(© Ian Plant) The very best photographs tell a story, rather than just merely creating a record of a place or moment. When there is a story behind the image, even a mysterious one (arguably, especially if there is a mysterious one), viewers engage on an emotional level. Where would da Vinci’s “The Mona Lisa” be without that enigmatic smile? In most likelihood, largely forgotten by history, leaving Leonardo’s portfolio noticeably dimmed. It is her smile that evokes a response in people, making them wonder about the story behind the smirk.
Composition, light, and choice of subject matter can only get you so far. Mood is the final ingredient, the “secret sauce” that can make or break your photo. Of course, mood is also the hardest to quantify and define. Mood is not something you can force. It is something you must feel on an intuitive level, something you almost sense rather than see. You must handle mood delicately, or risk ruining the magic it brings.
I like to say that photography is waiting around for something interesting to happen and then firing like hell. Somehow, I think this quip gets to the core of the question of mood. Essentially “mood” is not something that happens all the time; rather, mood is something ephemeral, unique, and uncommon. It is something rare that triggers an emotional response. This is important, as story telling begins when your viewers feel something, when they are moved emotionally by what you have presented to them.
Where that emotion takes the viewer is entirely up to them. Ansel Adams once famously said: “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” I think he was speaking to this point—no matter what story the photographer tries to tell, ultimately each viewer is going to have their own reaction to the image, and create their own story.
During a recent photo shoot in Yellowstone National Park, I tried to photograph moods instead of places. Rather than setting up at icons like Old Faithful over and over again, waiting for the right combination of light and composition, I instead wandered to many of the less photographed areas of the park. And then I waited—a lot, as it turns out, hoping that the right mood would emerge.
(By clicking on either image you can go to my personal blog and read my story for each photo. Be warned that my stories do not necessarily represent reality, and instead are often the product of an over-active imagination, too much free time, and a plethoric reliance on my thesaurus.)
Of course, it is up to each viewer to decide whether a photo’s mood evokes a response or not, and where that response takes them. As a photographer the best you can do is aim for the mark, and let your arrows fly.
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