Photographing texture in winter

We were hiking near Golden recently and bushes along the trail gave me the idea for this blog post: photographing texture in winter.  The rabbitbrush along the trail had finished blooming in the fall, but still retained an interesting shape and a bit of color. ISO 200, f11, 1/200 sec at 20mm.

I gave myself an assignment to photograph examples of interesting textures in the shapes of plants that were dormant or dead in the winter.  Some of my photos are from recent hikes and others are from a visit this week to the Denver Botanic Gardens (noted as DBG).

While I did not initially plan to create a series of monochrome images, the limited color palette made be decide to convert everything to grayscale.  As I noted in an earlier blog post, black and white can be a good choice for outdoor photography in the winter.


There are several sources of texture in a photograph: object detail, pattern and contrast.  Each of these points is discussed below, with examples.


The simplest form of texture is the surface detail of an object in a photograph.  For example, the bark of a tree or the spines of a cactus.  Often the best way to emphasize surface detail is to get close to the object and to use contrasty (side) lighting.

The florets of this ornamental grass I photographed at DBG offered interesting surface detail.  However, the light was diffused by clouds and I could not get as much separation between the foreground and background as I liked.  ISO 200, f4, 1/800 sec at 83mm.

A better example of surface detail is this next image that I took at DBG.  Here, differences in surface textures and lighting give a three-dimensional feel.  ISO 200, f2.8, 1/800 sec at 83mm.


Patterns can be a good way to create photographic interest.  A complex pattern that draws the viewers’ attention in order to “decode” the image is one technique.  This might be created by one or more distinct patterns.  Curves are a type of pattern that can guide the viewer’s eye and increase interest.

I really liked the curly remnants of this plant I photographed at DBG.  Directional lighting also helped to separate the foreground and background.  ISO 400, f5.6, 1/200 sec at 64mm.

If multiple patterns are used, they should be mutually supportive, e.g., a visual rhyme.  In this photo that I took at DBG, the out-of-focus plants in the background echo details in the foreground.  ISO 200, f2.8, 1/1600 sec at 64mm.

However, I still feel that photo is too busy.  I prefer the simpler composition of my next example image from DBG.  ISO 400, f5.6, 1/420 sec at 83mm.

Patterns don’t need to repeat.  An equally valid approach is to break the pattern.  For example, a still lake with a single prominent boulder protruding from the surface.  The camera can be moved so that the location of the object that breaks the pattern enhances the overall composition.


In color photography there are two forms of contrast, color contrast and tonal contrast.  Color contrast is simply the difference in hue between objects and/or the background in an image.  For example, a stand of golden aspen trees against a backdrop of deep green pine trees.  Tonal contrast is the relative brightness of one object versus other objects or the background. It is easy to spot tonal contrast in black and white imagery.  Overall, the role of contrast is to enhance the detail in some portion of the image.

In November there was amazing rime ice growing on plants and trees in the hills above North Boulder.  Given the fog, it was difficult to get much tonal contrast.  This was complicated by snow cover on the ground.  In my next example photograph, the crystals were not as visible as I wanted.  ISO 500, f8, 1/140 sec at 60mm.

In my second photograph of rime ice, the crystals are more visible given the darker background.  ISO 400, f4.5, 1/800 sec at 75mm.

However, the range of focus in this image is limited by the wider aperture that I used.  If I had used a tripod, I could have used a smaller aperture and achieved better results.  This leads me to a few points on equipment when photographing texture in winter.


The most important consideration for this project was to select one of my lenses with a close focusing distance and a wide aperture. I don’t carry a macro lens when hiking, so I selected a normal zoom lens.  My lens (equivalent to 24-70mm lens on a full frame sensor) has a 12″ minimum focusing distance and a maximum aperture of f2.8.

When the camera is close to the subject there is a short depth of field, which allows selective focus and a blurring of non-essential details in the background.  This effect is enhanced by using a wide aperture, which further limits the depth of field.

If you don’t think about depth of field, you could end up with something like my next image.  What is this photograph even about?!  ISO 320, f/16, 1/60 sec at 36mm.

Selective focusing allows the photographer to emphasize only certain surface details in the image. The details that are not in focus often give an abstract air to a close-up image.

In this next photo I took at DBG, I used my widest aperture to blur numerous branches in the background.  In this way I was able to isolate the seed pods of this white birch tree.  ISO 200, f2.8, 1/340 sec at 60mm.

Of course, you don’t always have to shoot with a wide aperture if there is enough tonal separation between the foreground and background.  I took the image below on Lake Hyatt in Arvada, Colorado last January.  ISO 200, f11, 1/120 sec at 36mm.

You can also make adjustments in post to emphasize texture in your photographs, but don’t expect miracles!  I used photoshop for grayscale conversion and curves adjustments for all of these images.

What do you think of my project of photographing texture in winter?

Jump to Outdoor Photography Page



2 thoughts on “Photographing texture in winter”

  1. Jon Watson

    I think the low contrast in image seven isn’t that much of a failure- it emphasizes the fragile nature of ice crystals fairly well since they’re just barely distinct from the background, but clearly recognizable due to their shape. Plus it’s kind of fun how the crystals are darker than the background near the top of the image, but lighter than the background near the bottom of the image.

    Also, it’s pretty great how much using grayscale for these emphasizes the texture- the rockface in the third image feels far more interesting than it might have been in color!

Leave a Reply