The Photographer’s Guide to Attaining Hygge in Your Images

The Photographer's Guide to Attaining Hygge in Your Images

From still life to lifestyle photography, we asked photographers working across the world to discuss their secrets for capturing the hygge spirit in images.

Over the last few years, the Danish concept of hygge—which has no single-word translation but speaks to the feeling of “cozy contentment and well-being”—has become a major international lifestyle trend. In 2016, it was named a finalist for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, as people around the world stocked up on candles and pillows, cozied up by the fireplace with friends and family, and made a conscious effort to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

In 2020, as people hunkered down at home during the pandemic, the idea of hygge took on a new layer of significance. During this isolating time, families came together for intimate dinners (sometimes over video chat), took time to unplug and spend time in nature, and made their homes more beautiful and comfortable. People found joy in home cooking, discovered new ways of practicing self-care, and snuggled up with soft sheets and cozy weighted blankets.

Autumn and winter are always prime seasons for getting cozy. But, perhaps this year we need it more than ever.

We asked photographers working across the world, specializing in everything from still life to lifestyle photography, to tell us their secrets for capturing the hygge spirit and creating that warm, cozy vibe in images. Here are their top tips.

Set the Mood

Create a Cozy EnvironmentBegin by creating a cozy environment behind-the-scenes. Image by Veronika Smirnaya. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens. Settings: Exposure 1/20 sec; f3.5; ISO 160.

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Hygge isn’t something that you can fake, so start by enjoying simple pleasures in your own life and on set. “When shooting fall and winter-inspired photos, my first step is to create a cozy and comfy atmosphere behind-the-scenes,” photographer Veronika Smirnaya explains. “I turn on seasonal songs, wear comfortable clothes, and make a cup of herbal tea. It helps me to feel more relaxed during a photo shoot, and that’s a feeling that I can then transfer into my photos.”

Embrace Warm Color Palettes

A Warm Color PaletteFor a warm color palette, incorporate soft string lights into your image. Image by Bogdan Sonjachnyj. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon Ultrasonic 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/2500 sec; f2.0; ISO 1250.

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“Color sets the mood and feel of the photograph, and warm color palettes evoke that feeling of comfort and safety,” Ukraine-based photographers Bogdan Sonjachnyj and Natali Gluhovska tell us. “Look for oranges, yellows, and reds. Another way we love to add warmth to an image is to use string lights or candles, which also create that beautiful, captivating bokeh. You can place these lights either behind the subject or in front of it, closer or farther from the lens, depending on how you want to frame it.”

Start a Prop Collection

Collect PropsProps always come in handy on set. Image by Lightsy Studio. Gear: Nikon D810 camera, Sigma Art 50mm f1,4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f8; ISO 64.

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“We always have a brainstorming session before any shoot, and for this set of images, we started by writing down various things that remind us of winter—homemade cookies, warm tea in the afternoon, snow, the color red, etc.,” Angie and Luis of Lightsy Studio tell us. “That formed the foundation for our planning and prop search.’

“We highly recommend investing in good props. They don’t have to be expensive, just well-chosen. We usually browse home decoration stores and choose props based on style and color. In this case, the main color is red, so we paired it with a complementary cyan color for the tea cup.’

“Good props last a long time. These old wooden tables are our treasures. We found them abandoned in the countryside, and we occasionally restore them if needed. We started with these two and now we have like twenty different wooden tables in our studio—all completely free!”

Add Some Flavor

Capture Cozy MomentsKeep your camera ready for those cozy, spontaneous moments. Image by Polina Loves. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon 50mm 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f2.5; ISO 250.

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“I’m always on the lookout for those small, everyday joys this time of year, including those that capture the flavors of the season—that first cup of coffee in front of a rainy window, a fresh crunchy croissant with jam on the terrace on a warm autumn day. Marshmallows roasted over a fire during a hike in an autumn forest,” Russian photographer Polina Loves tells us. “The main thing is to observe your surroundings and notice the charm of these simple pleasures, and keep your camera out when the moment comes.”

Celebrate the Little Things

Everyday ActivitiesHighlight everyday activities. Image by Anna Fotyma. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF Canon 24-70mm L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.

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Hygge is all about this idea of finding pleasure in everyday activities, so highlight these moments in your pictures.

“I like to focus on details,” Polish-based photographer Anna Fotyma tells us. “It might be hands holding a cup of warm tea or coffee, or a book read under a soft blanket. In this case, I’ll often use a selective focus technique. The main subject stays sharp while the rest of the picture gently blurs away. A shallow depth of field helps me separate the main subject from the background.”

Use Natural Materials and Soft Textures

Soft TexturesThrow some soft textures in for that warm, fuzzy feeling. Image by Anna Fotyma.

“I like to use warm color palettes, natural textures, backgrounds, and materials such as wood, thick, soft woolen fabrics, or knitted sweaters,” Anna Fotyma adds. “You can include anything that makes you feel comfortable and cozy.”

Fluffy cushions, warm blankets, chunky sweaters, and cozy socks came up again and again among the artists we interviewed. So, go all out with soft, natural textures.

Capture the Spirit of Togetherness

The Spirit of TogethernessExplore that hygge feel in small groups or gatherings. Image by Polina Loves.

The idea of spending time with loved ones lies at the heart of the hygge lifestyle. And, while we might not be able to connect in-person with groups of people, there are still ways to capture togetherness right now. For example, try working with fewer people, staying within your own family or “quarantine bubble,” and shooting outside while practicing safe social distancing.

“My most successful hygge shoot was with two young women in stylish knitted sweaters having a picnic by the lake on an autumn day,” Polina Loves says. “It really captured that feeling of getting away from it all, enjoying nature, drinking tea from a thermos, and laughing together and chatting.”  

