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How to use Texture to Improve Your Photos

texture in composition

I recently wrote about the importance of texture in my article about converting photos to black and white in Lightroom and my review of MacPhun’s Intensify app. Today I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at this compositional element, and how becoming more aware of it can help you create stronger images.

Why is texture important? The primary reason is that it helps you create a sense of depth and tactility within your photos.

Let’s look at some practical examples.

Photo with lots of texture

Here’s a photo I took in a Bolivian town.

texture in composition

Look at all the beautiful textures; in the dog’s fur, the stone he is laying on, the concrete step and wooden door behind him. Can you imagine what the dog’s fur is like to touch? Or the stone, concrete or wood? The textures of those objects help you do that, and bring a two-dimensional image to life.

Photos with some texture

Here’s another photo taken in South America.

texture in composition

There are several contrasts that make the photo interesting. One is the difference in brightness between the church and the sky (tonal contrast). The other is the contrast in texture. The stonework has a rough surface and a lot of texture. The sky has none. The contrast between the rough and the smooth adds an extra layer of interest.

Portraiture is another subject where you can exploit the contrast in texture between the relatively smooth surface of someone’s skin, and a highly textured background. The portrait below is an example of that. The lack of texture in the model’s skin contrasts with the textures in his sweater, hair, and the background.

texture in composition

The contrast between rough and smooth is also common in long exposure photography, where photographers use shutter speeds of a minute or longer to blur the motion of the sea, or other body of water. The result is a photo containing both still elements (such as the concrete jetty and the island in the photo below) and moving elements that have recorded as a smooth, even tone, thanks to the long exposure.

texture in composition

Post-processing and texture

One of the benefits of digital photography is that you can use the tools available in programs like Lightroom to emphasize texture. Or in the case of portraits, to de-emphasize it by applying a local adjustment to smooth skin (my article Four Ways to Improve Your Photos With the Clarity Slider in Lightroom shows you how to do that in more detail).

Here’s a quick tip. Think about enhancing texture as a local adjustment rather than a global one. In the example of the dog above I made two Clarity adjustments in Lightroom. The first was a global adjustment made by setting Clarity to +12 in the Basic panel. The second was a local adjustment made by using the Adjustment Brush to select the dog (see below) and setting Clarity to +41. The result is that the textures of the dog’s fur and the background don’t compete.

texture in composition

The red mask shows where the Adjustment brush has been applied locally to only the dog

Practical Exercise

The aim of this article is to get you thinking about texture and how you can use it to make your photos better. Here are a couple of exercises to help train your eye to see texture:

1. Street photography

Take a walking trip around your neighbourhood, looking for subjects with lots of texture. Think of things like doorways, letterboxes or anything made from concrete or stone. They don’t have to be fantastic photos, the aim is to raise your awareness of texture and get you thinking about how you can use it in your photos.

2. Portrait photography

Find a friend or a model to be your subject and find backgrounds with interesting textures. This could be anything from a wall, a doorway, or a large rock. The idea is to play with the contrast between the relative lack of texture (on skin) and the texture of the background.

Once the exercise is complete, the next step is to experiment with emphasizing texture in post-processing. Whether you use Lightroom, Photoshop or a plug-in like Intensify or Silver Efex Pro2, think about how can you use these tools to emphasize texture, or the contrast in texture between skin and a textured background.

Your turn

Now it’s your turn. How do you use textures in your photos? Do you have any tips for our readers, especially when it comes to post-processing? Let us know in the comments.

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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