Texture Photography and a Different Representation of Reality


December 27, 2016

Texture photography stands out from different types of this medium as the focus of photographers is put on the textural aspect of it. The quality of each photo is measured by its impact, and this type of photography can be defined as imagery which impact depends on the texture of the represented subject.[1] Making texture photography can be challenging, as many aspects decide on its success, and composition, light, and depth work and weight in differently. Patterns, colors, and details bear more significance, and more affect the perception and aesthetic effect of the photos. Texture can stand for surface irregularities or small forms on a surface that are sometimes rendered visible through the optical enlargement of details. While the aim of each photo is to attract the attention of the viewers, this could be achieved through the emphasis of different elements such as color, leading lines, dramatic scenery, or in this case texture. This often neglected aspect deserves equal attention and here we explore its relation to representational truth – is it achievable, what type of reality there can be, and if and how texture photography can achieve it.

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Iris Woerdehoff - Hutegger, Galerie Esther

Types and Compositional Aspects of Texture Photography

Three sub-types of texture photography can be defined through the use of terms detail, information, and drama. In the first, interesting details on the surface of an object are of primary concern for the photographer, while the actual object has less importance. The image is often shot in a macro mode in order to capture detail, or the object is shot partially. For the effectiveness, it is the best to select an object that has strong color or tonal contrast, while the most effective lightning arrangement is a side light. Drama relies on the dramatic effects, as the term itself suggests. Texture here is not of the utmost importance but serves to add effectiveness. An important aspect to pay attention to is that texture is in harmony with the overall image. Occasionally texture is used to communicate information. For the best effect it is important to select what info is communicated through the photo and to make a compositional decision that would best bring it out. Texture here has a subservient role. Light should also work to transfer the message appropriately.

Along with different types of texture photography that account for its effectiveness, compositional aspects also contribute to its appeal. For texture photography three aspects are particularly important: curves, contrast and patterns. Curves are often divided in two categories – leading and non-leading curves. Leading curves direct the eye and attention of an observer to the center of events in a photo. Non-leading curves add additional info or emotional content to the represented subject. Contrast can also be divided in two groups such as tonal and color contrast. One way to use them is within the texture itself, when photographer already selects an object with good contrast, while the other option is to have background that contrasts with the texture. For better results contrast can also be illuminated with side light. Patterns can grab the attention very quickly but the interest in them can also fade if they are too simple. To make it more interesting, pattern can be broken, or multiple patterns can be used. Breaking of a pattern can be achieved if another object is inserted in the image, according to composition rules of thirds or the golden triangle.

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Lucien Clergue. Image via amazonaws.com

Texture Photography and the Real

Before exploring the idea of texture photography as a representation of reality one may ask what reality is, or how we define what is real? Without going into much philosophy, what should be accepted today is that the real differs from person to person. If a universalized image of the real is unattainable, can we than strive to limit photography to mechanical reproduction of it? Throughout history, since its inception, photography was defined in relation to the outer world. Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated that “photography is distinguished by its immediacy, its authenticity, and the remarkable fact that its eye sees more than the human eye. The camera shows everything.”[2] This is particularly true of the texture type of it, as it seems that it truly shows more than eyes can see. But even that is decided on by the photographer. What angle, lighting and composition she decides upon, can hardly be seen as an unconditional representation. Art critic Geoffrey Batchen emphasized the amount of manipulation each subject underwent before it is captured: “Traditional photographs - the ones our culture has always put so much trust in - have never been ‘true’ in the first place. Photographers intervene in every photograph they make, whether by orchestrating or directly interfering in the scene being imaged; by selecting, cropping, excluding, and in other ways making pictorial choices as they take the photograph.”[3]

It is up to photographer to choose which aspect of reality to represent. Even if the goal is to represent the scene or a motif as accurately as possible, this goal can be easily missed. This, however, is not as disastrous as it may sound. In texture photography the essence of each motif and scene is sometimes only achievable through manipulation. This could be a necessity in certain circumstances, although it sounds contradictory. “Photography, even of the most realistic type, can articulate truths even though facts may be wrong and conversely, can also be quite wrong as to the essence of a situation despite getting the facts right,” explains Fred Ritchen.[4] Sometimes, the manipulation of a photo is a perquisite required for a faithful rendering of a subject.

Photography Textures

Too Realistic Reality?

Knowing that our views are infinitely conditioned by the structures our worlds rely upon, can we treat texture photography as the true rendering of reality that surrounds us, even if the photo is manipulated as to capture the essence of the subject? The medium of photography went through periods when it was considered too ‘realistic’ to be art, or moved to the point to be included into the one of the novel art forms of the 20th century together with cinema. However, oscillations between two polarities that persist even today seem to complicate every definition of photography as a true representation of reality. Texture photography seems to stands out as its visuals come from the emphasized and enlarged components of the living world that are otherwise either invisible or inconspicuous to us. Often resembling abstract art where colors, textures and shapes take over the narrative, it opens our eyes to the immeasurable qualities in our surroundings. Perception and subjective understandings influence the way this type of photography is seen, and the critique of being too real or too abstract often clash when this type of photography is considered. Nevertheless, such views should not prevent us from grasping the full beauty of texture photography. Its creation comes from the urge to explore the limits of the medium and its possibilities, but also from the aesthetic desire to uncover every detail of the palpable world that surrounds us.

Editors’ Tip: Art Beyond the Lens: Working with Digital Textures

Vintage-looking, dream-like textures can open up a whole new world in your photography. However, there is much, much more to working with textures than simply merging them with an image via Photoshop. In this gorgeous new guide from texture guru Sarah Gardner, you'll learn everything there is to know about how to maximize the potential of these exciting tools. In addition to hundreds of beautiful example images, this book is also packed with practical advice on what makes a good texture, and how and when to use them. How an image is initially captured and processed has a significant impact on the effect a texture will have, so you'll also learn what to consider when composing and shooting (rather than simply relying on post-processing) and how to use lighting and background considerations effectively for later work with textures.


  1. Bigelow R., Texture Photography - Part 1, ronbigelow.com [December 27, 2016]
  2. Manchester W., (1989), In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers, p. 14.
  3. Batchen G., (1994), Phantasm: Digital Imaging and the Death of Photography, Aperture 136, p. 48.
  4. Ritchen F., “What is Magnum?” in: Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers, p.422.

Featured images: Raindrops. Image via clipgoo.com; David Hamilton Photography; Adam Jeppesen - Untitled, 2015. Image via nielsborchjensen.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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