The Trouble with Texture

I recently posted about the trouble with colour in toy photography—that toys are all sorts of crazy inharmonious colours. Well, they also have another annoying property: they’re normally very light on texture.

When we talk of toys we’re generally talking about modern plastic toys—toys made from clean, pristine, featureless plastic. There’s a danger that close-up shots are going to feature flat, uninteresting areas.

A little interesting texture in the pile of LEGO bricks, but what’s with all the white? The story is taking place in a vacuum.
Another “story” photo with very little visual interest.

Compare our plastic toys with wooden toys:

Lovely natural textures, apart from the big black part, but I took this 9 years ago when I didn’t really know what I was doing.

The imperfections and grain of the wood permit exploration, the eye can roam around the photograph and pick up extra information. Plastic does not, generally, reward further investigation—all areas are much the same. There is a way around this that Kristina mentioned in her post on how she prefers photographing beat-up figures. A bit of weathering, damage, signs of being a well-loved plaything, they all add character and unpredictable textures. Scratches, breaks and wear marks make for a more visually interesting photograph.

Of course you can completely ignore texture and still make photos that succeed thematically, that is, your story or metaphor gets through as you intended. Or maybe you don’t have a story, I’ve taken many photos that are more graphic in nature, those where the composition is the picture.

No interesting textures here, but I hope it’s obviously that this is definitely a “graphic” rather than a “story” photo.

But I’d argue that “story” photos are better when they are both thematically and aesthetically successful. Certainly that’s my ideal for my own photographs. Something of which I have wildly varying degrees of success. Adding texture to the surroundings is a good way of making things more interesting.

When I feel I need texture I tend to put organic or natural things into the background—adding grass, branches and twigs, leaves, rocks, etc. Recently I’ve been exploring adding texture to my models too.

Texture everywhere! Although I’ve discovered not to trust things that say “water-soluble”. I don’t think I’ll be using those LEGO parts for anything else now.

My hope is that it keeps the photo interesting for longer, providing reasons to return to the photo and look again. Afterall, when you feel you’ve seen everything a photo has to offer after a brief glance, why would you seek it out again?


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Shelly Corbett
8 years ago

Mike, Great post per usual; lots to think about. I would have to say that the lack of texture is what drove me away from studio photography in the first place. Rather than striving to introduce interesting textures and patterns into a sterile environment, why not go outside to experience the mother of all textured environments…nature? I would have to respectfully disagree with you on your first three examples. The third one, with the wooden toy, works for me because of the lighting, not the texture. For me an enigmatic story told through lights and darks is what’s interesting, not… Read more »

8 years ago

I’ve photographed very few shots without some added texture. Snow, smoke, sand and everything in between have been in my toolbox from day one. I think even light can be texture if used in very bold manner with stark contrasts. The plastic needs texture and you made some billiantly with the latest robot photograph.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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