Some images are well composed and well exposed but still lack that certain magic that draws a viewer's eye. Other images get much more attention despite minor technical flaws. The difference is mood.
As they improve their craft, many aspiring nature photographers strive to capture that perfect postcard shot. It can be fun to stand where Ansel Adams stood to photograph your favorite scenic vista. But if and when you succeed, you will end up with a shot that looks exactly like everyone else who has ever succeeded in that quest. A unique version of a scene conveys a sense of what it was like to be there. A unique version of a scene conveys a mood.
The light changes throughout the day. The right light can really make a shot just as the wrong light can spoil it. When I'm shooting down at Mount Rainier I'll be hard at work well before dawn. By mid-morning, after the sun is fully up and the excitement starts to settle itself down, I often stop by the visitor center to check the weather forecast and relax a bit. Invariably, there are families there as well, down from Seattle for the day with the kids. They'll sit and look up at the mountain and enjoy their picnic lunch before heading back home, timing things so they get back before dark. As impressive as Mount Rainier can be up close and personal, these families are there at precisely the wrong time of day. They may just enjoy the view or they may take some photographs of their own. Regardless, the impression they come away with is that Mount Rainier is a big white, snow covered mountain that looks just like the picture postcards they sell in that visitor center.
But the mountain can be so much more than that. At the very time when these families are taking photographs and enjoying the day, I'm taking a few hours off and relaxing, my camera safely packed away in my car. But when they were still at home asleep or just getting up for breakfast I was out shooting the same mountain under much better light — light that helps create a mood that transcends the picture postcard version or Rainier. And when they are on their way back to Seattle or already their having dinner at home I'll be out for the second round of "golden light" that they will miss entirely.
The light early and late in the day is a basic ingredient in creating mood but not the only one, and not entirely required if you have other things working in your favor. This is the time of year when almost anything can happen with the weather. Storm lighting is mood lighting, especially if you can catch it on the cusp when the storm first moves in or is beginning to clear up. Stormy weather at sunrise or sunset can be especially wonderful conditions for creating dramatic images.
In order to get to where I want to be for sunrise I'm naturally getting up in the dark. If the first thing I hear when I get up is rain on the roof, it can be tempting to go back to bed. The chances of an actual sunrise seem remote at such times. But there's no way to know for sure what will happen unless I actually get up and get to my destination regardless. It may yet be a total bust, but if the weather does cooperate even a bit it could be killer.
You often hear the suggestion to shoot in the fog to create moody images, but this can be more challenging that it might seem. Large areas of burned out white can ruin an image whether the cause is overexposure or dense fog. Care must be taken to ensure the fog adds to the composition rather than overpower it.
Camera angle can also be a tool to help create a mood. Looking up at something you normally see from above makes it seem larger than life. Getting right up on your subject creates an in-your-face impact. Common subjects shot in an uncommon way can help create images that stand out from the rest of the pack.
Lighting, weather and vantage points that lie outside norm can add a strong element to an otherwise run of the mill image, helping to set it apart from everyone else's images of the same location.