Ultimate Guide for Creating High Quality Textures

by Caleb Kimbrough

on February 15, 2009

in Tutorials

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One of the biggest trends in web and graphic design in the past couple of years has been the use of textures in websites, print design, and everything in between. Textures help give designs a more “real world” feeling by incorporating surfaces that we are all familiar with.

The premise of a texture is pretty basic: it’s simply a photograph of one specific surface, whether it be wood, fabric, paper, or one of the millions of other textures out there.

At first glance it seems like textures would be pretty easy to create, just point your camera at a surface and snap away. That being said, there is a difference between a good texture and a bad texture and in this tutorial I’ll walk you through the steps of creating amazing textures. Here’s a quick rundown of what we will be covering:

  1. Equip Yourself for Texture Creation
    • cameras
    • other hardware
    • software
  2. The Keys to Good Texture Photography
    • sharpness
    • exposure
    • lighting
    • further reading
  3. Polishing Up the Textures through Editing
    • contrast
    • sharpening
    • saturation
    • further reading
  4. Ideas and Inspiration

Equip Yourself for Texture Creation

I’m a big fan of minimalism, so the less equipment I can carry around with me, the better. Here’s a quick rundown of the necessities:

Camera

Before we can even think about making our own textures there is one thing that we absolutely must have: a camera. I personally use an old beat up 8 megapixel Canon Powershot to create the majority of my textures and it does a wonderful job, which just goes to show: there’s no real need to go out and spend a thousand dollars on a camera in order to create good textures. However, there are a few key things to keep in mind when picking out a camera:

  • Resolution: aim for at least a 5 megapixel camera, which should create textures large enough for 95% of your design needs.
  • Manual Adjustments: make sure the camera has a manual feature, which really helps when trying to perfectly expose a texture.
  • Macro Mode (or a macro lens): sometimes it really helps if you can get close to a texture to capture the little details, such as on plants or fabrics. A “macro mode” will allow you to take great pictures close up.
  • Hotshoe for an external flash: this is the one thing on the list that is a luxury and not absolutely necessary. At times it’s nice to have the option to run an external or bounce flash, especially in low-light situations.

Camera Review Resources:
Digital Photography Review:  Whenever I’m researching a new camera this is the very first place I go. Wonderful, in-depth reviews and updated frequently.

Steve’s Digicams: Sure, the website itself may not be the prettiest around, but the camera reviews that are inside are some of the most detailed on the internet.

Other Equipment

Whenever I go out to shoot textures I almost always just grab my camera and nothing else, but sometimes it pays to be a little more prepared. Here are two things that can help out while photographing textures:

  • Tripod: beautiful textures can show up anywhere and everywhere, even in dark and dimly lit places. In these situations it helps to have a tripod on hand to steady the camera for the longer shutter speeds.
  • External Flash / Bounce Flash: these also help in low light situations. I personally have a set of Nikon SB28′s that help spread the light.

Software

An image editing program is another key component in the creation of quality textures. Post production (or the lack thereof) is one of the biggest things that differentiates normal textures from great ones. I’m a big advocate of open-source software, so I personally use Gimp to edit my textures, but any image editing program will work like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.

The Keys to Good Texture Photography

Good photography is the key to quality textures, so it’s important to understand the fundamentals. I’ve mostly included tips and tricks that are specific to texture creation, but if you are already fairly familiar with photography then most of this will just be a refresher course for you. Also, what follows are simply guidelines…not rules. Experimentation is another key element in creating good textures.

Sharpness

If you only take one thing from this entire tutorial, let it be this: a sharp texture is a good texture. There have been many times when I see a texture on the internet that is of a beautiful surface, but half of the image is out of focus rendering the texture useless in a lot of situations. Here is how to make sure your textures turn out as sharp as a samurai sword:

  • Camera Angle: When you are shooting textures try to keep your camera parallel with the surface you are shooting. This helps make sure that the entire image remains in focus, not just part of it. It’s easier to explain visually:

Bad:

Creating Textures

Good:

Creating Textures

  • Focus: Aside from how you hold the camera also pay close attention to whether your camera is perfectly focused on the surface or not. If you are shooting a close-up texture, try turning on your camera’s “macro mode” if available.
  • Motion Blur: If you are shooting in a dark area then you may have to use a slower shutter speed which will inevitably lead to motion blur. Try using a tripod or just wait until the sun comes out again.

