How to Edit Moody Portraits in Lightroom

March 20, 2023 by

In this guide, we’ll be diving into how to edit moody portraits in Lightroom.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

Table of Contents

1. Pre-Photoshoot Planning

The first tip I have when editing moody portraits in Lightroom does not even have to deal with Lightroom yet (bear with me).

That is, pre-photoshoot planning.

When editing moody photos in Lightroom, it is very important that when you are on your actual photo shoot, that you are going for that “moody” look.

This means the photo should have a subject that preferably isn’t smiling, the time of day might not be when the sun is directly overhead, and the setting for your photograph isn’t in a bounce house (I thought of the place where most people are smiling).

In the past, I have tried very hard to edit “moody” for all my photos in Lightroom, however, I would fall short.

This is because I would try to edit ALL of my photos moody, even if the feeling and emotion the photograph was giving off wasn’t “moody” at all.

So what do I mean by this? Take these two photos that I took for example:

The first is my subject smiling in a general warm setting:

smiling photo example

The second is my subject not smiling in a colder setting:

cool color photo example

Which image right out of the camera, without any edits, gives off a more “moodier” feel. Most would agree that it is the second photo.

My point is:

In order to successfully edit a moody photo, the photo needs to evoke the correct emotion for it to have a successful moody edit.

Be aware of this when going into your photo shoot, knowing that you will want to have a moody portrait or moody photo before you begin shooting.

Once you know that you want to have a moody photo, that should reflect in your guidance with your subject’s posing, their outfit, the background of the photo, and the setting/time of day of your photo.

Pre-shoot planning example:

“I want my subject to not be smiling, I want them to wear a dress that easily flows in the wind, I want the background of the photo to be something dramatic.”

moody photo example

After you have successfully captured a moody photo, it’s time to dive into the edit within Lightroom to further enhance the “moodiness” of the photo.

2. Basic Exposure Adjustments

The first adjustments I always make when editing a moody photo in Lightroom, deal with the basic exposure adjustments.

These are adjustments made to the exposure, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks.

editing in lightroom moody tones

During these edits, you will want to keep an eye on your histogram as it will tell you which parts of your photo need to be brightened or darkened.

histogram edit moody tones
keep an eye on the histogram

When I edit my moody photos in Lightroom for Instagram, I prefer to have my image on the darker side to give it a more moody vibe.

Because of this, my photo will most often exist on the left half of the histogram — having a greater amount of shadows, blacks, and a bit underexposed (personal preference):

After you have made your adjustments to your exposure, let’s dive into the temperature adjustment panel!

3. Temperature Adjustment Panel

The temperature adjustment panel will allow you to add either a blue or golden tone and a green or pinkish tint to your image.

This is a great panel to add preliminary color to your image and create an overall atmosphere for your photo.

When editing moody photos, I tend to bump both sliders to the left which means I add a blue, cool effect, and a green tint to my image.

These colors tend to go well together because they have an analogous color harmony:

color harmony moody tones
cooler(as in cold) colors of blues, greens, purples

I also adjust the temperature panel this way because most often, cooler shades can be representative of “moody” photos.

Just be sure not to bring the sliders all the way down. You will want to add this adjustment subtly to add a hint of blue and green to the image without ruining the rest of the colors in the photograph.

We will be adjusting each individual color when discussing the color adjustments panel.
After you have made adjustments to the temperature, it’s time to dive into the tone curve.

4. Tone Curve Adjustments

Adjustments to the tone curve will add that depth and pop that can turn an average-looking photograph into a professional-looking one.

Adjustments to the tone curve can help further enhance the moodiness of your image.

The tone curve adjustment I always like to create, and the most popular one among other photographers is the S-shaped tone curve.

This tone curve increases the highlights and drops the shadows, allowing for more contrast to take effect.

tone curve moody
minor S-shaped tone curve

After you have adjusted the tone curve to your liking, it’s time to dive into the color adjustments panel.

5. Color Adjustments Panel

The color adjustments panel is my favorite panel.

This panel will allow you to tweak the individual colors within your image, allowing for greater control over the color scheme that you want in your photo.

