Digital image files are bigger, better and cleaner than ever. That’s great most of the time, but what about when you want to make images with a bit less perfection and a bit more character? In the analog days, different darkroom processing and printing methods could impart texture to a photograph. But with crystal-clear digital image files, texture needs to be added in Photoshop. Here’s how.
Choosing (Or Making) Textures
The first step is to choose an image to provide the texture. Almost any image can work as a texture, but the best textures are often close-up or macro photos that have some sort of pattern to them. The weave of fabric, for instance, or patterns of leaves, the sand on a beach or a wall of peeling paint. The key is to choose a pattern based on how it will impact the subject. For example, if you want to make a portrait appear gritty, grimy and rough, adding a texture overlay can go a long way to helping reinforce that sentiment. To simply add an analog feel, a patterned texture may work. Or for a bolder special effect, consider using something bolder for an almost multiple-exposure effect.
The latter approach—multiple exposures—is the kind of effect that used to be common in the days of film. When one image is captured atop another one, the resulting blend can provide an artful, lyrical approach to informing the viewer about the subject. A portrait overlaid with an image of the forest in which it was made, for instance, can create a more nuanced image that tells its story in a unique way.
Texture overlays can also be very subtle. A hint of fabric or paper texture can impart a sense of the handmade analog even in a sterile digital image file. In fact, sometimes my favorite images to add texture to are otherwise very simple—like the portrait on a plain white background shown here.
This texturizing effect can also help a photographer to make a crisp and clear digital image appear more like an antique print. Adding a texture overlay that shows scratches, scuffs and rough spots is a great way to add the appearance of age to a day-old digital image.
When it comes to choosing an image file to work as a texture, file sizes (i.e. pixel dimensions) are an important consideration. It’s imperative to match the file size of the texture image to the file size of the photograph you’re working to modify. For example, if your portrait file measures 4000 pixels on its longest side, you’re going to want a texture file that’s at least that and ideally more.
Applying The Texture Overlay
The good news is that actually applying texture overlays in Photoshop is simple if you’re used to working with layers. There are many different ways to approach the overlay specifics, but in general, you’ll want to add the texture image to your original photograph by copying and pasting it to a new layer, then modifying the blend mode and using layer masks to selectively enhance and minimize the texture.
With the texture image on its own layer atop your original image, start by adjusting the layer blend mode to ensure it provides some level of transparency, and consider adjusting the layer’s opacity as well. Consider adjusting the layer opacity to 50 percent at first so you can see through to the original image behind. Then, use the Transform tool to rotate, skew and resize the texture overlay so it fits and achieves what you’re trying to accomplish.
Next, create the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers palette to create a transparent mask on the texture layer. Then, with a black paintbrush set to 50 percent opacity, begin painting away to reveal the original image below where you want to see more of it or reversing the brush to add more texture to areas you do. In the end, though, it’s the blend mode that really has the most impact on the appearance of the texture.
Darken and Lighten modes can be a great place to start, with Soft Light making for a subtler look and Overlay and Multiply providing more dramatic effects. There really is no set formula for doing it. If it looks good, that’s all that matters. These layer blend modes paired with diligent use of opacity and layer masks make for a great way to add texture to any image, either subtly or in the extreme.