Pro Photo

How to make and add texture overlays to photos

Think mystery, excitement, glamour, exoticism, allure, charm. A bouquet of possibilities.

Overlays are all about romance. Pictures we’re emotionally drawn to need more than a “just the facts” look. Imagine

what a bride sees looking through her veil on the walk to the altar. A child swinging under a tree flaring with light. A ballerina warming up in the vignetted grunge of a loft studio. Not just sirupy sweet romance; stark, hard edged, torn, ruined effects all have a place here.

What will make a good, home-made texture? Almost anything, any surface that invites fingers to touch. Fabric and peeling paint are favorites. Search for metal rust, pavement, cracks, lace, abstract art, grasses, flower petals, flares, leaves, stones, water. A good texture subject is not very irregular, that is, not a tightly repeating pattern, but an overall design and somewhat flat in appearance. A texture image is not always desaturated; it can incorporate colors, blotches, flares, vignettes.

My texture library hold four types of images: my own capture in the random environment, the collections from onONe Software and NIK, the iPhone apps “Grunge” and “FX Photo Studio”, and a few purchased styles that scrapbookers generally use as backgrounds. Sometimes the overlay texture comes right out of the main image, as in this example where the overlay was made by cropping out the cactus, enlarging, desaturating and applying mostly around the finished environmental portrait edges.

Masculine portrait with cactus pattern overlay texture

Here's how the overlay image and layer stack looked.


cactus pattern for texture overlay

layer stack for cactus portrait overlay


Tips for making and archiving texture layers

  • Make your original texture images whenever you see an interesting pattern for later use.
  • Make the images big. You’ll want to crop and size later to fit projects individually, so high resolution and dimension are your friends.
  • Generally (but not always) I prefer to separate the texture from a color wash or mottle effect from a vignette – so that it’s possible to control them separately.
  • For easiest matching, keep your texture library all in the same file type, color space and resolution that are your typical working method.
  • In your library, by all means keep the original and then manipulated versions that were cropped or color toned, with added contrast, or sharpened/softend with the Clarity slider.
  • When you make a particularly good stack, perhaps combining vignette and gradient with a texture, retain a PSD for speedy reuse and tweaking.
  • Organize and label or number groups of textures labeled as botanicals, papers, fabric, etc., for faster retrieval.

Here are three examples from our recent workshop in Guatemala.

Antigua Guatemala 5th Avenida with Santa Catalina arch

Antigua Guatemala Santa Catalina Arch

Antigua Guatemala Semana Santa procession

Tips for applying and modifying texture layers

  • Open the finished base image and texture image(s) separately in Photoshop, so you can see them all at once.
  • Drag and drop the texture(s) onto the base image as separate layers, and save right away as a PSD with a new name to avoid accidentally writing over your base image.
  • If needed, reopen a texture in RAW converter to modify sharpness, blur, contrast, saturation etc.
  • Begin to work one layer at a time to manipulate the effects. You may want to turn off the inactive layers to precisely see what you’re doing.
  • Use the layer modifying tools: Opacity and Mode. Note that most textural effect do best in Overlay mode, though now and again Multiply and Difference may be useful.
  • If you’re looking for inspiration, just run through all the layer modes. Serendipity is good.
  • Use the full range of layer adjustment tools, accessed at the bottom of the Layers palette. To apply an adjustment, like Colorize, to just one layer, hold the Alt/Option key and click precisely on the line between the layer and the adjustment. The base image will retain it’s proper tones.
  • Masking is the secret to natural blending. Careful masking helps to eliminate the “overdone” look. Access Masks for each individual layer at the bottom of the Layers palette. Painting with a black brush reveals the underneath; a white brush conceals. Soft brush? Usually, but different types of brushes and occasionally even hard ones have their place.
  • Textural effects are rarely applied uniformly over the whole image, but brushed in by hand specifically where you want more or less of the effect, depending on the subject elements of the base image.
  • Once each layer is adjusted in relation to the base image, turn all layers on to see how they act with each other. Readjust as needed.
  • Save early, save often during the process. Don’t forget to label each layer for reference and retain the PSD as well as the flattened final, ready to print.

where to click to link single layers


Why use textures

  • Suggest mood, emotion and dimension like looking through curtains or haze, create an antique era or destroyed appearance, soften and blur romantic portraits.
  • Create a depth or layered feel, something like the effect of soft focus Bokeh that isolates the main subject.
  • Hide and mystify a scene.
  • Add a “surface” that can feel like an oil painting on a canvas or linen.
  • Provide a unique appearance that is so much more interesting and evocative than the simple photo capture.
  • Expand visual effect to tell stories at a glance.


There are lots of purchasable textures and overlays of vignettes and color washes. Don’t miss the undeniably creative papers and textures and embellishments that are intended originally for scrapbookers. My favorite for price and variety (more than 400 collections mostly less than $5 each) is Ztampf! Studio represented for web purchase at Studio Girls. Another site is Florabella, more expensive, but specifically suited to romantic and vintage style photographic portraiture. For the pro looking more for borders, the infinitely variable onOne Photo Frame selection can’t be beat.



Ztampf! sampleZtampf! sample of purchasable overlays


Florabella sample Florabella sample of purchasable texture overlays

RAW Report from Sara Frances


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Jarle Leirpoll is an Adobe Premiere Pro Master Trainer and the author of The Cool Stuff in Premiere Pro. Between film projects he travels the world doing Premier Pro and After Effects training for both…