Knowing Texture in Photography

There are various tools in a photographer’s “emotional toolbox” – the things that you can do in photography to shift a photo’s emotional information in your preferred direction. The one I’ll be talking about these days is texture.

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Photographic Definition of Texture

Texture within photography is not much different than in other contexts. If you think about reaching out, closing your eyes, and touching a photo, consistency is how it would feel in three dimensions. Sand might feel smooth and granular. Water could be easy and glassy, or it could be rough and sharp.

Patterns and texture in sand
NIKON D780 + VR 100-400mm f/4. 5-6. 3E @ 145mm, INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG 100, 1/160, f/6. a few
Gentle, glassy texture in water
NIKON D3400 + 70-300mm f/4. 5-6. 3 @ 300mm, ISO 360, 1/1000, f/6. 3
Texture of rough water

Consistency is more about the “in between” details of your subject or maybe the background, rather than the broader shapes of the composition. In other words, you might have two similar compositions (say, symmetrical left/right photos of the building) with different textures (maybe one is modern and has lots of windows, while the other will be weathered and falling apart).

Psychological Messages

Texture is one of the easiest components of photography to explain in terms of feelings, because usually the words you will use to describe the consistency are the same words to describe the particular emotions it carries.

If the texture is definitely rough, it imparts rough emotions to your photo. If the texture is gentle, the particular mood is gentle. The more space in your photo that the texture takes up, the better the corresponding emotion will be.

Like all things in photography, there can be exceptions. I’d be interested to find out people’s attempts to create severe emotions out of smooth designs, or calm emotions from sharp, jagged criss-crossed forms. It can be done, if you employ the other elements of composition creatively (such as light, balance, positive/negative space, and so on). But it’s not the norm.

The norm is more like this. Severe texture, harsh photo:

Texture of jagged ice up close
Canon EOS 80D + EF-S18-55mm f/4-5. six IS STM @ 18mm, ISO 100, 1/50, f/7. 1

Bubbly texture, bubbly emotions:

Bubbles on a pink background with a cool texture
NIKON Z . 7 + 105mm f/2. 8 @ 105mm, ISO 64, 3 seconds f/4. 8

Smooth and organic texture; a sense of nature in the emotional message:

Leaf up close with drops of water
NIKON D800E + 35mm f/1. 8 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/100, f/9. 0

Texture as Subject

Sometimes, structure isn’t just a detail inside the photo, but the whole stage of the photo itself. These types of tend to be abstract or semi-abstract images, and they can be an effective type of photography.

Repeated pattern of vertical lines
NIKON D7500 + 300mm f/4 @ 300mm, ISO 3200, 1/400, f/4. 0

The key reason why “texture as subject” pictures tend to work well is that they tell an unified story. As long as nothing distracting interrupts the particular texture, you’ll end up taking a photo where every part from the frame is on the same page, so to speak.

Fifty percent the problem with most pictures is that they don’t have a cohesive message, where as much of the particular photo as possible adds to the image. (It’s certainly the biggest issue with most of the photos I get and never show anyone. ) Texture-based photos bypass that will, to some extent. If the whole image is a single texture, a lot of that photo’s emotions are going to be unified almost by description.

Repeated pattern and texture in sand
NIKON Z . 7 + 70-200mm f/4 @ 185mm, ISO 64, 1/40, f/9. 0

This alone does not guarantee a portfolio-worthy image. The texture still needs to be interesting if you want a good photo. Odds aren’t great that a random picture of your kitchen flooring will be a winner. Factors like light and composition always play a big role in the picture’s quality, as always. Yet “texture as subject” is still one of the easier ways to take an unified photo, and that could be a very good starting point.

Texture as an Element of Structure

In most photos, texture isn’t going to be the leading role and will not command most of the photo’s interest. For example , if you take a family portrait photo, chances are that people will appear at the subject’s eyes greater than the texture of their epidermis or hair.

But even when texture isn’t the reason behind a photo’s presence, it still plays a role in shaping the image’s emotions. Maybe the primary subject of your image is a mountain on the horizon, which won’t change regardless of the rest of the photo. But there’s nevertheless a big emotional difference between a flowing meadow in the foreground versus cracked spots of dirt and rocks.

Distant rock formation with high-contrast leading line in the foreground
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z . 20mm f/1. 8 H @ 20mm, ISO 64, 1/30, f/13. 0

One region that I always pay attention to within my photos is the out-of-focus history. In many photos, the out-of-focus areas take up large amounts from the image, giving them a lot of psychological impact. Take a look at the image below:

Dragonfly photo with busy, distracting background and bad bokeh

In this case, the tough and clashing highlights plus shadows in the background do not help the emotional message. In fact , the background attracts enough attention of its own that it actually draws people’s eyes away from the subject.

