentle contrast all contribute to the soft feeling of this image.

Like spoken language, we start learning visual language as infants. Adults show us simple pictures and we learn to identify the visual symbols as representing objects in real life: tree, house, car, train, woman, etc. As we grow older, we’re constantly exposed to visual symbols in photographs, paintings, drawings, movies, television, and videos, and our understanding of visual language grows more sophisticated to the point where a television ad can flash a series of split-second images across the screen and in 15 seconds clearly convey its message. We may not believe them, but we understand what they’re telling us.

It’s one thing to understand a language and another to speak it fluently. When you pick up a camera for the first time you go from being a consumer of visual symbolism to being a creator – someone who’s trying to communicate something through visual symbols. That communication is probably halting at first but gradually, as you gain more experience, you learn how to use visual language more clearly though you’re probably not fully conscious of how you do it.

I think you can speed up this process and learn to communicate through visual symbolism more convincingly if you bring your unconscious understanding of visual language to a more conscious level.

Building Blocks

Lightning over the San Joaquin Valle
Lightning over the San Joaquin Valley, California. | Jagged lines, predominately dark tones, and the subject (lightning) all work together to suggest tension and drama.

Lines, shapes, tones, and colors are the foundations of every photograph but they can also be powerful tools for expression.

Horizontal lines are at rest, in equilibrium, whereas vertical or diagonal lines are not. Anything in the real world that stands vertically, while perhaps temporarily stable, will eventually fall over. Anything lying at an angle such as a diagonal is unstable and likely to fall over sooner rather than later. So horizontal lines typically communicate calm and tranquillity. Vertical lines imply structured but temporary stability and order (think of Greek columns). Diagonals communicate a sense of energy and motion.

Circles imply wholeness, completeness, or a spiritual connection. A curved line suggests something organic and natural, whereas a straight line connotes something manmade or rigid.

Colours and tones are also powerful visual communicators. I think this is obvious to most photographers if they think about it. What feeling does a predominately dark photograph convey? What about a predominately light (high key) photograph? An image with strong contrast, versus one with soft contrast? If a photograph contains mostly reds and blacks, how does it feel compared to a photograph containing mostly pastel pinks and blues?

It’s always hard to put the mood of a photograph in words but when I ask students to describe the mood of the Half Dome and Merced River image, the most common answers are “peaceful,” “calm” and “serene,” followed by “hopeful.”

Much of that feeling is created by those building blocks. The longest and most prominent lines are horizontal, which convey the sense of calm and serenity. The repeating vertical lines of the trees suggest stately order.

The colour palette is predominately blue with notes of yellow. Blue is the calmest colour, so its prevalence adds to the peaceful mood. The splash of yellow draws your eye into the frame and around the bend in the river and adds a contrasting note of energy and optimism to the image.

The sides of the photo are dark, whereas the middle is brighter. Your eye is drawn out of the dark foreground and toward the lighter background, around the bend in the river toward the sun – toward the light. So the light itself provides a visual symbol in this image that conveys its message.

Visual Symbols

Autumn Sunrise, Half Dome
Autumn Sunrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California. | The sun, autumn colour, calm river and deep valley all provide visual symbols that convey the message and mood of this photograph.

Beyond lines, shapes, tones, and colors, most photographs include objects and every object symbolizes larger concepts beyond its literal meaning.

In the photograph of Half Dome, the sun is a powerful symbol. It is the source of all energy on our planet, the giver of life. In this context, with the sun low on the horizon and the mist suggesting morning rather than evening, it symbolizes a new day dawning, so, hope and optimism.

The sun is a cyclical symbol, suggesting the rhythm of day and night, especially when it’s low on the horizon, as it is here. The autumn color is another cyclical symbol of the changing seasons and our planet’s yearly journey around the sun. Both symbols help convey a sense of time and timelessness. They suggest a connection with the daily and yearly rhythms that we and our ancestors have lived by for thousands of years.

The calm, mirror-like water and symmetrical composition complement the serene mood. The river, moving around a bend and out of sight, implies a journey.

Another element, the flat terrain surrounded by cliffs, suggests a sheltering valley. This seems like a place you could settle and build a home or at least camp for a while, especially since the river would provide fresh water. That makes the photograph feel more inviting.

When we look at a photograph like this, we don’t consciously think of the elements as symbols. Visual symbols, nevertheless, have a powerful, subliminal effect on our subconscious, tapping into our individual and collective memories and perhaps even our ancestral memories at a deep, emotional level. They’re powerful tools for conveying a mood.

I’m not suggesting that you consciously think of the symbols when you’re trying to compose a photograph. That would be paralyzing. Rather, look at many photographs (including the ones in this magazine) and analyze them from this perspective. How did the photographer use visual language and visual symbolism to convey a message? If you do that often enough, your understanding of visual language will grow quickly and seep into your own compositions without conscious effort.

Of course, as photographers, we don’t have control over all those elements. Unlike painters, we can’t arrange things on a canvas any way we want. But we can learn to recognize compositions where the lines, shapes, patterns, tones, colors, and subject symbolism complement each other and create a cohesive message.

