How to improve photos with textures in Photoshop

This week I found myself in a rut when I realised all my photos were starting to look alike—the posing, the colouring, the framing—and while that’s all part of developing a style I got frustrated that after 12 weeks I’m not coming close to capturing the look I set out to achieve. I particularly struggle to get my colour toning right even though you’d think that’d be the easy part of creating a complex image.

So I decided to start playing around more with texture. In most of my images I’ve used a texture or two but on such low opacity that you’d barely know they’re there. This week I wanted to create an image where the texture is as much a focus as the subject.

What is texture?

For years I’ve been photographing walls and wood and rust and rocks. I even have a friend who, when he sees me, usually remarks, “there’s a rock over there you might want to photograph”. I do this to build up a texture library because when you add a texture over the top of your main image and start playing around with Photoshop’s blending modes the textures can make your image come alive in wild and unpredictable ways. Textures are also beneficial for when you’re compositing elements together from lots of different photos. By adding a texture over top it helps to tie the elements together in a believable way. Using textures is a favourite technique of conceptual photographers because by adding texture to your work you’re showing your viewer that what they’re looking at has been manipulated in some way, suggesting an element of make-believe and distinguishing the photo from a fashion or beauty image. Using textures over still life or macro images also adds an extra level of interest and a tangible feel to the photo.

How to build a texture library

You’ll find many photographers offer free texture packs for download. Digital Camera World is a good start and the source of some of the textures I played around with in my image this week. While I like to shoot my own textures I also download free textures whenever I find them because I see no harm in having a wide range of textures available at my fingertips.

Shooting your own textures is easy and really only limited by your imagination. I’m positive if you grabbed a camera you’d find five decent textures in the room you’re in right now. Try and find textures with lots of detail and textures with minimal detail, textures that are both in and out of focus, brightly coloured and muted textures, textures with lots of contrast between light and dark and textures with almost no contrast. Just about anything can work as a texture. I’ve used clouds and flowers and leaf litter, dirt, fabric, lights and fur.

When I visited Malaysia last year the textures were so magnificent that I shot more photos of walls then I did of my travel companions. You can even buy a book on Georgetown street art where half the pages are photos of textured walls. So I’ve decided to offer a free pack of Malaysian textures to get your texture library started. Click to download your free Malaysian texture pack!

Texture example

Example images


How to use textures

When I’m looking through photos in Lightroom I’ll tag anything I think might work as a texture with the keyword ‘texture’ (groundbreaking) so I can easily sort and find them later. Many photographers convert their textures to black and white because after spending so long on colour toning they don’t want to apply a texture that’ll mess it up. Personally, I prefer to use coloured textures because they help me see which colours enhance my image so I can then recreate those colours how I want.

I don’t start to apply textures to an image until I’ve finished arranging all the other elements in my photo to perfection and done any required sharpening. I’ll then cycle through my Lightroom textures choosing about ten. If my subject is in the centre of the image I’ll look at textures with light centres and dark edges which might add a natural vignette; I think about how much detail I want my image to have and choose a texture accordingly. And then I usually throw in a couple of crazy textures just to see what they’ll do to my image. If you can’t get a texture to do what you want, remember you can use filters and adjustment layers to change the texture’s colours, saturation and contrast and use masks to paint them in only where you want. It’s generally advised to mask a texture from a model’s skin so they don’t appear unnatural and it also helps draw attention to them.

Blending-modes-with-arrowWhen I’ve finished working with my main photo I open my textures as layers in Photoshop at the top of my layer stack. I resize each texture (using Ctrl T) so that they cover my whole canvas. I’ll lower the opacity of the layers to about 60% and switch the eyeballs off on all but one. Then, at the top of your layer’s palette you’ll see a box that says ‘normal’. This is where your ‘blending modes’ live. Click the drop down menu and work through the different blending modes to find one that blends your texture into the main image in a way that you like best. (A shortcut for this is to make sure the move tool is activated and then press Shift + or Shift – to cycle through the modes quickly.) You may find a couple you like so duplicate your texture layer (Ctrl J) and apply both for comparison or, if the texture isn’t working at all, just delete the layer. When you’ve found a few you like, click your layer eyeballs on and off for comparison. Remember to change your layer opacity for more or less of the effect and then narrow down your textures until you have a favourite. Of course, you can use as many at once as you like and use layer masks to apply them to only certain areas of your image.




How I photographed ‘She Brings the Night’

Photographing ‘She Brings the Night’ was the most mortifying shooting experience I’ve ever had. Here’s me in a long blonde wig and a black velvet dress taking photos of myself on a busy beach at twilight. It took 20 minutes to blow up the round balloon I was to cradle as a placeholder for the moon and it blew away along the beach before I even got the chance to use it. It was really windy so my wig and dress were blowing all over the place and I was worried about getting sand in my camera bag. I wanted my flash to illuminate the spot where the moon would be but I couldn’t get it to trigger and I was well over this shoot before it began.

As a result the pose and the camera angle are really awkward. I forgot to shoot a blank shot for compositing and I stupidly expanded my frame without it occurring to me that the sea is moving and so my shots would never line up. I nearly didn’t edit the images at all because I figured the whole thing was just a disaster.

Thank god for Photoshop.

Using layer masks I blended together different shots of the sea, my feet, my dress, my upper body and my arm. Because I forgot to take a blank shot, my feet were in every image so I had to clone extra sand and water around my feet to match the sea image I liked. The moon and the “moths” (really butterflies from eBay) were shot separately on contrasting backgrounds while the clouds are from a stock image.

Blending modes are not only great for applying textures but can also be a fast and wonderful way to composite in other elements without having to make complex selections, so you should always try playing around with blending modes first before hitting the selection tools. I was able to composite in the clouds using the ‘soft light’ blending mode so I didn’t have to spend time cutting them out, but the moon and moths didn’t work as I’d hoped so I had to select these with the ‘quick selection’ tool to remove them from their pre-existing backgrounds.

I used the following five textures to get the final look:


So with the addition of some textures I was able to create an ethereal deity out of an awful shooting experience and it was one of the easiest edits I’ve ever done. Amazing.

Feel free to use my Malaysia textures in your work however you’d like. I’d love to see the results!