Use your words: Why it helps to write things down

Use your words: Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia

I remember the place – Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain – but how I felt at the time or other details? All a blur. I should have used my words…

Use your words

When our sons were little, they’d reach a point of either frustration or excitement where they couldn’t convey their intent. Gestures, crying, repeating the same undecipherable jumble always resulted in our same, calming response: “Use your words.”

Now that I’m older, I have to remind myself of that advice. When traveling to a new place that makes me so giddy with excitement to see more, I can easily put the arm-waving, up-and-down jumping, glee squeaking gyrations of my children to shame. At least on the inside. I do try and retain some external decorum. Try.

But then, after the initial wave of enthusiasm passes and especially later when I attempt to recount the wonder of a place to others, I hit a snag. I can remember the emotions and some of the details, but I can’t always connect the two in ways that make sense to others.

Why? Because I didn’t use my words. I didn’t write down the details of both the place and my response to it right away. As a result, that moment is gone and the specifics that made it so special are, at least partially, lost.

Write it down right away

Earlier, we looked at how details can make your writing more interesting and the free guide, Come Closer: A Novelist’s Approach to Capturing Details. But how and even when you capture those details matters in your ability to use them well later.

The prolific travel writer Tim Cahill addresses this in his story, “The Place I’ll Never Forget” found in the collection An Innocent Abroad edited by Don George. In trying to recount experiences later he notes:

“…it occurred to me that the stories I told would benefit from more detail. I couldn’t just experience something and expect to have it etched indelibly into my memory. I had to give names to the colors and odors and feel of things. I had to assess my own feelings, which gave emotion to the landscape. And I needed to do it on the spot because travel often doesn’t allow you to backtrack.”

That’s vital for writers and artists to remember: If we don’t capture the details and our emotional response to them while we’re right there, we’re rarely given a second chance. Time and memory quickly distort our recollections of the moment.

When it comes to using your words, Cahill notes:

“Some people are certain they can recall such physical and emotional experiences through their photographs. I can’t argue the point, though feeling through a lens is a rare talent and one I don’t possess. I need to put words to sensations and emotions to own them forever. Whenever I can’t figure something out and take a photograph rather than a note, I know I’m losing the scene forever.”

Use your words to capture what lies beneath the surface

I love photography. But I’m finding that like Cahill, sometimes a photograph can’t capture what he refers to as the “interior landscape,” our internal response to the external scene. Taking notes as soon as we can after the experience allows us to record both what we see and feel. We begin to find meaning in the experience right there because we’re processing it in real time.

I still tend to rush into and out of a scene, clicking away and hoping I can later reconstruct through images what occurred there. But increasingly, I’m trying to pause amidst the excitement of the place and at least scribble down or record verbally my reaction to it. Images matter and are a great resource for reviewing later for details. But if you want to capture those details and the meaning behind them, do what we told our kids.

Use your words.


How to use textures in Photoshop for better photos

Istanbul - Texture 3

A photo from a trip to Istanbul becomes something completely different when you add textures.

Learning how to use textures in Photoshop has been one of the best ways I’ve found to add interest to some otherwise so-so images. In particular, applying textures in Photoshop to travel photos can add depth and meaning to your trip images. How? Because you’re able to add associations to the image that may convey more of how you felt when you captured the image than the photo itself reflects.  Or, you might add new meanings – associations with nostalgia or historical references or simply create something of great beauty.

So what do I mean by “textures?” Textures are essentially the same thing as many of the filters you’ll find on Instagram and other photo apps. These filters or textures change the nature of the photo by blending in a secondary image, usually one of some texture. Common examples for texture backgrounds are photos of old parchment, painted surfaces, weathered wood…anything that adds visual interest.

In future posts, I’ll explain how different textures can create different emotional effects. For now, however, let’s jump in and learn some basics so you can try this for yourself.

Knowing how to use textures in Photoshop starts with knowing Photoshop

You can do this in Photoshop Elements or any program that provides you with the ability to blend layers. I’m using Photoshop CS5 for this example, but any version should work.

I’m going to assume you know at least the basics of Photoshop. However, I will try and explain the process step-by-step since there are some important tips I’ve found to make it work well and fast even if you’re just a Photoshop novice.

Istanbul - Hagia Sophia

Istanbul – Hagia Sophia: This is the original image with no texture.


Textured border photo

This is the texture image we’ll be blending into the photo above

The concept is simple: Open both images in Photoshop, move the texture onto the original photo (in this case, the image of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), then select one of the blend modes (more on that in a moment).

How to get started with using textures in Photoshop

You need to start with a textured background. You likely don’t have one just lying around if you’ve never done this before. So where do you get a textured background? Try this highly technical maneuver: Google “free textures for photoshop.” Here’s a screenshot of the top results under Images:

How to use textures in Photoshop: List of texture images

How to use textures in Photoshop: List of texture images from a Google search

You likely won’t run out of choices. For my style of photography, I prefer ones with darker borders so they have sort of a built-in vignette. But the best way to learn is to try a half dozen different ones and see what works for you. And remember: You can actually use multiple textures for a single blended photo. Your file size gets pretty huge, but the results can be stunning.

The particular texture I used in this example came from here: or go here for H. Adam’s full range of textures.

Once you download your textured photo, you’ll need to open it and your original at the same time. Do this by using File > Open for each. Then, I select Window>Arrange>Tile to get both images on screen at the same time like this:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Floating tiles in Photoshop


Unfortunately, the images aren’t the same size. So do you rotate the texture image and hope it will fit? Resize each image? Crop the larger down? You might get those to work, but there’s an easier way.

