How To Apply Textures To Your Photographs

How To Apply Textures To Your Photographs

Let me start off by saying that I don’t use textures all that often, but there are certainly times where I feel that an image could use just a little something extra. Textures are just another one of those things in digital photography that can be overused and overdone if you’re not careful, and there are certainly right and wrong ways of going about it.

So, for those that have never heard of this before or have yet to try it, you may be wondering what it means to add a texture to a photograph? Simply put, it means taking one image (usually of some sort of texture like peeling paint, a scratched surface, a textured wall or fabric) and applying it as an overlay to your actual image. The effect is achieved by changing the blend mode of the texture in photoshop so that the texture actually becomes translucent and part of the actual image. For this tutorial, I’ll take a simple image I took in California during a surf competition, and add a texture to bring it to life.

Here’s the image straight out of the camera and the texture we will be using from my library…

If you’re new to Photoshop, you should make your number one priority this: Get familiar with layers and masks. Those are two key functions in Photoshop that I use every single time I’m in the program. Layers and masking (among other things) are what make Photoshop such an incredibly powerful program, and these foundational skills will take you a long way in learning the program. With layers, anything on the top layer has precedence over whatever is below it. Since I want to apply the texter to the image of the surfers, I need to place the texture as a layer above the surfers.

Note: Before we get into these screen captures, I know they may seem a little small and hard to read. To see more detail, I included larger versions as well. Just right click the image and view it in a new tab to see te full size version.

The first thing you should notice in the screen shot is that all we can see is the texture. That’s because the texture is on a layer of it’s own sitting above the image of the surfers, as seen on the bottom right of the screen. Another reason we can’t see the surfers yet is because the opacity of the texture is set to 100% and the blend mode is set to normal. Changing the blend mode of the texture will do something very different depending on what you choose. For textures, I typically stick with either “Overlay” or “Soft Light.” If I want the texture to be more dominant in the image, I’ll go with overlay. If I want a more subtle texture, I’ll go with soft light.

Opacity is another very useful tool at our disposal. Adjusting this slider is just one more way to affect the outcome of how the texture will look. If setting it to overlay looks too strong, but soft light looks to weak, just set the blend mode to overlay and adjust the opacity of the layer down until it look right.

See how easy that was!? For this image, I changed the blend mode to Overlay and pulled the opacity slider down to 68%. Why 68%? No reason really, I just adjusted the slider up and down until it looked right to me, and that happened to be at 68%. We’re almost done with this image, there’s just one problem left: The surfers. Now we have a texture overlay laying on top of the surfers skin and clothing, and that just will not do. For an image like this it might not be as noticeable, but try adding a texture to a portrait and you’ll see what  I mean. While this is a problem, there’s an easy solution, and that solution is masking.

Masking in photoshop is an incredible tool and will literally blow your mind when you “get it.” For some, masking is a hard concept to get the hang of, and it takes time to really understand how to do it. Because I was like this in the beginning, I will try and be as clear as possible about what masking is.

Applying a mask to a layer means that you want to either conceal or reveal parts of that same layer. There are only two types of masks; black and white. A good phrase to remember is, “Black conceals and white reveals.” If I place a white mask over the texture layer, nothing will happen, because white reveals whatever layer it is on. If I place a black mask over the texture layer, the texture will disappear because black conceals everything on that layer.

In this screen shot, I added a black mask just to show what it does. For the actual image I will use a white mask. To apply a layer mask, just highlight the layer you want to use and click the tiny little mask icon at the bottom right of the screen. By default, the mask will be white. If you want to add a black mask instead, there a few ways to do it. First, you can hold down the Option button on your keyboard while you click the add mask icon. Or, you can add the layer mask as white, then click “Invert” on the right hand menu (circled). Another quick way is to add a white layer mask, then hit the shortcut “Command I” to invert to a black mask. All three options get you the same result.

