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Mastering the Art of Adding Textures to Your Photos


Every time that I look through the most recent photos posted by my Flickr contacts, I see the results of a popular post-processing technique: adding textures to your photos. It seems that almost no photo is complete until it has been post-processed and textured by the photographer. Done well, it works, which is one of the reasons the technique is so popular.

Why do people add textures to their photos? It may be to make the photo look old, or scratched. Sometimes it's done to turn a good photo into something better, or to turn a straight photo into something that can be called a work of art. Textures add emotion to the image, evoking nostalgic feelings and recalling the style of old sepia toned or faded colour photos, with roughed up surfaces and tatty edges.

Adding textures doesn't work for all photos. The technique is suited to certain subject matter, such as portraits, nudes, landscapes and old buildings. It works especially well with black and white or desaturated colour photos. The starting image should be a good photo in its own right. Trying to fix poorly taken photos by adding textures is a bad idea. Instead, take a good photo and make it better!

Textures aren't just a great way of enhancing your photos; they're also a lot of fun. I enjoy experimenting with different textures to see if I can improve my photos. It doesn't always work, but the failures are just part of a learning experience; and make the successful images even sweeter.

In this tutorial I'm going to guide you through the processes I used to create a textured photo. The tutorial is written for Photoshop CS 3, but the techniques can also be used with Photoshop Elements (I've included instructions where the process differs). The tutorial is intended as a guide rather than a precise set of instructions - so experiment with the settings at every stage to see what works best for your particular image.

Where's the best place to find your own free to use textures? I'll tell you after the tutorial, and there's also a showcase to some of my favourite photographers that use textures in their work.

Old Car - Bolivia

This is my starting image, a photo of an old car that I took in Bolivia:

adding textures to photos

This is the texture that I'm going to use, I downloaded it from Flickr user Skeletal Mess:

adding textures to photos

1. Resize the Texture to Match the Original Photo

The two images need to be the same size to be blended together. Start with the original photo and go to Image > Image size (Image > Resize > Image Size in Photoshop Elements) and make a note of the pixel dimensions (width and height) and the resolution (pixels per inch). In this case, my photo is 3456 pixels wide, 2304 pixels high and has a resolution of 300 pixels per inch.

adding textures to photos

Now, this time editing the texture file, go to Image > Image size again, untick the Constrain proportions box (you'll have to tick the Resample Image box first if you're using Elements - choose the Bicubic Smoother option) and change first the image resolution and then the pixel dimensions to match your starting photo.

adding textures to photos

2. Copy and Paste

Next, select and copy the texture by going to Select > All. Go to the original image and paste the texture on top of it by going to Edit > Paste. The texture is now sitting on top of the original image in the form of an opaque layer. If you can't see the Layers palette, press F7 or go to Window > Layers.

adding textures to photos

Tip: You'll see that the layers have names - the original image is the 'background' and the texture layer has been called 'Layer 1' by default. To change the name of 'Layer 1' double-click the name and type in something more meaningful such as 'Texture layer 1'. You can't change the name of the background.

adding textures to photos

3. Choose a Blending Mode

The Blending mode is set to normal by default. This means the texture layer is sitting on top of the background, and that it's opaque, so that you can't see anything underneath it. You can make the texture layer partially transparent by selecting another Blending mode. The Blending mode you choose will depend on how your texture and photo merge together - the best effects are normally gained with Overlay, Soft Light and Hard Light. In this case I chose Hard Light.

adding textures to photos

4. Darken Edges

I'm going for an old, distressed look here and I want to darken the edges of the photo for a vignette effect. But first, adding the texture layer has darkened the photo and I need to lighten it. Click the Create new fill or adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette (it's the half black half white circle - and it appears near the top of the Layers Palette in Elements) and select Levels:

adding textures to photos

In the Levels dialogue box, move the middle slider underneath the histogram to the left to lighten the image and click OK when you're done. The Levels adjustment has been added as a new layer, which means that I can come back and readjust it later if I need to (you can open the Levels dialogue box again by double clicking the levels icon on the left hand side of the Levels 1 layer in the Layers palette).

adding textures to photos

Now we're going to darken the edges to imitate the look of an old photo. Click on the background to activate it and go to Filter > Distort > Lens Correction (Filter > Correct Camera Distortion in Elements). Look for the Vignette panel in the Lens Correction window and move the Amount and Midpoint sliders to the left to darken the edges. Make sure the Preview box is ticked so you can see the effect and click OK when you're done to return to the photo.

Unlike the Levels adjustment you can't undo this step, so make sure you get it right. When you return to the photo you'll see the Background has been renamed Layer 0 - ignore this, it won't affect the editing process.

Tip: The Lens Correction filter is used to correct optical lens faults like vignetting and chromatic aberration, but in this case we're doing the opposite and using it to increase lens vignetting.

adding textures to photos

The photo now looks like this:

adding textures to photos

5. Increase contrast

After all this the image is looking a little flat so I want to boost the contrast. Click on the top layer (Levels 1) to activate it then click the Create new fill or adjustment layer icon again and select Levels. The new Levels layer appears above the activated layer. As it's the top layer, whatever we do here will affect all the layers underneath.

This time, in the Levels dialogue box, we can see that the histogram stops short of the right hand side of the graph. This tells us that the photo is looking flat because it doesn't contain any bright tones. Rectify this by dragging the right hand slider to the left so that it meets the right hand side of the histogram, and click OK:

adding textures to photos

The final image now looks like this:

adding textures to photos

Once you're done, you can save the photo as a Tiff or Photoshop file to preserve the layers. I always recommend that you save the file under a new name so that you don't overwrite the original. Preserving the layers gives you the option of coming back to the image to make changes in the future, but creates a very big file. Alternatively, you can flatten the image by going to Layer > Flatten Image and saving it as a Tiff or JPEG file. This gives you a much smaller file.

6. Finding Textures

The easiest place to find textures is on Flickr. There are photographers that make their textures available for others to use. Check the conditions of use carefully - the copyright for the textures still belongs to their creators. Most allow free use of their textures in return for accreditation.

Skeletal Mess

Over 100 textures, free for any pictorial use.

adding textures to photos

Max Williams

Free for any pictorial use, with a link to the texture if you post the photo online.

adding textures to photos

Barti Servin

Personal use only, with a link to the texture if you post the photo online.

adding textures to photos


Free textures, no conditions given.

adding textures to photos

Angelique (Liek)

Free textures for personal use with a link and a credit. You can buy more textures from her website.

adding textures to photos

7. Texture Showcase

These are some of my favourite photographers that use textures in their photos. Their range of work is breathtaking and will inspire you to go out and take lots of photos and blend them with textures downloaded from the above Flickr members. Remember that these photographers don't use textures in every image so you may have to search through their photostreams for the best photos.

8. Flickr Texture Groups

Click on this link to search Flickr's groups for anything to do with textures: Texture groups at Flickr

adding textures to photos
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