Lighting to Photograph Textures

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Texture is one of those multi-sensory things that we can feel with our sense of touch and “feel” visually with our eyes. Because texture transcends the senses, we must account for it when we create photographs. Sometimes the goal is to accentuate a specific texture. Sometimes we wish to “smooth” the texture visually. How you light your subject has a lot to do with how you reveal, or hide, texture.

Photographs ©Todd Vorenkamp

The reflections of a golden sunset show the underside of these terraces to be smooth.
The reflections of a golden sunset show the underside of these terraces to be smooth.

As I wrote in this article, texture is one of the seven basic elements of photographic art. We are surrounded by texture and many nature and urban landscape photographers explore texture in images. While it is an element in almost every photograph, one could argue that texture, and controlling visual texture, takes a more prominent role in portraiture and still life/commercial product photography.

 Diffused lighting and a smooth surface helps keep this photo of a car hood and A-pillar looking visually flat.
Diffused lighting and a smooth surface help keep this photo of a car hood and A-pillar looking visually flat.

Product/Still Life Photography

Texture and a tactile feel have been design elements of products for as long as products have been sold. How something feels can be almost as important as how it looks. Textiles, metals, wood, plastics, and other materials are carefully crafted (usually) to feel good to human fingers.

Macro lenses can get you closer to subjects, allowing you to highlight textures.
Macro lenses can get you closer to subjects, allowing you to highlight textures.

There are many approaches to product and still life photographs when it comes to texture. Sometimes you want to emphasize how smooth a surface is and, visually, you can certainly do that. On the other hand, you might want to emphasize the texture on a surface to indicate grip or give a visual hint to the tactile experience of touching that product.

Does this texture look yummy?
Does this texture look yummy?

Visual texture also plays a role in food photography to help make food look more appealing to the eye—and hopefully to the palate as well!

Everyone wants great-looking skin in a portrait.
Everyone wants great-looking skin in a portrait.

Portraiture

There are always exceptions but, generally, one of the aesthetic goals in fashion photography is to produce a photograph showing smooth, flawless skin texture. Pores and blemishes are things that most want to hide, not emphasize.

Yet a documentary photographer might wish to emphasize the texture on the weathered hands and face of a seasoned sailor or farmer to help add to the visual story being told through the image.

Side-lit sand dunes

Lighting for Texture

Now that we have established there are times to emphasize texture and times to conceal it, let’s discuss some techniques for accomplishing this dichotomy.

As you know, light is photography’s most important ingredient. Not only do you need light, but where it comes from (directionality) and its quality (harsh or soft) also contribute to how photographic subjects are rendered in the frame.

The difference in texture between front and side lighting is illustrated here.

How to Conceal Texture

If you want to conceal texture on a subject, I have two ingredients for you: front lighting and diffusion.

The farther off the light moves from the lens axis, the less concealed the texture will be. Therefore, if you want to emphasize flawless skin or keep a product label looking smooth, the best way to do this is to light the subject from the front as close to the lens’s axis as possible.

On-camera flashes can accomplish the goal of getting the light close to the lens axis, but there are also myriad shoot-through ring lights that are designed, in part, for this texture-concealing mission.

The more diffused the light source, the less texture is emphasized, as well. Harsh, directional light creates shadows, and shadowing is what causes texture to be accentuated.

Light is coming in from above (at a right angle to the ball) but the difference illustrated in these two views is diffused versus direct lighting.

How to Emphasize Texture

And, as you might have guessed, emphasizing texture is done with the opposite of what we just discussed: side lighting and no diffusion, plus focus.

Sidelight gives enhances the texture of the wall and trim here.
Side light gives enhances the texture of the wall and trim here.

When I mention “side lighting,” you do not need to set up your lights at right angles to your subject—any off-axis lighting will emphasize texture more than lighting directly from the front (or rear) of your subject. The closer you get to right angles, the more the texture is highlighted. The fact that you don’t need to get to right angles to emphasize texture is good, since, for most applications, we don’t always need, or want, lighting exactly from the side.

This shallow-depth-of-field shot illustrates the importance of focus to reveal texture.
This shallow-depth-of-field shot illustrates the importance of focus to reveal texture.

Harsh, directional light with no, or minimal, diffusion will also make your textures pop in an image. Speaking of making texture pop, focus is a key element here. You cannot emphasize texture without sharp focus.