So, I mentioned that I will use a white mask for this image. Because white reveals everything on the texture layer, I need to add some black to the mask to conceal certain parts of the texture. I want to hide the texture so it doesn’t show up on the surfers, but keep the texture visible on the rest of the image.

I numbered this one because it jumps around the page a bit. This image is pretty much done, so let’s go over what we did with the mask here…

  1. As you can see, I used a white layer mask on the same layer as the texture. Therefore, if I add any black to that mask, it will conceal the texture and let us see anything beneath it. If you look at the layer mask, you will see that I painted in an outline of each surfer into the image.
  2. With the layer mask selected (be sure the layer mask is selected, not that texture!) select the Brush tool from the left side or hit the B key as a shortcut. The brush is what we will use to paint in the surfers to the mask.
  3. If you’re using a white mask you want to paint with black, if you’re using a black mask then you paint with white. If you have different colors on your swatches here, then make sure your mask is selected and not the texture. When you highlight a mask, your swatches will switch to black and white by default. Whichever color is on top is the one you will be painting with so make sure black is on top (unlike the screenshot). To switch between black and white, just hit “X” on the keyboard.
  4. Most of the time, you want to paint with a soft brush. Click the icon circled and adjust the brush to a soft tip. This will make the strokes more subtle and pleasing to the eye.
  5. Finally, changing the opacity is usually a good idea too. Painting at 100% opacity will make your brush strokes very obvious and it will look bad. Instead, adjust your opacity by using the slider or by hitting a number key on the keyboard. Hitting “1” will give you 10% opacity, hitting “9” will give you 90% and so on. I usually use a 50% brush but it just depends on the image. In this one I used 70%.

That’s it! Here’s the final image…

More Examples of Textures


Once you learn layers and masking, applying textures is a breeze. It’s important to know what type of image will work well with a texture and which images won’t. This will come with time, but just know that not every image needs it! It’s important not to overuse them on an image, as they are meant to compliment the image and not dominate it (in most cases that is).

Be sure to let us know what you think in the comment section below. If you used this tutorial and gave it a shot, show us your work by including a link to your image!

As always, be sure to follow me on twitter (@jamesdbrandon) if you don’t already. I’m always available there to answer questions as well and I do my best to share the work of others for inspiration.

Read more from our Post Production category

James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

Some Older Comments

  • James Brandon July 13, 2013 08:30 am

    Wendy, unfortunately no there isn't. However, you can use onOne Softwares Perfect Layers and apply textures that way. It's free but works best when you use it as part of their Perfect Suite of products.

  • WendyB July 13, 2013 06:11 am

    Thank you for the post- very helpful! Is there a way to apply textures in Lightroom 4?

  • carie January 12, 2013 04:31 pm

    Best tutorial yet....amazing job

  • Chasidy Feuss May 20, 2012 06:39 pm

    I have been reading out some of your posts and it's nice stuff. I will definitely bookmark your site.

  • Carole March 19, 2012 05:04 am

    This is a fabulous tutorial. Wish I had come across it when I was first learning texturing. I stumbled through on my own, but this tutorial would have made it much easier. I'm passing this link on to someone who has asked me about texture use.

    I'm one of those who feels that textures/actions are being overused and overdone (it's the new trend). It seems that few people let their photos stand on their own anymore.

  • rochelle December 30, 2011 06:04 am

    This was the Best Article I have read on teaching textures. I have been wanting to learn and researched high & low on this. Thank you !!

  • Maria November 19, 2011 01:13 pm

    I have a question about working with textures:

    Sometimes I can not decide which texture to use on a certain image. Is there a way to try them certain ones (one by one) without having to mask each one every time, therefore saving time and extra steps? I can't seem to find a way to do this

    I hope I make sense.

    Thanks, Maria

  • ScrappyDigits July 18, 2011 11:37 pm

    Great post! So many times, when textures are added to photos, the result is just overwhelming. But, not here. The textured images that you show here are perfectly in their subtlety.