So , I followed the particular dragonfly around for a few moments as it landed on different plants, in hopes of getting the background with a less distracting texture. I was happy to see it land here soon after, meant for what I consider a better image:

Macro photo of dragonfly with beautiful background texture

The subject of the two photos is the same. The structure is also the same, just mirrored. But the second photo works better because the more gentle history texture is a better suit and doesn’t distract through the dragonfly.

(Changing the background texture is also something you can accomplish by changing your aperture , although in this case, I’m reasonably sure that I used the same aperture both periods. It was a non-CPU lens, though, so I can’t state for certain, aside from noting the similar amount of the dragonfly that’s in focus both times. )

How to Make the Most associated with Texture

Texture isn’t something you need to spend an eternity worrying about. It is simply another tool at your disposal during composition. But it is something that you have some control of in most photos, even non-studio scenes. There are almost always going to be ways to shift the photo’s texture in one path or another.

For instance , you could change your composition either slightly or drastically. Here is an example where I think the harsh foreground texture from the seashore, though not undesirable, contradicts the rest of my photo somewhat:

Harsh foreground with a gentle background
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2. 7 S @ 24mm, ISO 64, 1/6, f/13. 0

Therefore , when I started taking several drone photos a bit later in the morning, I made sure to capture a similar composition but with gentler texture in the foreground. To me, this next shot is an improvement:

Landscape with gentle ocean texture in the foreground
DJI Mavic Pro 2 + 28mm f/2. 8 @ ISO 100, 1/1600, f/4. 0

You could also search for different topics in the first place. As I watched the sunrise from a mountain several years ago, I found a particularly jagged susceptible to photograph:

Intense mountain with harsh texture
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO one hundred, 1 second, f/8. 0

While the texture on the same early morning, but in a different direction, has been almost the complete opposite:

Minimalist mountain with smooth texture
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/15, f/8. 0

I’m not saying possibly is better or worse, exactly that you can get drastically different results simply by keeping your eye peeled for a variety of subjects. This goes along the equivalent lines as my latest article on timing and direction inside landscape photography . In line with the time of day that you’re taking photos, and the direction you face, you can end up capturing significantly different textures – and, therefore , drastically different feelings.

You may have realized that most of what I’ve talked about so far has to do with field-based photography under natural light. But if you are taking pictures in a studio, you have almost limitless control over the texture throughout your picture.

Here, I actually photographed some sheets of paper in a manner that emphasizes how coarse and rough they are:

Jagged texture in sheets of paper
NIKON Z 7 + 105mm f/2. 8 @ 105mm, ISO 64, 1/200, f/3. 5

But from a different angle, and by using much softer and warmer light, I had been able to capture a much milder texture:

Smooth texture in sheets of paper
NIKON Z 7 + 105mm f/2. 8 @ 105mm, ISO 64, 1/200, f/3. 5

Even if you don’t have the luxury of shooting in a studio, you can even control texture to some degree in post-processing. For example , to emphasize the cracks in the wall within the following photo, I increased Lightroom’s clarity slider – and, yes, the consistency slider! – to +15 and +5 respectively:

Slight clarity and texture boost in lightroom to emphasize the cracks in the wall
NIKON D780 + VR 45mm f/1. 8G @ 45mm, ISO hundred, 1/125, f/10. 0

But it is easy to go overboard. Maximum or even minimum slider settings aren’t usually a good idea, especially when coping with especially harsh sliders like Lightroom’s clarity option. It’s easy to see a texture you want, but then take things way too far:

Overdone post-processing with extreme clarity
Too much of the clarity and texture sliders in Lightroom!

Everyone’s tastes will be different, but the image over crosses the line from a picture to digital art in my mind, and not in a way I’m happy with. So , make sure to not overdo it if you decide to begin emphasizing or de-emphasizing particular textures in post.

Lastly, your digital camera settings can have an impact in your photo’s texture, and not just with regards to depth of field such as I covered a moment back. Here’s an example where We used a deliberately slower shutter speed of 1/10 second and shot handheld, panning with the ocean wave, to emphasize its gentle personality:

Texture of the ocean with a long exposure
Canon EOS Rebel SL2 + EF-S18-55mm f/4-5. 6 IS STM @ 55mm, ISO hundred, 1/10, f/22. 0

When you believe out of the box, you can discover a lot of similar cases. Long exposures, filters, flash (sometimes in combination with long exposures and filters) – all of these can be tools for capturing the textures you want in photography.


I hope this post gave you a good idea of how to work with texture in your own pictures. I won’t claim that it’s the most important part of composition, or probably even in the top 5. But it still influences the photo’s emotional message, which means it’s worth paying attention to. And if you’re completely stuck for good photo ideas at a specific location, look around for some interesting textures, and you can get those creative wheels spinning again!

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