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.

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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!

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