Why is Texture one of the essential visual design elements in photography? Well, if you're like most people, you spend a lot of time avoiding drama in your life. Unless you're particularly masochistic, you don't need that kind of trouble. Your photos do, though. Drama is what makes for a compelling image. Drama is what differentiates a snapshot from a photo. But as photographers, we already have several things working against our quest for the perfect dramatic photograph.
The first one is that pesky third dimension, or lack thereof. Photography is a two dimensional medium, which means that one of the biggest challenges photographers face is making a two dimensional image look three dimensional. Short of smearing paper maché on your prints, there's not much you can do to bring an actual tactile quality to your images, but there's plenty you can do to fool your viewer's eye into believing that it is looking at an object that exists in three dimensions.
Highlighting the texture of your subjects is one way to accomplish this. Texture, of course, exists in the surface details of your subject. It is that quality that makes an otherwise two-dimensional object seem like it could be experienced through touch. It is another one of the six classic design elements, which also includes line, shape, form, color and space. Examples of subjects with strong textural qualities are a weathered boat covered with peeling paint, a dried piece of coral or the skin of a crocodile.
What texture says, or doesn't say
Texture can be used in different ways, depending on the message you want to convey or the particular elements you want the viewer to focus on. The simplest way to convey texture is with a detail shot. Using a macro lens, get close to your subject and capture just the texture itself, without the context. For example, if you decide to shoot the peeling paint on that old boat for detail, your viewer is probably going to have no idea that the paint in the image was on the hull of an abandoned catamaran.
Zooming out so that you capture both the context of the texture as well as the texture itself will add drama to your image. Now your viewer can see the boat in its entirety, and the texture of the peeling paint merely adds to its overall visual impact, rather than becoming the subject itself.
Texture can also be used to convey information about a subject, rather than just making for a visually appealing image. What does the peeling paint say about that old catamaran? If it has been abandoned on a beach, try shooting it on an overcast day when there are no boats on the water or people strolling on the sand. Creating loneliness in your scene will help the texture of the peeling paint communicate to your viewer a sense of abandonment and decay.
Finding the best subjects and the best light
When shooting any kind of texture photograph, make sure that you use side lighting instead of direct overhead light. Yes, there's that magic hour reference again. Side lighting creates longer shadows, which in turn enhances the tactile elements of your subject. The exception to this can occur when shooting vertical objects such as walls - a bright overhead light can add long shadows to the texture on a vertical surface, which can often create an interesting composition.
Your subject will also need to have a broad range of tones--if you're shooting for black and white, make sure you have a true black, a true white and a strong range of grays in between. If you're shooting for color, look for good contrast between colors.
You can also contrast the texture with the background, which will make your subject stand out. With good contrast between subject and background, your viewer's eye is going to naturally fall right where you want it to--on the texture.
Using line to enhance texture
Leading lines can be used to enhance texture. Lines act almost like arrows, by drawing the viewer's eye into an image and, in effect, telling the eye what it should be looking at. But if you can find the line within the texture itself, you are going to be a lot closer to that dramatic image we talked about earlier in this article. Finding line within the texture will not just lead the viewer towards your focal point but through it, which adds to the image's sense of interest by compelling the viewer to take in each part of that image.
Texture is everywhere, but finding interesting texture can be a little challenging. Start by looking for texture in ordinary objects, such as the fibers in a sweater or the bark of a tree. Now branch out into the less ordinary. Instead of taking yet another photograph of your adorable but seen-a-million-times dog, zoom in on his nose instead. Instead of photographing that snowman standing in the park, zoom in on some water droplets that froze on the nearby park bench. You can also find interesting textures in your human subjects--the weathered skin of a construction worker on a job site, for example, or the hands of an old woman spinning yarn.
When photographing ordinary, done-to-death subjects such as brick walls and cobblestones, try to discover something unique in each subject, something that will make it more than just another photo of the texture on a wall or walkway. For example, you could include the leaves and other bits of debris that have gathered at the bottom of the wall. You could photograph the small puddles of water that collect in the grooves between cobblestones just after a storm. Like all photography, taking successful texture images is all about finding a unique way of seeing the world.
Combined with the other elements of design, texture is one way to add interest to your photographs, but like everything else it should be used wisely. Texture can be dramatic, but putting too many different textures in an image might actually make it uncomfortable to look at. So always remember to use restraint, which is not just true for texture but for almost every other compositional element.
Drama in photographs is a good thing, and texture can help you achieve it. So when you're short on ideas, try searching for some texture-based drama at the beach, on your favorite hiking trail or in one of the older parts of your city. And leave the real-life drama at home.
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