Assessing the Mood

“Moody” doesn’t have to mean dark or gloomy. The mood could be bright and cheerful as in this flower-filled scene. Whatever the feeling, every element in the frame should contribute to it.

Beyond understanding visual language, if you want to make photographs that capture a mood, it helps to consciously set out to do that, and assess the mood of the area you’re in.

Uncompahgre NF, CO, USA
Autumn glow, Colorado. | Including bright colors; the sun itself helped convey the feeling of a sunny autumn day.

Weather obviously has a big influence on the mood of a landscape, so I often seek out fog, storms, or other events that might give my photographs emotional impact. There’s always a mood to a place at any time, even on a sunny day. It might not be the mood you’re looking for. It could be your internal mood that you project onto your surroundings. But it’s always there.

Wherever I am and whether I have my camera with me or not, I try to absorb the feeling of the place and assess my reaction to it. Then I look for the visual elements that might convey that feeling in a photograph.

Rising Moon, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite
Rising Moon, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park, California. | A dark exposure, cool colour palette and the rising moon helped create the dusky mood of this photo.

What conveys the feeling of a sunny day? Bright colors, perhaps, or maybe putting the sun itself into the frame. What conveys the feeling of gathering dusk? Perhaps a darker exposure, some shades of blue, or the rising moon. It may be trees silhouetted against the dusk sky or lights on buildings standing out against the dimming surroundings.

You can use this as an exercise. Go somewhere and consciously absorb and assess the mood. How does this place, at this time, make you feel? Then, make a list of the visual elements in the area that might suggest that mood. It’s okay if you can’t figure out how to arrange those elements into a coherent composition. That’ll come. The first step is just recognizing the elements in the first place. With practice, you’ll get better at finding ways to arrange the essential elements into a compelling composition.

Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA
Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

I’m not picky about what kind of mood my photographs convey. I love nature and nature has many different moods – peaceful, dramatic, lyrically beautiful, mysterious, energetic, somber, optimistic… The variety is infinite and I’m happy to capture any of them.

I know I can’t fight it. If I’m hoping for drama and nature gives me serenity, I’ll struggle if I insist on looking for drama but I’ll have a much better chance of creating an expressive photograph if I go with the flow and try to capture the serenity.

Connecting With the Subject

Comet NEOWISE over moonlit sand dunes
Comet over moonlit sand dunes, Death Valley. | It took a while for me to connect with Death Valley’s austere landscape, but I loved the dunes from the moment I set foot on them. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that most of my favorite Death Valley images were made in the dunes.

There’s another aspect to all this. I think that in order to make photographs with emotional impact, you have to feel an emotional connection with your subject.

Take some time to think about why you photograph and what you’re passionate about. What do you really love? Maybe it’s your friends, family or children. Maybe you love tennis, sailing or cooking. You’re going to make the strongest images of the things you care about most.

Swirling dogwood blossoms
Swirling dogwood blossoms, Yosemite National Park, California. | I’ve lived in or near Yosemite for over 35 years. I have a deep connection to it and it’s a place with a wide range of subjects I can use to express an infinite variety of moods.

I love nature, and I love photographing nature. Although I think I can appreciate any natural landscape, some places are an acquired taste; with others, it’s love at first sight.

For me, Death Valley was an acquired taste. I found it hard, at first, to connect with this austere landscape, although it’s grown on me over the years. But the dunes were an exception. I loved the dunes immediately. Even now, after dozens and dozens of hikes into those dunes, I still feel excited every time I step onto the sand. It’s like entering another world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of my favorite photographs from Death Valley are of sand dunes.

With Yosemite, it was love at first sight – so much so that I made this area my home. I lived and worked inside Yosemite National Park for over 20 years and then moved less than an hour away. I have a deep connection with this place and I hope it shows in my photographs.

sun breaking through fog in a redwood forest
“Twins” – sun breaking through fog in a redwood forest, northern California. | I love the redwoods. I return to these forests every year and each time it feels as though I’ve come home. It takes just the right conditions to convey the primeval mood of the forest.

I also feel a deep connection with the redwood forests along the northern California coast. Each time I return, step onto a trail, smell the earthy, damp smell of the forest, and hear the buzzing call of a thrush, I feel as though I’ve returned to an ancestral home.

Of all the things I’ve talked about, I think this last part might be the most important: to find an emotional connection with your subject. If you can do that, somehow the connection comes through in your photographs and you make images that capture what you felt when you made the exposure.

“I have made thousands of photographs of the natural scene but only those visualizations that were most intensely felt at the moment of exposure have survived the inevitable winnowing of time.” – Ansel Adams

Header image caption: Redwoods, ferns, and rhododendrons, northern California.

The article courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. The ELEMENTS is the monthly magazine dedicated to elegant landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find an exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Charles Cramer, Christopher Burkett, Hans Strand, Rachael Talibart, Christian Fletcher, Charlie Waite, and Steven Friedman, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.

About the author: Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He was also featured in the book Landscape: The World’s Top Photographers. Michael lives with his wife Claudia in Mariposa, California, just outside Yosemite National Park.