Lighting

Lighting, lighting, lighting. Photographs are simply recorded light and how we control that light is the cornerstone of all photography, and textures are no exception. I don’t want to turn this into a full-fledged photography lighting tutorial so I’ll just be cover a couple of the basics.

  • On-Camera Flash: Try to avoid using the on-camera flash whenever possible. On-camera flashes only serve to flatten the fine details of textures, along with creating hot spots and vignetting (when the corners of the photograph are darker than the center). Here’s an example of the difference between using a flash and simply using available light:

Creating Textures

  • Sunlight is King: I would probably say that 90% of the textures I shoot are lit by the sun. It’s simply the easiest and most readily available source of lighting. If the sunlight is too harsh for the texture that you are shooting try to move into the shade, or create a shadow over the surface.
  • External Flashes: Like I said before, a bounce flash can be very useful if you are running low on light. If you are shooting indoors try to bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall so you can create even lighting and avoid harsh shadows.

Exposure

Correctly exposing images is one of the hardest aspects of photography, and ultimately hands-on experimentation is one of the best teachers. Try to use your camera’s manual mode and play around with shutter speed and aperture to achieve the best exposure possible. You don’t want the image to be too dark or too light, but somewhere right in between:

Creating Textures

Further Reading

Polishing Up the Textures through Editing

I’ve edited hundreds upon hundreds of textures in the past year and I’ve sort of dwindled my editing process down to two variables: contrast and sharpness. Normally I only spend less than a minute on each texture, but if I allowed myself I could play around for hours and hours experimenting with different settings, layers, brushes, and filters and I encourage you to play around with editing your textures. You can even try combining several textures together through layers to create an entirely new image. For now though, we’ll focus on the two basics:

Contrast

Contrast is what helps change a boring texture into a texture that makes people say “Wow!”. I use two different tools to adjust the contrast of my textures: curves and levels. I created some before and after examples and quick screencast to help explain adjusting the contrast in textures:

Editing Textures in Gimp from Caleb Kimbrough on Vimeo.

Creating Textures

Creating Textures

Sharpness

I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to textures that are sharp and in focus. I use the Unsharp Mask tool to make sure everything is in perfect focus. Play around with the settings on it. How much you need to sharpen depends on how large your image is.

Further Reading

Texture Ideas and Inspiration

Now that you know how to capture and create awesome textures there’s just one questions left: what kind of textures should you go shoot? Textures can literally be found anywhere and everywhere. Often times I find myself marveling over just how many different textures there are in the world, whether it be the wood on my kitchen floor, or the clipboard at the doctors office, or the clouds in the sky. If you feel like you need an extra boost of inspiration head to one of the following sites and browse all the thousands of textures that are showcased and it shouldn’t take long to get your creative juices flowing.

  • DeviantArt: dA is usually my first stop when I’m looking for some texture inspiration. It’s nice because a lot of the textures on the site can’t be found anywhere else and have a certain “uniqueness” about them.
  • Flickr: What is there to say about Flickr? There are so many different textures on here it can be overwhelming at times, but a very good source of ideas and inspiration.
  • CGTextures: The self-proclaimed “Worlds Largest Free Texture Site” hosts all kinds of textures in an easy to browse format.

I hope that textures continue to play an integral role in the design industry. I have a lot of fun capturing and sharing them with the community. I also had a lot of fun writing this article and sharing my ideas and techniques with everyone. I hope you guys put some of the information to good use and are able to create some awesome textures. Thanks for reading!

About the author:

Caleb Kimbrough blogs at Lost and Taken and Bittbox with the sole purpose of giving away high quality textures. If you would like to connect with him you can follow him on Twitter or visit his personal site.

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About Caleb Kimbrough