Moody Photography – The Ultimate Guide

Let’s unpack it together in this photography tutorial.

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Moody Photography – The Ultimate Guide

How to create moody portraits & photography using light, posing, composition & editing.

What do you think of when you think about moody portrait photography & editing techniques? Perhaps you think about your favorite moody instagram photographers. Photographers like Fursty or Alessio Albi are known for their moody landscapes & portraits.

But how do you get that same moody look to your photos?

The truth is it all comes down to using the right photography techniques.

Unpacking Moody Photography Techniques.

Inside this tutorial we’re going to unpack all the techniques involved in creating moody portraits and photography.

When taking moody photos, we can separate the process into two separate steps:

#1 – Capturing the right look & feel in camera

#2 – Enhancing that mood with editing

It’s important to understand that the look and feel of your photo is largely determined IN CAMERA. Editing your photos is more about enhancing what is already there. You’re going to have a very hard or even impossible time editing your photos to look dark and moody if they weren’t moody to begin with.

That’s why getting your original photo right is the most important step to getting that moody look and feel.

Getting it right in camera:

First it’s important to learn how to take moody photos and get those moody vibe in your camera using lighting, composition, and other essential photography techniques.

This moody photo tutorial from Mango Street does an amazing job explaining how you can use light, posing and framing to produce moody photography:

4 Tips For Capturing Moody Photography:

Tip #1: Use a directional light source

Directional light creates more intense shadows and textures, aiding in the moody look.

A window indoors is often the best possible option as it gives very flattering directional light in a dark setting.

When going for a dark and moody photo, its important your photo actually has areas of darkness and shadow.

Tip #2: Select a darker backdrop.

Moody photos rarely take place in front of a bright + light background. You’ll have a far easier time getting that moody photography look by selecting a darker backdrop. This can be a backdrop with a dark color, or simply a background that has less light hitting it than your subject.

Tip #3 Shoot your photos slightly underexposed.

Moody photos feel moody because they are dark. Dropping your exposure so that your highlights are closer to where midtones would sit will help with getting a more dark & moody vibe, while also ensuring you don’t have any clipping in your photo from losing highlights.

(Clipping is when information is lost in the lightest or darkest parts of the image. Generally clipping is far more common in the highlights, as shadows can recover detail much more easily than highlights.)

Tip #4 Shoot wide open + drop your sharpening

Moody photos have a more earthy & organic vibe. Old school film cameras feel more moody partially because vintage lenses are far less sharp + optically perfect than our modern camera lenses, which adds character and softness to your photos.

Modern lenses are at their softest when you open the aperture (f-stop) all the way.

Also worth mentioning: I’d highly recommend shooting in RAW if possible, but if you are photographing in jpg, make sure to turn down your sharpening and clarity settings in your camera picture profile to help with this effect.

By following these key concepts you’ll be well on your way to developing moody photos. Once you’ve captured your shots in camera, its time to enhance the vibes and bring out even more moodiness in your editing software:

Editing Moody Photography

There are many, many tutorials out there for editing moody photos that you can check out on Youtube. While you could certainly purchase a moody vibes preset pack and apply dark and moody edits instantly, you’ll have much better results by first understanding how to edit moody photography without presets. Once you know what different effects and techniques you can use to add mood and vibe to your photography, then you’ll be able to get the very most out of presets if you decide to go that route.

Lets start with this video tutorial on how to give your photos a dark and moody edit without presets:

Tips For Editing Moody Photos Without Presets

Moody Edit Tip #1: The tone curve panel.

While the tone curve panel can be intimidating, it’s also incredibly powerful once you know how to use it, and it’s really not that complicated. Check out this easy tone curve tutorial. Using the tone curve is a quick way to add filmic fades and dial in the look and feel of your edit in a very selective way.

Moody Editing Tip #2: Individual color tone curves

Most photographers figure out how to use the basic tone curve panel in Lightroom, but its the individual RGB color curves that hold the secret sauce! For an instantly moodier photo, try adding a blue or green film fade to blacks / shadows in your photos. If this sounds too complicated or doesn’t make sense, make sure to watch our full length tone curve tutorial

Moody Editing Tip #3: The HSL panel

Moody edits more often than not use monochromatic color schemes. Try to limit your color palette to only one main color and different shades of that color if possible. In editing this effect can be emphasized using the HSL panel. You can do this by changing the shades of different colors to better blend with one another, and by desaturating any color other than your main color theme. For instance the photo in the video tutorial is mostly made up of yellows & greens, with a little orange and blue. Simply desaturating the yellows and greens makes a massive difference in the feel of the photo. Taking it a step further by adjusting our hue so that the oranges and the yellows blend more closely and you’ve made a dramatic change to the vibe of the image.

Moody Editing Tip #4: Split Toning

Another way to get closer to that monochromatic color scheme and bring more unity to your edit is by using the split toning tool. This gives you the ability to add a certain color to the shadows and another to the highlights of your image. There are two different methods to this:

1) Use similar colors to tint your photo in a certain direction. 