Texture lines

The closer you get to almost any object, the more you can emphasize texture. This can mean using a macro lens for a small object, or just to get closer to your subject on a macro scale. It can also mean using a telephoto lens to zoom in to a distant rock face, tree line, or mountains to show more texture.

The mid-day sun emphasizes texture on this geodesic sphere due to its aggressively faceted shape.

Lighting Considerations: Natural Light

When you’re photographing outdoors, a few factors are at play when it comes to textures.

The Space Shuttle Discovery shows the intricate textures and wear of millions of miles of spaceflight and dozens fiery of re-entries into earth’s atmosphere.
The Space Shuttle Discovery shows the intricate textures and wear of millions of miles of spaceflight and dozens of fiery reentries into earth’s atmosphere.

As we just covered, off-axis, hard, directional light is best for emphasizing texture. When it comes to sunlight, the harshest light occurs during midday hours, but this is also when the light is at its least directional. Morning or evening light (especially around “golden hour”) is the most directional (casting longer shadows), yet it’s also softer. The harsh midday sun can emphasize textures (light from above is technically “off-axis”), but the softer directional light of the rising and setting sun can also do the same.

Although this corrugated wall has an abundance of texture, the midday sun hits it almost vertically and visually “smooths” the wall a bit.
Although this corrugated wall has an abundance of texture, the midday sun hits it almost vertically and visually “smooths” the wall a bit.

Overcast days serve as natural diffusers for concealing texture, as well as conditions when shadows are cast by clouds, buildings, trees, etc.

Similarly, capturing natural light indoors, whether through a window or door, can also play with textures. Soft, diffuse, indirect sunlight coming into a room will help to conceal textures, whereas direct light shining into a space will tend to emphasize them, depending on the angle of the photograph.

Urbex textures are awesome.
Urbex textures are awesome.

Lighting Considerations: Artificial Light

Managing artificial lights is your key to controlling how textures appear in studio photography. Drawing from the above paragraphs, we can figure out the best way to approach a lighting setup indoors.

Italian texture
Italian texture

Diffusion is one key to softening textures, so using light modifiers such as a softbox can be a great solution. We mentioned shoot-through ring lights above, but you can also use multiple diffused lights to flood the space, envelope your subject with light, and de-emphasize textures.

To emphasize texture, a single light source, undiffused and off-axis, is often your best approach.

Side light and an oblique angle help make the texture of the lettering jump off the plaque.
Side light and an oblique angle help make the texture of the lettering jump off the plaque.

Specific Applications for Different Textures

If you are setting out to capture textural details for a commercial still life shoot, I recommend searching the web first to study lighting approaches used in photographs that employ the effect you seek to create. Pay attention to the position of the subject in relation to the camera (angle side-to-side and up-and-down) as well as any hints about the position and number of lights.

Textures

Some textiles, like wool, generally have their texture emphasized. Silks and other shiny textiles might have the texture concealed to show the shine of the fabric. Smooth plastics and metals generally beg for extremely diffused light, since the glossy surfaces can and will readily reflect the light sources. You don’t want the viewer to know that you photographed a watch with a multi-LED ring light because they can see the individual LEDs reflected on the subject.

The texture of El Capitan
The texture of El Capitan

Experiment and Practice

There is no one-size-fits-all lighting formula for textures. How you apply the light (or not) depends on the visual effect you are seeking. More texture isn’t always good. Less is sometimes more. And less, at times, might be a visual miss.

Do you have questions about lighting for texture? What have you discovered in your experience? Engage us in the Comments section, below!

The SS Horizon Challenger
The SS Horizon Challenger

4 Comments

This was so informative, a thousand times better than reading or watching many Youtube videos. And within just a few minutes, I had learned so much, from the text and the visual examples. Rather than spend time on forums, or Youtube, I'll be spending more time trawling through your articles on B and H. Thanks. This is one of the best few minutes I have ever spent, learning about photography. And I have saved the page, for future reference, and downloaded a copy for keepsake in my archives.

Hi OK1,

Thank you, so much, for the kind words. I am very pleased that you enjoyed the article, learned from it, and found it a good use of your time.

I hope my other articles live up to this one!

Thank you for reading!

Best,

Todd

This was a very informative article with a lot of wonderful photos as examples.  TY

Hi Diane,

Thank you for the kind words and getting my Monday started off well...and thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

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