John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Texture in Photographs


Texture is 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.

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

Textures can change subtly or dramatically with different levels of sharpening or blurring in photo editing programs. Soft hair can be made course and bristly. Hard gravel can be transformed into a silky smooth fabric. Experimenting with sharpening and blurring techniques will help sensitive you to the effects of texture.

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 that cannot be fully grasped by words.

In addition to capturing textures that occur naturally in the world, you can also add them 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.

It’s fascinating how adding such texture layers to a photo can dramatically transform it. In portraits, for example, the qualities of the texture can either enhance the personality characteristics of the subject, or completely change how we interpret that person. Because textures tend to stimulate tactile sensations, they seem to physically immerse us into the image. It’s a sense of being close to and “feeling” the subject in a way that cannot be easily described by words. 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.

In photos that contain subtle textures, people differ in whether they notice and in how they react to them. Those with “kinesthetic” sensitivities – who are 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.

Texture means “touching.”

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche