Matte Surfaces

These are surfaces that are not as rough as texture, but not smooth either. Skin, cloth, natural leather, finished woods and many food items are examples. Most of what we deal with in our daily lives would fall under the Matte surface example.

Matte surfaces have a softer way of showing us the reflection of the light source. Where texture showed us mini sources next to mini shadows, the matte surfaces have less of a drastic presentation. The surface doesn’t have that much difference between the size of the components of the texture. A cloth book cover has texture, but it is much more tightly confined than say old barn wood.

And the reflection of the source is shown as a larger area rather than many tiny reflections. This gives the texture a smooth and not altogether recognizable shape. There is an angle where the incidence will match the reflection, and be seen by the camera, but it will be a muted reflection, not a harsh one.

EXAMPLE of Matte Surface reflection of the light source. You can clearly see the reflection of the source, but the transition to the non-reflective areas is gradual and not defined.

The ballet shoes are most defintely NOT a highly textured object, nor are they glossy.

Skin is one area of great interest. Portrait, beauty and fashion photographers have to be able to control the way skin looks for their imagery. And skin can present some widely diverse efficiency. Dry skin has a very matte look, wet skin becomes more efficient due to the water, and then the reflection is nearly absolute, and skin color can become an issue with the wrong kind of light presentation.

A good makeup artist helps to smooth out skin blemishes, we know. But the MUA also helps to matte the skin evenly so that the reflections of the light sources do not create very bright reflections on the face.

A model begins to sweat…err, sorry, perspire with the heat, and the skin becomes a bit more efficient due to the moisture. Liquid is much more efficient than skin, so the perspiration on the face becomes shinier. The remedy is a little bit of powder, which of course renders the skin more matte and less efficient.

Faces are full of contours and angles that can reflect the light source back to us. Tips of noses, eyebrows, cheeks, chins and foreheads are all areas of concern when we are shooting with light that has a small source. The small source can become a direct reflection on even matted skin, so keeping it within our tolerances is very important.

Again, you can see the very soft transition from the highlight to the non-highlight matte surface, where as the gloss lipstick provides a sharp, immediate transition to the non-reflective area.

Photoshop Note:

Trying to fix a small highlight on the tip of the nose, or one that is across the whole front of the forehead is painstaking and difficult. It can be done, of course, but working with the subject to make sure he/she is not rendering the light back to you in such a way as to need the Photoshop is much more preferable.

There may be times when we may want to enhance the matte texture, to make it more discernible, and bring out the texture instead of mitigating it.

Angle of incidence again comes to the fore. Angled to present even the smallest texture, the photographer can decide between broad light, like a softbox, or sharper light, like a direct, unmodified head, or a snoot.

Example of enhanced texture: Portrait of Tomas.

Even with the matte surface of the skin, by using a small lightsource (beauty dish at a distance) we can create more texture in this portrait by putting the light at more of a wide distance from the camera. This adds some texture from the sidelit properties of the subject. Enhancement in Photoshop is then easy, and keeps the matte surface for a cleaner presentation of skin.

Matte surfaces are where we can experiment and work with light to play down or enhance, or simply show it as it really is.

And most matte surfaces can be altered to create something more efficient or less. As we have seen, powder for skin can take away the ‘shine’ that we know is really the reflection of the light. Water or liquid can add sheen to the subject when we want the reflection. And we can use materials to create shine, like wax on a wood floor to enhance the matte to be more shiny by showing the reflection of the light as it renders back to us.

Remember that we all KNOW what shiny looks like, what matte feels like and how rough something is. It is part of what we learn from the beginnings of our lives. We touched, we saw, we felt… and we learned. Photographers aren’t creating anything new, we just learn to present it to others the way we want them to see it.

To recap:
Textured surfaces present small highlights and shadows because of the rough surface and how it reflects light. From a stone to a mountain, the texture can be enhanced by playing up the highlight and darkening the shadow.

Matte surfaces will show the highlight softly, allowing it to transition to the non-reflective part of the surface in a more gradual effect. This may be the most prevalent surface we have around us.


  1. Look around at the matte surfaces. they will most likely be more numerous than very texturized things, or very shiny things. Take some time to quietly study what light does when it is refracted from them.
  2. Note how different light (direct / indirect) reflects from the surface. Make images showing the difference.
  3. Examine the ways that matte surfaces can become textured (heavy side/top light), or shiny (wetting the surface down changes its ability to render the highlight and now it becomes more efficient).
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