Creating Mood in Your Photographs with Dust, Fog, Smog, and Smoke

Smog as Atmosphere in your Photographs

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can only make photographs when the light is spectacular. However, there are so many other elements that contribute to interesting photographs. We’ll look into how atmospheric effects can play a role in dramatic images in this article. Specifically, we’ll take a look at dust, fog, smog, and smoke. Let’s get started.


The beginning of summer in Myanmar is a dry and dusty time. It’s the perfect time of year to make photographs with some additional mood. Here, we were photographing dancers at sunset for my book on the Lai Tu people. I chose to shoot into the sun after seeing all the dust the dancers were kicking up. By using the sun to backlight the dust, I’m able to create layers of contrast in my image and get the nice warm glow that you see below.

This is the important thing about atmospheric effects. Things like dust and fog get illuminated by backlight and scatter it everywhere. This significantly reduces contrast in anything that is futher away from you. By taking this image from close to some of the dancers, I create levels or layers in the image through contrast. In addition, using the ultra-wide Fujifilm XF 10-24mm at 10mm, I also create levels using size.

Dust as Atmosphere in your Photographs


Smoke is another great way to create mood in your images. Just like dust, it scatters light around and is especially beautiful when backlit or side lit. In the image below, I use the rising sun to illuminate the smoke in the air and the trees to block parts of this. The branches and leaves of the tree serve as flags to parts of the light, allowing the creation of shafts of light from the sun. By moving my camera around, I can change which of these are visible to me at any given time. In the end, I liked this starburst effect that I got with the little girl selling her vegetables.

Smoke as Atmosphere in your Photographs


Fog, as you know from your own experiences, creates a very different feeling in the world. It can be mysterious or almost claustrophobic at times. In the mountain villages of Nagaland during the rainy season, fog is present for much of the day and gives the villages a very isolated feeling. One morning as I was walking around before breakfast, I noticed that people were returning from the forest with firewood to get their days started. It instantly struck me how much of a part of their lives the fog actually was. The sun had just come up and these people were returning from a forest walk where they couldn’t see more than a couple of metres in front of them. I found a location that would give this feeling and waited a few minutes for people to walk through my scene. The resulting image, I feel, gives you the sense of what it’s like to collect firewood in this hillside village. It also gives a good sense of depth as we are able to clearly make out elements closer to the camera, but not those further away.

Fog as Atmosphere in your Photographs


Living in a big city in Asia, I am surrounded by smog most days of the year. However, on some days it can be particularly thick and in the early morning or late afternoon, quite visible. On this day, I was under the Mapo Bridge in Seoul with my friend Roy Cruz to film our comparison of Fujifilm X mount wide-angle lenses. The weather report stated that we had PM 10 pollution levels of 178 on the AQI scale, which was not the worst we’ve had, but certainly visible in the air and giving us sore throats. However, it did make for some beautiful images. With a little colour toning, I was able to make the first image below look quite inviting, but the second image is closer to how the scene really looked. Don’t be afraid to get out and make some moody images in the smog!

Smog as Atmosphere in your Photographs

Smog as Atmosphere in your Photographs

As you can see, when conditions aren’t “perfect,” you can create some great mood in your photographs. So, next time you see smoke, fog, smog, or dust in the air, grab your camera and try making some interesting images. Remember that back light or side light will illuminate these conditions most effectively. Please also check out my video about this on YouTube for some more images and explanations. Thanks for reading!

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