  • Mike May 21, 2011 06:29 am

    Simple and easy to understand. Adds variety!

  • Kathy March 22, 2011 08:11 am

    they've got a ton of brushes, textures and patterns. I really like this site.

  • blacklilly March 3, 2011 08:21 pm

    Hey! I just found this tutorial, and it is exactly what I've been after since I learned how to lomo my digital photos!! I got a bunch of textures from Flickr and tested some out. So far, this one is looking pretty good:

    [eimg link='' title='19mirrorstextured' url='']

  • Kate March 3, 2011 04:53 pm

    useful instructions and easy to read. Just discovered this site and really love it!
    Keep up with the good work!

  • Derek February 17, 2011 06:41 am

    Thanks for a wonderful tutorial. I can't wait to try out some of these textures.

  • Jonathan Dass February 17, 2011 02:22 am

    Great, clear and concise article James. Although a PS user, I have not yet used layers so after following your instructions do I merge and flateen the layers?

  • Mary Anne February 10, 2011 11:43 am

    I was very excited to try this, but alas, I *only* have PSE 8.
    I know it is possible, I just can't for the life of me figure it out...

  • miranda February 9, 2011 09:08 am

    Thank you very much! Indeed, this is an excellent tutorial :)
    I was wondering, where do I find textures to add to my photos?
    The ones that came with my editing program are kind of tacky :P
    Again, excellent article!


  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 9, 2011 05:05 am


    Great tutorial, very detailed and to the point. I am not a Photoshop user, so I need to do some other things in Post. I use Nikon Capture NX2 and do some basic exposure corrections. I follow with Photomatix for a single RAW HDR extraction and keep Default settings. Then back to NX2 for some final crops and small adjustments.

    Here is a shot from a Winery I took and processed with this work flow

    "Windows Web Site" Prager Winery, CA:

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Rhett McCarthy February 8, 2011 05:09 am

    Absolutely Love this!!
    Will have to try soon!

  • Amy H February 8, 2011 03:00 am

    I am fairly new to adding layer masks, and have not yet attempted adding textures - you're tutorial was very helpful, can't wait to try it! Thanks!

  • Loni February 7, 2011 08:17 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'm just beginning to dive into the world of PS and if freaks the heck out of me! I really appreciate this tutorial.

  • Jason February 6, 2011 04:33 pm

    Just fantastic mate, have a photo in mind to try when i get home.
    cheers all the best

  • Doug Sundseth February 6, 2011 03:56 am

    You can fake a layer mask in Elements using a clipping group. See this article, for example.

    That's for PSE6; I suspect it will work with most versions.

  • laura February 5, 2011 12:11 pm

    James - great how-to - concise and easy to follow.
    I've used that exact texture in a couple of my photos and people have asked me how I did it. Now I can send them to you!
    [eimg link='' title='vintage-look statue' url='']

  • laura February 5, 2011 08:53 am

    Very nice!

    I used that same texture for a couple of my photos, and I did it in photoshop ;).
    People ask me how I do it, and now I'm sending them to you.
    [eimg link='' title='vintage-look statue' url='']

  • Diane February 5, 2011 05:17 am

    I've been using layers but had to figure it out myself. I have been using the eraser tool to remove the texture in certain parts of my images. When I read your excellent tutorial, I went to try it. I use PSElements so unfortunately cannot use your super simple method. I have no way of adding a mask on PSE. But I must say, yours is the best instruction on this topic I've ever read -- makes it very understandable too. Thank you.

  • James Brandon February 5, 2011 02:19 am

    Mark - You're right, I'm not an expert on GIMP. I have played with it long enough to know it would slow me down as you mentioned. I'm not trying to argue with you and convince you to go out and buy PS. If you are happy with GIMP then more power to you, fine by me :-)

    I don't know if GIMP has changed much since I last played with it, but when I tried it I didn't see an option for adjustment layers. That was a deal breaker for me. And actions? I didn't see a way to create actions to speed up workflow.