For instance, adding a dark blue to your shadows and a slightly lighter blue to your highlights will make your entire photo feel colder, which can sometimes give it a more moody feeling. Or vice versa you can add some oranges and reds to make the entire photo feel more warm.

2) Use contrasting colors to add more pop to your image

Generally this is won’t be the approach you’re looking for when going for a moody photo with a more monochromatic color scheme, but sometimes a little dash of blue in the shadows and oranges in the highlights can help separate your subject from the background and add some extra spice and flavor to your image.

Moody Editing Tip #5: Emulate Film

Film photography might be the moodiest photography out there. The key is understanding WHY film feels so much more moody, so that we can emulate that film look in our editing as much as possible.

Some of the most obvious reasons are film grain, lower clarity and sharpness, and that film fade we all associate with vintage cameras.

This video tutorial covers 5 Tips To Make Your Photos Look More Like Film In Lightroom:

Applying these editing tips to your moody photos will help you enhance the vibe of your images dramatically. Once you understand how to edit moody photos without presets, you’ll be able to get far better results out of your editing if you choose to give lightroom presets a try.

Tips For Using Presets For Moody Photography:

Editing moody photos starts by getting it right in camera, and then knowing how to give your photos a moody vibe without using presets. But once you have these skills mastered, presets can be extremely handy in speeding up your workflow and getting you those organic, moody images in a fraction of the editing time.

If you’ve ever used presets before though, you’ll know that they don’t always behave the way you expect them to! This video tutorial walks through 5 tips for getting the best possible results out of moody presets:

Editing Tips For Moody Photography Presets:

#1 – Make sure you get it right in camera.

Editing is meant to enhance what is already there in your photo – Not turn it into something it never was! Matching the image to the mood is very important. Applying a moody preset to a bright sunny day just won’t feel right, no matter what preset pack you try. The best investment you can make in yourself as a photographer is not another piece of gear, preset pack or editing tutorial – Its mastering photography fundamentals. Once you learn to work with light, composition and posing, you can create beautiful photos with any mood you like – No fancy editing or presets required.

#2 – White balance & exposure are EVERYTHING

Changing the white balance and exposure in your image effects everything in your photo. White balance doesn’t just make your photo warmer or colder, it actually determines how your editing software interprets shadows and highlights and the tones of individual colors. You’d be amazed how often a simple change to the white balance and exposure in your image will take a preset from looks-like-trash to totally awesome!

#3 – Dial in the contrast

Every lighting situation is unique, and because of this it’s impossible for a preset to know how much contrast you’ll need for your specific photo. Often a simple contrast adjustment can make-or-break whether a preset works or not with your photo.

#4 – Edit in batches

The easiest way to speed up your workflow and improve the consistency of your edits is to start editing in batches. Rather than editing each photo from scratch every time, start by selecting one photo from your set. Apply a preset to this photo and get it dialed in perfectly, then sync those settings over to all the other similar photos in your shoot. From there, all you have to do is tweak each photo for white balance / exposure as required – Normally this only takes 5-10 seconds per photo. Presto!

#5 – Use adjustment layers

Lighting conditions in real life are rarely perfect – Which is why using adjustment layers in your editing can be so dang helpful! One of the keys to a moody edit is a nice dark background – Preferably a blurry one. This can be easily enhanced using a simple radial filter or local adjustment brush to paint the background and bring down some of the exposure, clarity and saturation. The best photographers out there don’t stop with global adjustments like exposure, tone curve etc – They go deep into local adjustments to individually enhance and tweak different parts of the image to tie everything together.

Following these 5 preset editing tips will give you better, more consistent results when you use presets to give your photos that dark and moody look.


For portrait + wedding photographers out there, this video tutorial gives a good demonstration of an editing workflow for moody portrait photography:


By now you should have a thorough understanding of what it takes to create moody photography, and some practical tools, tutorials and strategies to go out and start taking moody photos today.

Remember, moody photography comes down to 2 main steps:

#1 – Capturing the right look & feel in camera

#2 – Enhancing that mood with editing

The most important thing you can do to improve your photography and get better at taking moody photos is to go out and practice everything you can do to get the look you’re going for in your camera without any editing.

If you can pull this off, then editing moody photos is a breeze – You’re simply enhancing what is already there, not trying to turn your photo into something its not.

If this tutorial was helpful, do me a huge favor and share it on your fav social platform:

moody photography editing photo tutorial guide122 scaledNow go grab your camera and go create something awesome!



Have questions? Leave em in the comments below – I respond to every single one!

Click here to download a free moody vibes preset to practice your editing.

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  1. Andy

    Hi! What camera do you usually use?

    1. Hi Andy! I’m honestly no longer partial to anything in particular. I’ve used the Canon 5D iii, pretty much every panasonic m43 camera, the Panasonic S1, S5, Sony A7ii and A7iii – All of them are great. Especially now, the differences between cameras of a similar price point has never been less. Personally I’d lean towards getting something full frame. The Panasonic S5 is bang for buck amazing because the lenses are a lot cheaper and it excels at both photo and video. But at the end of the day, the skills you develop matter a lot more than the specific camera you’re using 🙂 Hope this helps a little!

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