Start by dragging the texture image onto the main photo. When you try that, you may get this message:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Depth difference message

It means that my original photo was taken as a 16-bit image but the texture is only an 8-bit image. You don’t need to know about bits to get around this. Just go to Image>Mode>16 Bits/Channel and check that (assuming your texture image was only 8-bits and your main image was 16. In one case, I had the reverse situation, but the process is essentially the same). If you’re lucky, both images will be the same depth and you will never see this message.

Once you drag the texture image over on top of the original (and you always want to make sure the original image is the background or base image NOT the other way around or this won’t work as well), you should see something like this:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Moving texture image onto background image

If you have trouble doing this, be sure you’ve got the move button highlighted (it’s the top button on the left side menu on my screen) AND you’re holding your mouse down as you drag and drop the texture onto the main image. When you do, you’ll see you now have a new layer on top of your background image layer.

At this point, I either close the texture image that is now floating all alone over there to the top right or just maximize the original image so as not to be distracted by the texture file if I want to use this texture for another photo after this one.

Back to the size difference, here’s the easiest way I’ve found and it works great. Just do this: click on Edit>Free Transform. You’ll see the little “handles” appear the textured image. Just drag each side until each aligns and covers the main background image. In the screenshot below, I’ve dragged the bottom left corner into place and am in the process of dragging the top right to cover the background image. When done and it covers, select the check mark at the top of the screen to confirm.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Free Transform

 And now it gets interesting…

All the hard work is now done! Now it’s time for some fun. It’s the closest you’ll come to magic without a wand and white rabbit…

All you do now is experiment with the blend modes. If you’ve never used them before, they are located over above your layers with the default “Normal” mode showing. Click on the the little drop down arrow next to “Normal” making sure your Layer 1 (the textured image) is highlighted. You can rename it if you want with something completely original like “Texture 1.” This really only matters when you have multiple texture files in place and you need to differentiate between them at a glance.

My “go-to” choice is Overlay. It works probably 70% of the time. But not in this case, I don’t think:

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Overlay blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Overlay blend mode

It’s just not very interesting as is. But check this one out when I use “Multiply:”

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Multiply blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Multiply blend mode

Much more interesting. I won’t show you all the variations here, but try each of the blending modes out and see what works.

A few last pointers:

  1. Use the Opacity and Fill sliders (to the right of the blend mode drop down) and adjust those. Normally, I find just changing the Opacity is enough. And sometimes, what looks horrible at 100% can look spectacular when dialed down to say, 45%. So be sure to play with those extensively.
  2. You may have to make other adjustments to fine tune your blended image. In particular, I usually have to play with the Color Balance adjustment (it’s the one with the hanging scales as an icon directly above the blend mode area) if the textured image has a color cast like this one does. In this image, I like the yellow cast because it looks like old parchment, but often you’ll want to adjust that and perhaps your saturation, levels or curves as well.
  3. You may want to crop the final image. I like the crop on the original, but the heavy black in the Multiply version above is too much but if I try to lower the black by lowering the Opacity, it turns light gray and that looks funky. So instead, I’d likely crop out the main part of the border above so it isn’t so heavy. But that’s just me.

That’s it. When you’re done, save the new file as a TIFF, PSD or JPEG (if you don’t plan on working on it any more and want a smaller file).

My final word of advice: You only appreciate the power of textures by trying them and experimenting…a lot. I do find this general rule of thumb, however. My best images don’t always work well for textures. In fact, textures take away fine details. Instead, the best images to use with textures, to me, are ones with blah looking skies or open areas where the texture adds that…texture…to an otherwise bland background. But try a bunch of different types of photos and see.

Examples of how to use textures in Photoshop

Just for fun, here are some of the variations I tried using just the above two images and different settings. You begin to see the possibilities of using textures in Photoshop…

How to use textures in Photoshop: Using Overlay blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Overlay blend mode

In the image above, I did go back and use Overlay, but I lowered the Opacity to 90%, adjusted the saturation down and also cropped off the blue sides to make it cleaner.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Linear Burn blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Linear Burn blend mode

The one above uses the Linear Burn blend mode with Opacity at 96% and Fill at 83%. I also adjusted Saturation, Color Balance, Curves, Levels and even Vibrance. I probably didn’t need to do all those, but I was just playing…and that’s how we learn.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and Hue adjustments

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and Hue adjustments

I love the purple color of this one. It feels like a storybook image. This was done on Multiply with Fill at 90% but I lowered the Saturation and adjusted the Hue to get the purple tint.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and color adjustments

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Multiply blend mode and color adjustments

Here I used Multiply, kept Opacity at 100% but lowered Fill to 90% and did some adjustments to Color Balance, Levels and Curves.

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Difference blend mode

How to use textures in Photoshop: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul image using Difference blend mode

In the above, all I did was use the Difference blend mode and changed the Fill amount down to 77%. It reminds me of an illustration or something. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the colors, but I like it a lot. I especially appreciate how it looks like a dreamy illustration except for the cars near the bottom. Interesting juxtaposition.

So there you have it. How to use textures in Photoshop to create several very different feeling images all from the same two photographs blended together in different ways.

Have fun with this and remember to try all kinds of combinations. You never know what will happen…

Also, if you want another take on the process and see what it looks like using textures on people shots, take a look here.