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Everything we see has texture, so I think we take it for granted and don’t think about it enough in photography. But that’s a mistake. Because we see texture all the time, we need to make sure that we use texture in photography to enhance our photos and the viewer’s experience.

What is texture in photography?

Just like in life, in photos different surfaces have different textures, which adds to the depth of an image and creates different feelings. Obviously you can’t physically feel the texture in a photo, but you can photograph texture to enhance it and make it seem real.

Showing texture visually in a photo requires contrast of:

  • Light and shadow and/or
  • Different colors

Even though color can enhance texture, sometimes black and white photography is ideally suited to texture photography. Without the distraction of color, the texture becomes more apparent.

Further reading: Black and white photography tips for beginners

Why do photographers use texture?

In no particular order, here are 5 great reasons to use texture in photography…

1. Texture adds depth to a photo

Texture in photography is a visual design element used to bring a photo to life, to make it feel more three dimensional and interesting. It adds another layer of depth to a photo.

2. Texture engages the sense of touch

Even though you can’t actually feel the texture in a photo, if it’s done well, you can imagine how it feels. When you see different types of texture, such as a sleek texture, a soft furry texture, or a hard rough texture that you can imagine feeling, it pulls you in and makes the image more real and engages the sense of touch

3. Texture as a composition technique

Not only is texture visually appealing in a photo, it’s also a handy composition tool. It can:

  • Break up an otherwise bland background
  • Highlight the focal point by using contrasting textures
  • Balance elements in a photo

Further reading: 19 photography composition rules you need to know to be awesome

Close up texture forms a pattern

4. Photos of texture

Texture is so interesting when viewed up close, that texture photography is a thing in itself. You don’t even need a macro lens to capture stunning textures. All you have to do is:

  • Make sure the texture is as obvious as possible
  • Fill the frame with the texture

5. Texture in post processing

There’s one more reason to photograph texture! Although texture photos can make interesting stand alone photos, they are also great for combining with other photos in Photoshop to add a very subtle layer of texture. In this instance the texture layer would be almost transparent, so that the viewer isn’t aware of the image.

How do you create texture in photography?

The most important factor in creating texture in photography is light and shadow. When there’s light, there’s contrast, and it’s the contrast of light and dark that shows texture.

But the light itself is important in creating texture, specifically:

  1. Quality of light
  2. Direction of light

Soft light and hard light side lighting an orange to enhance texture

Camera settings: Aperture – F8, focal length – 70mm. The orange is lit by the late afternoon sun coming in through the kitchen window to camera right. For the left photo the sun had been obscured by cloud, so the texture is much softer, because of the soft light.  This is particularly noticeable on the wooden board. The photo on the right was lit by direct sunlight. Notice the difference between the shadows cast by the orange? On the right the shadow has a harder edge and the texture of the board is more pronounced, because of the hard light.

1. Quality of light

When we refer to the quality of light, we’re talking about how hard or soft light is.

The harder the light, the harder and deeper the shadows will be, and therefore the more defined the texture will be.

On an overcast day, photographing texture in natural light won’t be nearly as effective as on a bright sunny day. Sometimes you can’t even see your shadow on overcast days, so it makes sense that texture won’t be enhanced either.

Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge

2. Direction of light

For well defined surface texture light must skim across the surface. As the light highlights bumps and shadow fills dips, the texture is enhanced.

So, while a bright sunny day might be great for texture in natural light, it’s not going to help you at midday when the sun is positioned directly overhead. (Unless the texture is a vertical pattern of course, like on the side of a building.)

This is another reason why the golden hour is the best time for photos. When the sun is low in the sky, it skims across the earth, shadows become long and texture is enhanced.

Further reading: Direction of light – how to use side light

Low golden hour light enhances texture in photography

These photos were taken moments apart, but in slightly different parts of the beach. The photo above is lit by a low sun in the golden hour. You can see how the light skims across the sand, leaving shadows in the dips. In the photo below, the sun is blocked by a low wall, so the sand doesn’t appear to have the same texture

Diffused light does reduces texture in photography

Tips for capturing texture in photos

It’s not enough to have the right kind of light coming from the right direction. You need the correct camera settings for texture to show up well in photos.

1. Depth of field and texture

Photographing with a wide aperture and/or long focal length for a blurry background is one way of creating texture in photos. In fact, by blurring the background completely, you’re removing all the details. This creates a very smooth background, separating your subject, in sharp focus, from the background.

So, obliterating all background detail is one way of approaching texture in photos. What if you want detail texture in the background?

Well, you need to do the opposite:

  • Don’t shoot at your widest aperture, instead use F4 and narrower
  • Use a shorter focal length, like 50mm or 35mm (but be careful to keep your subject in the center of the frame so that they aren’t distorted)
  • Position your subject closer to the background, and ensure that the distance between you and your subject is not more than the distance between your subject and the background

Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

Contrasting textures in photography

This photo is all about texture. I wanted to contrast the texture of the rough granite boulder, the glassy reflective surface of the water and the soft cotton dress of the model. Using an aperture of F8 meant that the boulder behind didn’t lose it’s texture by being too blurry and neither did her reflection. The focal length is 66m and I was about 2 meters away.

2. Expose correctly for good texture

If you either overexpose or underexpose an image the effect of the texture could be lost. Details will be lost in blown out highlights, so be careful of reflective surfaces.

Pay attention to the shadows too so that they’re not too dark.

Playing with textures in photos

Like anything related to photography composition, there are a number of ways you can use texture to enhance an image.

  • Contrasting textures is a great way to draw attention to the focal point and make an image interesting. For example a smooth texture will stand out more against a rough texture than another smooth texture
  • Texture in photos adds to the composition and impacts the balance of an image. A rough texture has greater visual weight than a smooth texture
  • Texture is closely related to pattern in photography composition, because, like with repetition, when a texture is repeated, it forms a pattern
  • Use texture as an element of the principle of unity composition to create a strong, cohesive image

Further reading: 

How to use unity in photography for good design

Essential tips for creating balance in composition

Texture in portrait photography

As I’m a portrait photographer, I’m most interested in using texture in a scene to enhance the subject, specifically:

  • Background texture in photos
  • Contrasting textures (skin, clothes, background) within the scene

As you can see, texture in portrait photography is as much about the subject and what they’re wearing as it is about the background and the light enhancing the texture.

Glossy tiles form a pattern in the background

Both photos are very black, but the texture in the photo above is glossy and smooth, while below is a rough matte texture. In both photos the only colour is the model’s skin, a smooth texture that contrasts with the backgrounds. Her leather jacket in the photo below adds a lovely glossy texture in an otherwise very matte black photo. That and the backlight add life and interest to the photo. Just as in the photo above, her reflection on the dimpled reflective surface of the tiles adds another layer of interest.  Notice too that in both photos repetition of the background material forms a pattern.

Using contrasting texture in portrait photography

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If you have any questions about texture in photography,  let us know in the comments.

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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