Shoot at Home

The Hygge AestheticMake your home the perfect studio by incorporating the hygge aesthetic. Image by AnikonaAnn. Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, Canon 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f3.2; ISO 125.

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You don’t need an expensive studio space to create these kinds of images. A well-lit room at home can work nicely. “I made my favorite hygge-themed shoot in my bedroom, using cozy things on my bedside table, like fairy lights, fir cones in a mason jar, and candles,” photographer Anna Kolesnikova, a.k.a. AnikonaAnn, tells us. “I naturally surrounded myself and my family with pleasant, cozy things during that holiday season and then photographed them.’

“You probably have several props you can use in your own home—large mugs with tea or coffee, a plain knitted sweater, etc. When I’m working with the hygge theme, I try to use neutral tones in processing—gray or warm beige—and I select the same colors for my props.”

Open the Windows

Use Natural LightWhenever possible, use natural light. Image by Adrian Seliga. Gear: Nikon D300 camera, Nikon Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G lens. Settings: Exposure 1/320 sec; f1.8; ISO 200.

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When you’re shooting at home, natural window light can be a great tool. “I’m always chasing that heavenly, soft light, especially in winter when we don’t get enough sunlight!” Polish photographer Adrian Seliga says. “I always allow a lot of natural light to come in from the window to create soft, smooth lighting without too much contrast. Sometimes, I’ll also use some bounced artificial flash to fill the dark areas on set. But, I always avoid hard light, as it kills the mood.’

“I once created a set of photos right in front of the balcony on the floor in my room, during the summer but with a fall/winter theme. The light was really great, so I brought out a blanket, pillows, a notepad, book, and cup of coffee to create that cozy atmosphere. I later changed the color of the trees from green to orange to give it an ‘autumn look.’”

Add Fairy Lights

An Ethereal AestheticFairy lights and candles add that ethereal feel to images. Image by Veronika Smirnaya.

While some of the photographers we interviewed prefer to work mostly with natural light, many also incorporate a warm, seasonal twist by using fairy lights. “Key elements in all my best-selling photos with hygge vibes are warm drinks such as tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, and decorative lights,” Veronika Smirnaya says. “If you also want to incorporate string lights into your photos, select a wider aperture. That’ll create a magical bokeh effect with a slightly blurred background. I also suggest using a tripod when shooting with natural light, especially during dark, cloudy days to avoid high ISO, as it may affect image quality.”

Include Your Pets

The Hygge SentimentNothing expresses the hygge sentiment more than adorable sleeping puppies. Image by Anna Fotyma.

Research tells us that animals can make us happier, healthier, and less stressed, so consider inviting your furry friend to your next cozy photo session. “Most of us spend a lot of time in our homes these days, so I’m expecting to see images related to home and family life,” Anna Fotyma says. “In addition to capturing photos of myself baking gingerbread cookies with my daughter, I might include my two adorable dogs. After all, there is nothing more relaxing and calming than watching them nap together during the day.”

Incorporate Tech

Incorporate TechnologyIncorporate technology in your hygge images. Image by Adrian Seliga.

“For these kinds of shoots, I try to incorporate timeless details, like seasonal foods and drinks and also old-fashioned books, which are great for creating that cozy feeling,” Adrian Seliga says. “At the same time, I might incorporate technology to tell these same stories in a fresh, modern way. For example, instead of a book, you might photograph a comfy family watching their favorite TV series, someone scrolling through social media, or working on a laptop.”

Keep it Natural

Display Real-Life SituationsDisplay real-life situations and natural moments in your stock photos. Image by Okrasiuk. Gear: Nikon D610 camera, Nikkor 24-70 2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/4 sec; f6.3; ISO 100.

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“My most commercially successful photographs are those that show real-life situations, featuring ordinary people finding moments of everyday joy,” Oksana Krasiuk, a.k.a. Okrasiuk, says. “Right now, many of us are craving images that authentically capture an atmosphere of warmth, comfort, and safety.’

“I’m loving this growing trend toward highlighting natural emotions, real life, and imperfection. It’s something you might not have seen in traditional stock photos years ago, but it feels more relatable and genuine. Not everything has to be picture-perfect.”

Go Waste-Free

Stay Eco-FriendlyStay eco-friendly by using natural, zero-waste materials in your photo shoots. Image by Bogdan Sonjachnyj.

The holidays can be wasteful, but some photographers we interviewed are making a point of staying eco-friendly this year by steering clear of plastics and using natural, reusable materials instead. “Zero waste has been a trending subject in photography for a while now, and we’ve organized several photo shoots around this topic,” Bogdan Sonjachnyj and Natali Gluhovska say.

“We hope these photos will encourage people to minimize their plastic use wherever possible, rely on environmentally-friendly materials, and reuse gift-wrapping paper or fabric. Natural materials already work well to capture that ‘hygge’ mood, and we’re excited to explore this area further, especially since this is a lifestyle we follow ourselves.”

Include Copy Space

Leave Copy SpaceDon’t forget to leave copy space! Image by Lightsy Studio.

“Copy space is important for all commercial images, but it’s especially important for these kinds of shoots because they tend to be used for holiday campaigns or greeting cards,” Angie and Luis of Lightsy Studio add. “When looking for images to use, marketers really need some space in the image to write something or add their corporate logos. So, make sure you have a few snaps in there with plenty of copy space.”

Cover image via Okrasiuk.

Learn more about what it takes to make it as a career stock photographer:

How COVID-19 Has Changed Holiday-Themed Stock ImagesHoliday Wishlist: Gift Ideas for Photographers in 2021The 2020 Holiday Lookbook: Essential Images for the Holiday Season7 Photographers Share Tips on How to Become a Professional PhotographerThe Unfiltered Aesthetic Explained with Real Stock Images

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