Using Textures to Distress Your Images
Have you ever thought about adding textures to your high-resolution digital photographs to give them a worn or damaged look? Or how about adding scratches to make them less digital and more film like? Applying textures to crisp digital images allows you to create the illusion that your photographs were captured years ago with a film camera. Textures make it possible to create a variety of interesting effects giving your photographs a bit more personality.
I am going present several quick and easy ways to apply this effect using grungy textures that can be found virtually anywhere. I am also going to explain how to create a library of textures and patterns that you can use anytime you wish. To help get you started, I have made several of my own textures available as a free downloadable zip file (27 Mbs). You are welcome to use them as you work through this tutorial and on your own photographs.
Creating a Library of Textures
Let’s start by talking about where the textures come from and how to go about creating a library that you can use whenever you want to. I generally use photographic textures and backgrounds that I have captured throughout my travels as a photographer. I look for rusty metal, peeling paint, cracked concrete, and other interesting surfaces that I can introduce during post processing to create unusual qualities in my regular photographs. I have also created a few of my own grungy patterns. For example, one of my textures was created by soaking regular white paper in coffee for several minutes. I then randomly crumpled and folded the paper and allowed each sheet to air dry. This created some interesting stains and marks that looks a lot like aged paper. Once the paper was finished drying, I scanned and saved each piece as a digital image file.
As you begin acquiring textures, consider applying keywords in Lightroom or Bridge so that you can quickly find them later on. I have keyworded all of my textures files with the word “texture” so that I can quickly pull up the images all at once. I have also added specific keywords such as “concrete” and “rust” to help refine my searches.
Photographs that Compliment Textures
Before and After
I have had the most success applying textures to digital photographs that already have an old look and feel to them. For example you might want to distress an image of an old building or a landscape photograph of a decaying tree. Black and white images and color photographs that have been desaturated or cross processed often respond wonderfully to this technique. Digital photographers sometimes fall into the trap of overusing actions and filters. This can make their work look contrived and diminish the overall impact of a photograph. I believe that the ultimate goal of any processing style should be to compliment the primary subject matter. Looking back at some of my work, there has definitely been times that I have taken a processing method too far. As with most filters and techniques in Photoshop, a conservative approach tends to work best. Try to keep this in mind as you work through this guide.
The First Method
I use three different approaches to combine textures with a photograph. The first is the fastest method and is a great way to quickly see if a texture will work well with a particular photograph. Open the texture file and a photograph that you want to apply it to in Photohsop. Using the Move tool, drag the texture file onto the photograph (press and hold the Shift/Option key while dragging the texture to keep it centered on the photograph). Make sure the texture is aligned with the main photograph. If necessary, stretch the texture file so that it is the same size as the as the image you are working with. I have generally found that moderately stretching grungy textures (to match the image you are processing) does not reduce the final image quality.
The next step is where the magic happens. Make sure the texture layer is selected and above the main photograph. Start working through the Layer Blending Options (located at the top of the layers palette). Each texture and image combination will respond differently to blending mode changes. I have had a fair amount of success using Overlay, Soft/Hard Light and Multiply. Select a blending option that suits your taste and then back down the effect by reducing the texture layer’s opacity. You can also add a layer mask and paint out areas of the image that you don’t want to be affected by the texture.
The Second Method
Name Your Textures
The second method to adding textures is very similar; however it allows you to build a texture library that you can use over and over again (without having to locate and reopen each texture). The first step is to add the textures to Photoshop’s pattern library so that they are available to you while you are processing your photographs. Open any image texture in Photoshop as a JPEG. It is not critical that the texture file be exactly the same size as the photograph that you plan to apply it to (although it should be fairly close). With the texture open, go to Edit -> Define Pattern. At this point the Pattern Name dialogue box should open up. Give the pattern a name that will help your remember what kind of texture it is (such as “peeling paint”). Giving your textures unique names will help you later on when you are sorting through multiple textures.
Repeat these steps for any other patterns/textures that you wish to use. You can safely close the reference image once it has been applied as a pattern. As a rule I only add patterns to the library that I am confident that I will use later on.
Next open the photograph that you would like to apply a specific texture to. Personal taste and your own imagination should be your guide. I have applied textures to landscapes, abstract still life images and portraits. I almost always fully process my images in Photoshop and leave applying textures until the very end. With your photograph open, create a new layer. Go to Edit -> Fill and select Pattern from the first drop down box. Now click to open the Custom Pattern fly out menu. This will reveal all the patterns that come with Photoshop as well as the textures that you added to the pattern library. Select the texture you wish to use and click Ok. Now change the pattern layer’s blending mode until you are satisfied with the result (as described in the first method).
Pattern Fly Out Menu
It is worth noting that you can change the blending mode within the Fill dialogue box; however I usually leave the blending mode set to Normal and change it in the layers palette.
You can apply this process as much or little as you wish. Often I add multiple textures to a single photograph, each one using a different blending mode and opacity. Typically I use layer masks to paint out the textures in crucial areas of the image that I don’t want the viewer distracted from seeing. For example, if I am applying a texture to a portrait, I may carefully paint it out with a layer mask so that it does not affect the person’s face.
The Third Method
Texturizer Dialogue Box
The last method of applying a texture is a bit more involved, but it is worth exploring. Open your texture and save it as a Photoshop file (.PSD) someplace where you can quickly find it later on. Next open the photograph you want to apply the texture to and convert it to an 8-bit image (Image->Mode->8 bits/channel). If the image has multiple layers, merge them together (Layer->Merge Visible). If the image is a single locked background layer, simply duplicate it (Layer->Duplicate Layer). With the newly duplicated layer selected, go to Filter->Texture->Texurizer. This will open the Texture dialogue box.
I recommend reducing the size of the image so that you can see it at 100% view. You can change the size of the view at the bottom left corner of the dialogue box. The neat thing about the Texurizer filter is that it allows you to load your own textures. Click the little triangle to open the Load Texture fly-out menu (this is located near the Texture drop down menu). Navigate to the texture (that you saved as a Photoshop file) and select Ok. You should now be able to see how the texture looks on the photograph. There are very few options for you to change. The Scaling option simply scales the texture up and down (which is why looking at your image at 100% view is important). This option allows you to scale the texture up or down so that it matches the photograph you are working on. The Relief option lets you increase and decrease how much of the texture shows through. Keep in mind that the Relief slider acts similar to the sharpening tools. If you push the Relief slider too far to the right; the image will start looking over sharpened. The idea is to find the sweet spot so that the texture shows through without having to push the Relief slider too far. You also have the option to Invert the texture (by checking the Invert radio button). Click Ok once you are satisfied with the adjustments.
As with the previous two methods, you can use a layer mask to paint out areas of the photograph that you don’t want the texture to apply to. You can also add multiple textures one on top of another to create interesting effects. Sprinkle in a little digital noise to imitate film grain and a vignette and you are well on your way to creating a photograph that looks like it was taken with a film camera.
There are quite a few Photoshop plug-ins and stand alone programs that you can purchase to apply every creative effect imaginable. Some range into the hundreds of dollars. Despite this, I like knowing how to achieve the same kind of effects in Photoshop without having to break the bank. Why spend money on a plug-in when you can create many of the same effects yourself in Photoshop? Unleash your creativity!
Free Texture Pack
Download the Texture Pack (27 Mbs)
Be sure to check out our other free textures.
You have permission to store and use the textures found on this page within personal and commercial projects. Please do not sell, upload, host, trade or file-share these images. These textures are not to be sold alone as stock images or otherwise.
About the Author
Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for nearly 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.
Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Prints and Paxton Portraits.