    Sure, my method is considerably expensive, but it is fast and efficient and that's what matters to me. I want to spend more time shooting and less time editing. I feel like if I used GIMP, I'd have to spend most of my time "figuring out" how to do something that I knew Photoshop can do.

    Again, we don't need to turn this into an argument, that isn't productive. You use GIMP and that's great. I use Photoshop and that's great. Now go out and make some art :-)

  • Mark February 5, 2011 02:09 am

    @James Brandon -- I hear comments like yours all of the time, but I never hear facts to back them up. I have only used Photo Shop a few times, but have been using GIMP for the last year. I have yet to find anything that PS can do that I cannot find a way to do in GIMP! Other than third party plug-ins, what are you talking about? If I were a professional portrait photographer, I would for sure want PS and some plug-ins to speed up my work flow, but I am not a portrait photographer and I don't make a living at it. I shoot wildlife mostly and as I am retired I really work full time at it, but consider myself an advanced amateur. GIMP does everything that I need for photo editing of my wildlife shots and in some areas it does a better job than my experiences with PS did.

    IF you are fully experienced in both programs I would really like a list of some things that GIMP cannot do that PS can do other than third party plug-ins. For some reason, I suspect that you have never spent much time LEARNING GIMP so you cannot speak with authority on it. Maybe I am wrong.

    My workflow is slower than one would want in a professional studio, but it works for me and is free. I use DPP from Canon to process the RAW, then open in GIMP to edit. Occasionally, I will open in Picassa before editing in GIMP in order to use the "fill light" feature in Picassa but that is not very often. Yeah it is not as smooth as Lightroom>PS but it works fine and does all that I care to do to a photo. And I would prefer to spend my limited money on Canon L series lenses rather than software!!!!

  • Bettina February 4, 2011 06:36 pm

    Brilliant tutorial. Not too long, not too short, very well explained.

  • Glen February 4, 2011 03:42 pm

    @Alasdair, Bittbox has a great collection of free textures.

  • Mike Ealy February 4, 2011 02:19 pm

    Sweeeeeeet!.... Im gonna try this out when i get home.......(now what to texture.....what to texture.....)

  • Gerry Johnson February 4, 2011 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the insights. I passed that Japanese cemetery outside of HIlo a number of times this visit and each time thought how I might photograph it. Nice job.

  • Tiffany February 4, 2011 11:39 am

    I've done a few textures to my pictures but I just erase the texture which is time consuming but I just don't get masks??? I try but I still haven't gotten it yet. I use PSE but I do have PSE9 which has masking abilities

  • FG February 2, 2011 05:10 am

    Great tutorial, it was very helpful for me!

  • Doug Sundseth February 1, 2011 06:20 am

    If you want to color correct the masked area, instead of painting on the texture, do the following:

    1) Mask the texture as described in this tutorial.

    2) Sample the texture color (use a large sample area to avoid local aberrations.

    3) Add a solid color layer using the sample color.

    4) Set the blend mode of the solid color layer to the same mode you are using for the texture layer.

    5) Copy the mask from the texture layer to the solid color layer.

    6) Invert the mask on the solid color layer.

    The effect will be the same as if you had painted on the texture layer, but the result will be a non-destructive edit, so if you need to make changes, you can.

  • Jamie January 31, 2011 11:47 am

    @Chris - yes, but then you're still warming the textured part of the image with both the texture color AND the original photo color if you do that, effectively doing it twice. You'd have to mask out the color wherever the texture is to get it to look even, so "painting" right onto the texture keeps that balance much easier. On a photo like this it isn't terribly noticable, but when you leave a good amount of texture or have a very colored texture that you leave at a higher opacity, it can be very noticable.