When deciding what color scheme I want to choose for my photo, I always first take into consideration the existing colors within my photograph.

For the most part, in all the photos I have shot, I can break them down into one of two categories: a photo with warm tones or a photo with cool tones.

Once I understand and find the existing tone within my photo, that’s when I enhance its natural, already existing tone, to create those moody tones.

Once you identify the existing tone within your image, it is up to you to decide what color harmony you want within your photograph.

A website/tool I love to use to help me better craft the color harmony within my photo, as previously mentioned, is Adobe Color:

color harmony moody tones

I love taking advantage of the color wheel that they provide.

From here, you can choose whether you want analogous, monochromatic, complementary, or any of the other color harmonies they provide.

This color wheel will be your best friend when you are trying to implement principles of color theory within your photograph.

For my example, I will be going with an analogous color harmony, so I will want the majority of the colors in my photo to be more on the bluish and greenish side.

Before I adjust any adjustments to the hue, saturation, and luminance of the colors, I like to break down the colors into two families, the warmer colors and the cooler colors.

The warmer colors consist of reds, oranges, yellows, and greens:

The cooler colors consist of aqua, blue, magenta, and purple:

Color – Hue

The hue deals with the actual color tones in the image.

In terms of the color hue, since I want to add more blues and greens to the image, I will only mainly be tweaking the cooler hues:

When editing the cooler color hues, I will be sliding them to the bluer side:

Color – Saturation

The saturation deals with how strong a color will appear.

Because of this, I will drop the saturation a bit on all of my warmer colors because I want to express more of those blues in the image (with exception of the green):

warm tones lightroom

And I will preserve the saturation in the blues, only dropping them a tiny bit (personal preference):

cool tones lightroom

Color – Luminance

The luminance deals with how bright a color will appear.

Luminance adjustments to the reds, oranges, and yellows are often reflective of your subject’s skin tones so this could brighten or darken your subject’s skin tone.

After you have made your color adjustments, it’s time to dive into split toning

6. Split Toning

The split toning panel is a great panel to further enhance whatever color harmony you picked.

Since I chose to go with the blue and green color harmony/color scheme, I will be adding blue to my highlights and green to my shadows.

I like to add subtle adjustments to the splits toning because if you make big adjustments here it could throw off all of the colors that you adjusted earlier:

split toning lightroom
split toning example

Be sure to click on the box that allows you to select a specific color.

Also, take advantage of the balance slider.

I never like to leave it in the middle. I always have to prefer one color to be more dominant over the other color.

In this case for example, I want the bluish tone to be about 75% of the image while the green is about 25% so I will slide the slider more toward the blue side in my highlights.

7. Grain

I love adding grain to my images, it can really add that final touch when you are going for that “moody” edit.

Some people are in two camps when it comes to adding grain to an image.

One camp prefers adding it very subtly to preserve the photo, while the other camp says if you are going to add grain, then you might as well go all in.

I am in the “first camp” and I always try to add it very conservatively so as to not mess with the sharpness and detail within the image.

In fact, I try to add very subtle adjustments in all the panels, because I am a big believer that “less is more.”

With that being said, I tend to add very little grain, however, I like the size and roughness of my grain to be a lot.

Be sure to click on the box that allows you to select a specific color.

Also, take advantage of the balance slider.

I never like to leave it in the middle. I always have to prefer one color be more dominant over the other color.

In this case for example, I want the bluish tone to be about 75% of the image while the green is about 25% so I will slide the slider more towards the blue side in my highlights:

grain in images

This is a personal preference and play around with the grain until you are happy with the final product!

And once again, this is the way I like to edit moody portraits in Lightroom.

I hope you found these tips useful when it comes to editing moody photos in Lightroom.

You can also do a time-saving technique by using portrait Lightroom presets to enhance your photos.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does moody mean in photography?

Moody refers to a style or technique that creates a dark, mysterious, or emotional atmosphere in an image.

Is it easy to make a moody edit in Lightroom?

Making a moody edit in Lightroom can be relatively easy if you have a clear idea of the look you want to achieve.