How to use texture and layers to take your product photography to the next level

What is the key to a great image?  There are a number of elements and factors that make great images but today we are starting with my favourites: textures and layers.  You may have heard me mention these on social media so I thought I would dive in and explore the world of texture in more detail. Anyone can take a product photo by putting something on a background with a few flowers or fruit slices, but if you want something that is creative, has depth and most importantly grabs people’s attention then texture and layers are a great place to start. In the past I would feel like certain images were lacking something, they had no personality but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was missing. Now I look for any opportunity to add another texture or layer to my product photography, this concept has taken me quite a while to fully grasp.

Texture – the feel, appearance, or consistency of a surface or a substance.

Enter the textures…

Every item you add to your image has its own texture, it’s about choosing the best combination for your story and how to maximise them to best showcase your product. Texture is something you can physically touch but also something you can see.  It is rough, smooth, hard, soft, and can be introduced through elements such as wood, linen, metal, marble, flowers and foliage.

Think in layers

Layers are where textures overlap and they are the building blocks for any image.  A layer may be stacked on top of other items in the image but it can also be spread out around the frame just as successfully.  If you have a bird’s eye view image then you will notice the layers as you look down, if you are looking at your subject front on you will see the layers as depth, front, middle and back with little details in between.

When I use the term layers I don’t mean that things need to be stacked on top of each other, although this technique does work well especially for front-on shots.   For a flat lay you can start with your base layer, add some fabric round the side maybe then the other items can be spread around the frame for a more scattered look (see our flat lay style blog post here). As long as you have a range of textures and some of the items are stacked then you are still creating layers – I would think about it more like layers of detail and texture as opposed to physical layers.

So why would you bother with all this faffing when you can just take the damn picture already?  Well the simple answer to that is that textures and layers add depth to your product photography. They take an image from being one dimensional to being interesting and eye-catching while telling the story of your brand, and that’s a pretty amazing achievement!  They make an image more complex and intriguing which leaves the viewer wondering “how did they do that”? Most importantly they bring a product to life and paint a picture your audience can relate to which keeps them interested and engaged in your brand.

Ok I’m convinced, but where do I start?

All good images start with a backdrop. Yes, there is always a place for a white or single-coloured background but if texture is what you’re after then the backdrop is a great opportunity to start how you mean to continue.  It’s nice to have a selection of textured backdrops for your product photography that you can change up depending on the item you are photographing and the story you are trying to tell.  This doesn’t mean that you have to take out a second mortgage to afford backdrops, texture is all around us and I would start by looking at your floors, benches, table tops, concrete, bricks – the options are endless and that’s before you’ve even left the house!  If you’re looking to get a bit more creative about it you can paint your own backdrop with some test pots and a sponge, otherwise you can buy them online and have them delivered to your door, easy.

Next, I always pick out a few objects that I think are going to work in the photo and try and create an idea about the scene.  Obviously, the items you select can be changed later depending on the direction you end up taking but it’s useful to have an initial idea even if the end product turns out to be something completely different. If you’re anything like me this will be the most time-consuming part of the process.

Select a range of textures and layers. If you’re using harder textures like marble, stone and metal it is key to have something to balance that out and soften the image.  Wood is great for adding warmth to cold, hard surfaces, but also consider flowers and foliage, edible ingredients and of course linen, where would I be without my linen napkins and tea towels?  Life would not be the same!  These must be my most used props for that very reason as they are always the soft part of my images and there is seldom an occasion that doesn’t call for linen.  Other fabrics do the trick as well – sheets, clothing, lace, tablecloths, cushions or throws, just think about what you already have around you.

Place your base layer on top of your background. The base layer is the item that will anchor the whole image, contributes to the story and plays well with others so it needs to work well with your other items.  Have a play around, arrange things so that you have a set up that looks like your original plan but change things around, put things underneath, on top of, beside, touching, not touching, scrunched up or flat out. There are so may possible combinations and you are looking for the best one so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Product photography layers come in three and sometimes even four levels: the base layer, a selection of middle layers (typically smaller or softer items), then there is the final flourish which is the detailed layer or the “garnish”.  The garnish is all the little details that take your scene to the next level and really hammer that story home.  Add a more detailed layer if you’re really feeling it, sometimes I use tweezers for this as it really is just the tiniest of florals or a small sprinkling of sea salt, oh how I love the sea salt! When you think you have enough layers, step back and ask yourself if there anything that you could add to this image to enhance your story, but also know when to stop. Restraint was a hard thing for me to learn but deep down you know when your image is looking its best so don’t mess with that.

If you are creating product photography in a vignette style or front on view then select your textual items and think about how these items are going to look from multiple angles, this may influence your prop selection.  Decide on your depth of field and whether your background and foreground items are going to be in focus or blurred.  Think about interesting shapes, colours and textures. I like to imagine as if there is a party going on behind the scenes, the product is the life of the party and although it’s looking pretty darn good tonight you are still intrigued to see who else is on the guest list. It keeps the viewer wondering, creating mystery and is a great way to showcase your product.

To build a vignette, start with a base then add the product and build around that. With a flat lay I would typically build up the layers and textures with an idea of where the product will sit and add it towards to the end.  Once you have the product in place add things in front (without obstructing its view of course) smaller items and the “garnish” are good here.  Add taller items at the back and make sure you have a range of heights throughout the image. Take a couple of test shots and have a play around with the placement until that party is really going off!

Remember everything is there for a reason…

Ultimately all the textures and layers in your photos are the supporting cast to the main actor and that is your product.

Consider whether the other items in the setting contribute to the end story, they should be related to your product and paint it in its best light so that your audience feel like they must have your product in their lives. You need to find the right balance so that you are showing the star attraction at its best but also keeping it relatable so people can imagine how they might use the product themselves.

Take a few test shots and adjust as you go, sometimes you might think you have created this perfectly layered, beautifully textured image but it just doesn’t come through in the photo. It might only take a little bit more experimentation and you can figure out what the problem is so make these changes and carry on.

So, to recap on our textual journey:

  • Choose a textual background that relates to your products story

  • Select some props in a range of textures that are going to accompany your product

  • Build a concept and basic layout, moving things around until you have the perfect fit

  • Add another layer of “garnish” for the final flourish

  • Step back and check the scene has enough textures and is telling right the story

  • Add a few tiny little details to really bring it home or stop because what you have is already amazing!

  • Photograph and adjust accordingly

Product photography is a powerful tool and these tips only scratch of the surface of things you need to consider when creating images. If you are looking for that little something extra you do need to think outside the box, create layers, add texture, tell a story and create something that a viewer would be happy to stumble across in their social media feed. Don’t let an opportunity to grab attention pass you by, create some scroll-stopping imagery and you will have a fan for life!