  • Risa January 30, 2011 12:29 pm

    I'm new to PS and having fun with it! And this is one of the greatest hands on tutorials! Thank you so much! But one question here! Where can I find the texture that you introduced here? Or other good textures that you recommend?
    I could find texture from "filter" menu but none of them like the one you show here!
    I've picked some photos to experiment this tutorials and very looking forward to hearing from you soon!!!
    Thank you
    Risa Nakamura

  • Chris January 30, 2011 06:01 am

    You can always adjust the colors on the photo layer to make it match the warmth of the texture better. That way you don't end up with an image that just doesn't feel right or having textures covering the subjects.

  • Robin D January 30, 2011 04:50 am

    James thanks for the excellent tutorial on textures. I will be sure to save this tutorial for future reference!

  • James Brandon January 30, 2011 03:49 am

    Thanks for all the comments folks, sorry I wasn't able to reply until now! I've been out and about the last few days.

    For everybody wondering about where to find textures, they are literally all over the place on Google. Just type in photoshop textures and you find thousands of results. Then you just need to decide if you are willing to pay for some really cool ones, or spend the time scouring the web for free ones. I've done both.

    Lightroom does not have the ability to do textures, so making the jump to Photoshop is a great idea! While textures might be a reason to make the jump, you'll find that once you have Photoshop you've basically blown the door to possibilites wide open for your photographs. PS can literally do just about anything you want to do to an image. It just takes patience and a bit of a learning curve to figure out.

    I really recommend trying out to anyone trying to learn a program like PS or LR or Aperture or anything like that. It's a great resource and only $25 a month.

    The only way I would suggest using GIMP is if you absolutely cannot afford PS. GIMP is free and that is certainly tempting, but PS is the industry standard. Because of that, all the 3rd party companies like onOne, Topaz, Imagenomic, etc all cater to Photoshop and Photoshop alone. There are a ton of things that PS can do that GIMP can't. If you're a student, you can even purchase a student copy of PS for around $150. Even if you buy it at full price, it's well worth the investment. Just make it a goal to purchase and set aside money each month until you can make the buy. Cheers!

  • Leslie January 30, 2011 01:40 am

    This is one of the most clearly worded, easy to understand articles I've read on anything that involves layers in photoshop. Thank you!!

  • Ms. Pearl January 30, 2011 12:46 am

    There are tons of free textures on Flickr. Just enter the word "textures" in the search box and you will find page after page. To download them, click on the texture you want, then "View All Sizes" and select the size you want (med. is good) and download.

  • Callewaert Andre January 29, 2011 09:56 pm

    Excellent tutorial, j'ai beaucoup aimé.
    Très bien expliqué.
    Continue comme cela, James.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 29, 2011 01:44 pm

    This is the kind of simple Photoshop skill I lack, despite being a full-time photographer.

    Thank you for the easy to follow tutorial. I even unknowingly used a surfer for my own example as well. Must have been subconscious of me.

    I used CS5.

  • Charlie January 29, 2011 12:39 pm

    Hey this is a great tutorial, but is there some kind of website where I can download textures off of? Thanks

  • Kim January 29, 2011 11:52 am

    Fantastic and simple - I've been thinking about doing some textures on photos, but wasn't exactly sure how to go about it - thank you!

  • Rick January 29, 2011 10:27 am

    @Caroline: People often wish they had Photoshop but shy away from GIMP because they perceive that the learning curve is too steep. From my experience, they're both about the same. Download GIMP, find some tutorials (there are plenty of them on the internet), and give it a whirl. The only thing it will cost you is some time and effort.

  • Rick January 29, 2011 10:24 am

    This tutorial is easily transfered over to GIMP as well. I basically taught myself how to do layers in GIMP, which is pretty similar to how you've approached it. It's nice to know I was on the right track. :-)

  • Elizabeth Halford January 29, 2011 07:16 am

    Love your super duper screen captures with numbered circles. A 'why didn't I think of that?!' moment :) And gotta say that graveyard is far out man.

