Adding a texture in Photoshop is a simple, easy way to add a painterly effect to a photographic image.

Adding texture to photographic images has exploded in popularity in the last year or so. You can create your own textures, or choose among a wide range of both free and commercial offerings available on the Internet, including smartphone and tablet computer apps.

The resulting images often look more like painted pieces of art than pure photographs. The beauty of working with textures is that you have a great deal of latitude in how you choose to apply them. Some images respond to a more aggressive use of texture while others benefit from a much subtler approach. In this article I'll show you how to achieve results to match a range of personal preferences and styles.

A colorful subject against a blurred background... ...can be changed dramatically by adding a texture.

Adding textures is not a new approach. In fact, I was first exposed to it by Freeman Patterson at a workshop a decade ago. He was still working with film, and he would sandwich two slides together in the enlarger - one a photograph of the subject, the other of a specifically chosen texture - to create a final image that was often mystical and far beyond the ordinary.

Since the two slides were sandwiched together, in essence doubling their density, each slide needed to be over-exposed. The trick was to determine how much to over-expose each image, which made for a lot of trial and error to prevent the texture from overpowering the subject, while still remaining visible. And of course you had to carefully consider the color of the 'texture' slide, as it would greatly impact the final result. These hurdles limited the popularity of the technique, and are probably why you've never heard about it.

Creating a composite image is much easier in the digital darkroom since you can modify the exposure of the individual images after the fact and precisely control the way in which they are blended together. That means less frustration and far more successful results. As a bonus, you can even add multiple textures for endless possibilities.

This image combines a strong composition with dramatic light. A subtle texture creates a different mood without veering too far from a photo-realistic result.

Creating a Texture

Creating your own texture is easy. You can photograph any number of items to use. Paper towels, wooden siding , concrete, sand and clouds can all work well. Let your imagination soar! Once you've decided what to shoot, fill the frame with your chosen texture. Try different angles and compositions. Shoot from up close up and further away. Remember, the more choices you give yourself at this stage, the more options you can explore later in Photoshop.

Be sure though to keep your camera parallel to the plane of the texture so that the entire area will be in focus. I find that most times using an aperture of f/8 is adequate. If, however, it's not possible to hold the camera parallel to your subject, then you may need to shoot at a smaller aperture to ensure adequate depth of field. One trick in this situation is to focus at the hyperfocal distance. Set your focus one third of the way from the near edge of your subject since your depth of field will extend a bit further behind the point of focus than in front of it. This assumes, of course that your subject lays relatively flat along a single plane.

The orange color and random patterns of rusted metal make for an interesting texture.

Generally speaking, I find textures that aren’t overly contrasty or detailed easier to work with, but there are no hard and fast rules as to what will work and what won’t. Furthermore, should you find that a texture you've photographed is too contrasty or simply the wrong color, you can always modify it in Photoshop.

If you don’t have time to shoot your own textures or want to use some preexisting ones as a starting point, there are numerous sources on the internet, just a Google search away. One site that has some nice textures is shadowhousecreations.blogspot.com. The image below was created using one of their free textures.

I liked the optical illusion that the boat was carrying the sun, but the image feels a bit flat. Adding a texture provides a sense of dimension that was missing from the original.

With free textures available, why would anyone bother to pay for one? A main reason concerns the size of the files. Some of the free files are smaller, relatively low res files. If your goal is to apply textures to images from a 16MP camera, for instance, these small files may not produce acceptable results when they are upsampled to match the dimensions of your primary image.

Don't make any assumptions when you're purchasing textures, however. I suggest downloading samples whenever possible to be sure you’re buying something that will work at your desired size. Another advantage of paid files is that they are often bundled together in logical groupings that make it easier to identify the type of texture, making it easier to choose the most appropriate one to use. Some sites, such as flypapertextures.blogspot.com regularly feature work created with their textures, which can serve as inspiration for your own creations.

Applying a Texture to an Image

Let's get to work and see how this is all done. In the steps below I'll be using Photoshop CS5, but Photoshop Elements users should find it easy to follow along.

The first step is to open the primary image (shown above) and perform any necessary spotting. Next, I open the rust image and use the Move tool (V) to drag it on top of the primary image.

To resize the texture layer, choose Edit>Transform>Scale. Drag the handles to resize the layer and press Enter/Return to apply the transformation.

If the texture has a varied pattern to it I often make it larger than the primary image. That way I can use the Move tool tool and fine tune its position, which may extend beyond the visible image area. I then set the Blending Mode in the Layers Panel to control how the images are combined.  Here I've chosen Soft Light, but experiment with the other modes and you'll soon find your own favorites. 

For the best results, you'll almost always want to reduce the opacity of the texture layer. Start by setting the Opacity slider to a value of around 75% and make adjustments until you have a pleasing blend between the two layers.

If you'd like to flip or rotate the texture layer, click on that layer (so it is highlighted in blue) and go to Edit>Transform. From this sub-menu you can choose from a number of rotation options as well as perform a horizontal or vertical flip.

There are some areas in which I want to reduce visibility of the texture layer. I add a layer mask to the texture layer, choose a soft-edged brush, set the foreground swatch to black and set the brush opacity to 50%. I then paint* on the layer mask to 'hide' portions of the texture layer. I added a Curves adjustment layer to boost the contrast. To restrict this edit to the texture layer I press the clipping mask icon (it's to the left of the 'eyeball') at the bottom of the Adjustments Panel. The bottom layer now remains unaffected by the Curves adjustment.

*Before painting with the brush, verify that the layer mask, rather than the image layer itself is selected - the layer mask will show 'frame corners' around its icon in the Layers panel. Otherwise you will be painting over the pixels in your primary image!

A quick tip: When painting on a layer mask I recommend using relatively short, frequent brush strokes as opposed to long, meandering ones. You can press Opt/Cmd Z (Alt/Ctrl Z on Windows) to step backward through individual strokes. By using multiple strokes you can undo small changes without starting over from scratch.

The final image with the texture applied.

In the example above, I used only a single texture layer, but there's nothing to stop you from adding multiple texture layers in a single Photoshop file. The basic concepts remain the same. You may also wish to experiment with additional effects found in Photoshop's Filter menu. Don't limit yourself to photorealistic results, you're an artist painting with pixels. The results should be limited only by your imagination!

If you prefer a program that can automate most of these steps for you, you could try Totally Rad’s Dirty Pictures. The price is a bit steep but you might find the time savings and ease of use to be worthwhile.

I should point out that adding a texture is not intended to magically turn poor images into masterpieces. And textures do not improve every type of image. For the best results you need to begin with good quality images that are well-composed and exposed. Then you can use the technique I've shown you to make good or great images even more eye catching. Have fun creating a new look with your images.


For more detailed instructions on using layer masks and blending modes, please see Photoshop CS5 for Nature Photographers; A Workshop in a Book (Anon & Anon, Sybex 2010.)