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Editing moody portraits in Lightroom

Paint with shadow and master moody portraits in Lightroom...

How to edit moody portraits in Lightroom

1. Pre-photoshoot planning

The first tip I have for editing moody portraits in Lightroom does not even involve 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, 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:

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

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:

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 photo's background to be something dramatic.”

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

2. Basic exposure adjustments

The first adjustments I always make when editing a moody photo in Lightroom are the basic exposure adjustments. Adjustments are made to the exposure, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks.

During these edits, you will want to monitor your histogram, which will tell you which parts of your photo need to be brightened or darkened.

When I edit my moody photos in Lightroom for Instagram, I prefer to have my image darker 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 adjusted 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:

I also adjust the temperature panel this way because cooler shades are often 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 photograph's colors.

We will be adjusting each color when discussing the color adjustments panel. After you have adjusted 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. I always like to create the S-shaped tone curve adjustment, which is also the most popular among other photographers.

This tone curve increases the highlights and drops the shadows, allowing for more contrast to take effect. 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 to use for my photo, I always first consider the existing colors in my photograph.

For the most part, I can break all the photos I have shot 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:

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 want the majority of the colors in my photo to be more bluish and greenish.

Before I adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of the colors, I like to divide them into two families: warmer and cooler.

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 the exception of the green):

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

Color – Luminance

The luminance deals with how bright a color will appear.

Luminance adjustments to the reds, oranges, and yellows often reflect your subject’s skin tones, which 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 enhance further whatever color harmony you picked.

Since I chose to go with the blue and green color harmony/color scheme, I will add 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:

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 that 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 for 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 conservatively so as not to affect the sharpness and detail of the image. In fact, I try to add very subtle adjustments in all the panels because I believe that “less is more.”

That said, I tend to add very little grain; however, I like the size and roughness of my grain 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 prefer one color to be more dominant over the other.

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:

This is a personal preference, so 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.

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