  • Jim January 29, 2011 07:04 am

    I am new to PhotoShop and was looking for a great way of adding extra character to some of my photographs. Thanks, so much an article with such a clear walk-through if the layer/masking process. I look forward to using this technique with some of my work.

  • Jamie January 29, 2011 06:47 am

    Every once in awhile I allow myself to indulge in textures as well. However, I’ve found that instead of creating a layer mask to mask out texture on skin/people, it’s often better to “paint” out the texture directly on the texture layer so that it still has the same color.

    So for the example above, I would have taken a color sample of the textured layer to match as close as I could. I would then have “painted” on the texture over the people instead of masking them out. This makes the fact that you didn’t want texture there a bit less noticable because there isn’t a color shift associated with masking it out (where you are effectively getting rid of the added warmth as well.)

    If I had masked out the texture in the second photo down of these engagement photos (, it would have cooled them down considerably. Using the “paint on texture” method took care of this (although it is admittedly harder to “undo” than a mask is.)

    Happy texturing!

    (sorry if this is a duplicate comment, but my first never showed up, proabably because it made a link out of the post, whoops.)

  • Robin Oberg January 29, 2011 04:51 am


    Paint.NET offers layers-functions aswell, and it's free. Much more intuitive to use than for instance Gimp, which is also free. You can get it at

  • Sandy Young January 29, 2011 04:03 am

    I've read a lot on how to do masks, and after reading this article, it's the first time I "got it." THANKS! Great article!

  • Caroline January 29, 2011 03:36 am

    There's no way to overlay textures in Lightroom, is there? That's the one thing I wish I had Photoshop for, but I'm not sure it's worth aquiring such an expensive and cumbersome program for a capability I'd rarely be using.

  • Hope January 29, 2011 03:07 am

    This is great! Pretty simplistic, but nice to be reminded. I always tend to think of textures as being something I'm restrained to using in my tempaltes folder. But any actual paper scans will do! thanks!

  • Jamie January 29, 2011 02:59 am

    Every once in awhile I allow myself to indulge in textures as well. However, I've found that instead of creating a layer mask to mask out texture on skin/people, it's often better to "paint" out the texture directly on the texture layer so that it still has the same color.

    So for the example above, I would have taken a color sample of the textured layer to match as close as I could. I would then have "painted" on the texture over the people instead of masking them out. This makes the fact that you didn't want texture there a bit less noticable because there isn't a color shift associated with masking it out (where you are effectively getting rid of the added warmth as well.)

    If I had masked out the texture in the second photo down of these engagement photos, it would have cooled them down considerably. Using the "paint on texture" method took care of this (although it is admittedly harder to "undo" than a mask is.)

    Happy texturing! :)

  • scott detweiler January 29, 2011 02:29 am

    My blog is rife with examples of this type of texture technique. I also walk through all of the images for lighting and posing. Well written article.

  • WBC January 29, 2011 02:14 am

    Informative, to the point, relevant, and easy to understand!

    Really well done, and I hope you keep writing them

    Also, I've always wanted to play with textures but never got around to figuring out how...

  • Alasdair January 29, 2011 01:54 am

    Hi James

    Good article... are there any good sources of textures available to use?


  • Off4Fun January 29, 2011 01:47 am

    This is great information. I was just reading about textures and actions and had no idea what they were or how to do them. My only question is, where do you get them? Does photoshop already have them or do I need to buy them from a third party and make sure they are compatible with the Photoshop that I have (which I haven't purchased yet, but plan to in the nenxt week)? Thank you!

  • Leslie January 29, 2011 01:43 am

    I am still fairly new to photoshop and would never have thought of doing this on my own. What a fantastically clearly written article! Thank you so much for the thought and effort you put into making this easy to understand. I am looking forward to playing with this technique sometime. I will be on the lookout for other topics about which you write!

  • sumanta January 29, 2011 01:39 am

    Just a great article for beginner !!
    Thanks & keep it up James!!!