John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Texture in Photographs


Texture stimulates the sensation of TOUCH

That makes it one of the most intriguing, even mysterious aspects of photography. It stimulates the sensation of touch. Whereas our sense of vision operates at a distance from the world, the sense of touch brings us up close and personal, to the sensitivity of our fingertips, face, and skin.

The sensations created by textures are almost endless

Sharp, silky, gritty, bumpy, scratchy. The memories and emotions they stir can be equally varied and subtle. Sometimes the feelings aroused cannot be easily verbalized. They exist beyond words. Not having yet developed language or even sophisticated visual abilities, infants rely on the sensation of touch to experience the world. They explore the environment with their hands and put everything into their mouths.

The texture of hair, skin, lips, a teddy bear, a baby blanket, bubbles, a faint prick of a pin, sandpaper. Just my mentioning these things probably creates within you a distinct sensation, memory, or feeling. This is the power of using texture in photography. It can activate very personal, deeply felt experiences. Because textures stimulate tactile sensations, they seem to physically immerse us into the image. It’s a sense of being close to and “feeling” the subject.

Different light sources will draw out different texture qualities

Front lighting might emphasize sharp, bold, constrasty textures, as when bright sunlight comes over your shoulder and shines onto the metal and brick surface of a building.

Side lighting creates fine shadows that accentuate detailed textures, as well as the surface qualities of an object’s three-dimensional form. Imagine the effect of the setting sun on a statue in a field of grass.

Diffuse lighting helps us appreciate the subtle tones of smooth, silky textures, as evident in the foliage of trees under an overcast sky.

Nature provides it all

Nature offers an infinite variety of textures for photography: leaves, sand, rock, water, clouds - everything from harsh grittyness to velvety flow.

In this photo the underbrush in the Ojai mountains of California resemble the brushstrokes of a painting, or even the paint splashes of a Jackson Pollock. In this case the texture was so thick that I desaturated some of the lighter shades of orange in order to give more form to the subject.

texture in photography


Sharpening and Blurring

Textures can change subtly or dramatically with different levels of sharpening in photo editing programs. The more you turn it up, the crisper and then bristly the image becomes, in some cases changing the intrinsic nature of the subject. For example, soft hair can be made course and wiry, or the petal of a flower is turned into a craggy rock.

In this photo the sharpening during post-processing added to the gritty, wear-and-tear feeling of the litter on the pavement.


texture in photography


Textures can also change subtly or dramatically with different levels of blurring. As with sharpening, intense blurr can change the inherent nature of the subject. Hard gravel can be transformed into a silky smooth fabric, or even a flowing river. Crisp leaves transform into fluffy feathers.

In this photo a small measure of blurring adds to the smoothness of the flowers in the foreground, while an extra dose of blur makes the background flowers begin to evaporate into a smokelike haze.

Experimenting with sharpening and blurring techniques will help sensitive you to the effects of texture.

texture in photography

Adding your own texture overlays

You can also add texture layers to any photo using Photoshop or other image-editing programs. Simply create a new layer containing a texture pattern, then blend it into the background image using the layer blending modes (like “multiply” or “softlight”).

You can find texture images online, or create your own by shooting fabrics, walls, roads, foliage, or any textured surface. People who specialize in these images often maintain an archive of textures.

As with all forms of texture, the texture you infuse into a photo might result in very subtle or intense effects. In the case of this photo, the layer creates a gentle fabric feeling to the image, as if the image is printed on some type of textured paper. Some photographers specialize in these delicately textured media effects.

texture in photography

Textures for Portraits

In portraits the qualities of the texture layer can either enhance the personality characteristics of the subject, or completely change how we perceive the emotions and character of that person.

What reactions do you have to the flakes of gold for this top subject, as opposed to the "alien skin" for the other one?

Notice how the golden texture layer seems to lay on top, with the subject poking through it... while the alien skin seems embedded into the skin of the other subject.

texture in photography


The dance between texture and image

Depending on the qualities of the texture layer and how it is blended into the photo, the subject might appear to be constructed from that texture, emerging from it, receding into it, struggling with it, yielding to it, conjuring and mastering it, or even overwhelmed by it. The texture and the subject dance with each other, sometimes coming together, sometimes separating, but always forced into the predicament of finding ways to resist and cooperate.


Kinesthetic Sensitivity

In photos that contain subtle textures, people differ in whether they notice and how they react to them. Those with “kinesthetic” sensitivities – who are highly tuned to bodily sensations – respond more readily. It’s interesting to note that on the Rorschach inkblot test, the tendency to perceive textures in the inkblots is associated with needs concerning interpersonal attachment and contact comfort, a finding that supports the major point of this article...

... Texture means “touching”...

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