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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lighting Considerations: Natural Light
When you’re photographing outdoors, a few factors are at play when it comes to textures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!