Elements of a Photograph: Texture

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There are seven basic elements of photographic art: line, shape, form, texture, color, size, and depth. As a photographic artist, your knowledge and awareness of these different elements can be vital to the success of your composition and help convey the meaning of your photograph.

In photography, texture can be felt with both the fingers (the print) and virtually (with the viewer's eye). Texture is the next part of our Elements of a Photograph series.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

The drops of water add texture to this scene.
The drops of water add texture to this scene.

Definition:

The Merriam-Webster definition of “texture” that we, as photographic artists, are concerned with is:

the visual or tactile surface characteristics and appearance of something

Different textures reflect light and show shadows differently than others.
Different textures reflect light and show shadows differently than others.

Characteristics of Texture

Texture in “real life” can be, basically, smooth or rough. We can use other descriptors as well: slimy, wet, hard, soft, bumpy, shiny, etc.

Texture in the photograph is similar to form in that it is revealed by variations in tonality and presented in two dimensions.

Texture
Texture

Types of Texture

In a photograph, smooth objects might have reflections or specular highlights. Rough objects might have aggressive areas of light and shadow without reflections.

Of course, in a photograph, we cannot experience the tactile surface characteristics, but we can “feel” them through the mind’s eye—implied texture; an association with the familiar—assuming that it is familiar. Someone who has never touched sand will not be able to “feel” this texture when looking at a photograph of a beach, but when a beach bum sees a photograph of the beach, they can make the mental connection to the image and “feel” the sand between their toes.

Visually, a pattern might indicate texture—like the scales of a fish or ripples on a pond.

Of course, the physical print has its own texture—glossy versus matte, or even canvas-textured printing papers, for example—which may or may not be aligned with the texture of the objects in the photograph.

The angle of a subject’s lighting can accentuate or hide texture.
The angle of a subject’s lighting can accentuate or hide texture.

Where Is Texture in Photographs?

Texture can be elusive in a photograph, depending on the subject, the lighting, and the forms in the image.

A lack of visual texture might mean that the object is smooth. It could mean that it is too far away from the camera and the texture cannot be resolved. It could mean that the light is diffused or lit from head-on and the texture is hidden. Again, as with form, shadow is what emphasizes texture—even the tiny shadows of the texture on a plaster wall.

Texture can be a subject. You can almost feel the texture in this image..
Texture can be a subject. You can almost feel the texture in this image.

A photograph of a full moon does not show much in the way of surface texture, but the oblique lighting of a crescent or gibbous moon, viewed through a telephoto lens with sufficient resolution, will show incredible texture on the surface.

Regardless of the texture of an object in the photograph, smooth or rough, there are factors at play that will either emphasize or obscure how this element is perceived.

The surface of water is an ever-changing texture.
The surface of water is an ever-changing texture.

Next up in this series is a discussion of color.

Your thoughts on this article are welcome in the Comments section, below!

Mixed lighting and the angle of the lights combine to show the texture on this wall.
Mixed lighting and the angle of the lights combine to show the texture on this wall.

About the Elements of a Photograph Series

There are seven basic elements to photographic art:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Texture
  5. Color
  6. Size
  7. Depth

It's worth noting that many articles and websites covering this subject list the basic elements of art as: line, shape, form, texture, color, space, and value. My list of seven includes size and depth in place of space and value. I base my list not just on graduate studies of photography and years of creating images, but on the names of basic elements featured in the personally influential Kodak book, The Art of Seeing.

With paintings and drawings, these elements are added to the blank canvas. In photography, they are presented to us in the world before our lens. Regardless of the elements of art that you learn, as I said above, it is your knowledge and awareness of these elements that can become a valuable tool in your compositional tool kit as well as help you deliver a clear meaning to your work. This awareness will generally be subconscious, but, at times, when making a photograph, these elements might come to the forefront of your artistic eye. In such moments, you can create your composition with these factors in mind.

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