How to create shadows in Photoshop.

Shadows can make or break a composite. And while they’re easy to create, unless you’ve got a solid grasp of physics they’re hard to get right, which is why when someone is trying to figure out if your photo is a composite the shadows are usually the first thing they look at it. But since shadows are confusing for everyone, as long as you follow some basic principles you can usually fake them fairly successfully.

The properties of shadows that most compositers use are:

  • Your shadow should fall in the opposite direction to your light source with the subject directly between the two. You should be able to draw a straight line between them. Light bounces off surfaces though, particularly bright ones, so keep this in mind when plotting the direction of your shadow because there may be light sources you haven’t considered.
  • The density of your shadow is dependent on the brightness of your light. Very bright light causes very dark shadows.
  • Shadows are darkest where they make contact with the object. This contact point also contains a little of the object’s colour.
  • Shadows become less dense as they travel away from the subject, so they become lighter and less defined.
  • The height of the light source dictates how long or short your shadow should be. Low is long, high is short.
  • If you don’t include shadows where your object meets a surface (even if they’re in diffuse light) they’ll look like they’re floating. Adding a simple contact shadow can make a world of difference.

BUT in reality shadows aren’t that simple. And here’s some examples I took with my iPhone to prove it.

Ball shadow

This is my dog’s squeaky ball in a ray of light. It’s actually LIGHTEST closest to the object because the ball is translucent and letting some light through. The shadow is long because the sun is low, and a little blurry at the farthest point from the object.

Birdcage shadow

The second is a bird cage I have hanging in my room. The light source is behind, to the right, and slightly above the cage which you can tell by the direction the shadow is falling. However there are TWO shadows because my lamp contains two light bulbs pointing in different directions. The shadows are WIDER than the objects because of the angle the light is hitting them. But because you can’t see the light source, if this were a composite you wouldn’t need to create the double or wide shadow because no one would ever know. So as long as you follow the basic principles of shadows no one can really prove you wrong.

Let’s work through an example. Here’s a photo I took of myself in my garage. Don’t worry about my hands; they’ll show up in next week’s photo. I had an undiffused Speedlite on a light stand to my left so you can see that the left side of my body is brighter than the right. The floor and the wall are just photos of textures I’ve added in. Before adding a shadow the girl just looks like she’s floating. But by painting in a shadow using a soft brush and different opacities I can anchor her to the scene. So even though the angle of the floor is wrong and the shadow doesn’t match her shape it still looks like she belongs there. Painting in a shadow with the brush tool is the most basic technique but there’s more accurate ways to create shadows.

 

How to create a shadow in Photoshop

First step – assess your light! Where is it coming from and what are its properties? This will help you plot how your shadow should look.

Here’s two different methods to create shadows:

 

Method one:

  1. Make a selection of your subject/object. For accuracy’s sake I prefer to use the pen tool to make selections even though it takes the longest, but any method is fine.
  1. Press Ctrl/Cmd J to make a new layer from the selected area. Ctrl/Cmd click the thumbnail of this layer to load the selection again. Go to Edit>Fill and Use: Black. Press Ctrl/Cmd D to deselect the object.

 

  1. Rename this new layer ‘Shadow’ and drag it below your main layer.
  1. Go to Edit>Transform>Distort and drag the middle top handle in the direction you want your shadow to fall. You can also play with the other handles to affect width and height. (Keep in mind that if your shadow is against a surface like in my image the shadow would change direction where it met that surface. You can see how this looks in my final image. This example photo isn’t accurate and is purely for demonstration purposes.)
Use handles to transform the shadow's shape

Use handles to transform the shadow’s shape

 

  1. Use the corner handles OR click inside and drag the selection to make sure the shadow lines up with the feet of your subject or the base of your object. Press the tick when you’re happy.
  1. Shadows are never perfectly sharp so go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and choose a radius to your liking.
Add Gaussian blur to make the edges less harsh

Add Gaussian blur to make the edges less harsh

 

  1. I like my shadow to be blurrier the further away it is from the subject and the quickest way I’ve found to do this is to use quick mask mode. Select the gradient tool (g) and make sure the Linear Gradient is selected in the options bar. Press q to enter Quick Mask. Draw a line from the base of your subject to the top of the shadow. The red overlay will show you the area that is NOT selected. Try again with Reverse ticked if the selection is wrong. Press q again to exit Quick Mask.

 

  1. Now go back to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and apply more of a blur to the top portion of your shadow. Ctrl/Cmd D to deselect.
Blur the top half more

Blur the top half more

 

  1. As well as making the farthest part of the shadow less sharp you should also make it less dark. So, add a layer mask to the shadow layer and select your gradient tool again (g). Click the gradient bar and select the third option ‘Black, White’. Press OK and change the opacity to 60%. Experiment by drawing in a gradient line. You will need to do this several times (the effect resets each time you draw) to get the fade going in the right direction and to get the right intensity (draw shorter and longer lines and vary where you draw the line from and to).

 

That’s method one done! The second method is best for giving just a little bit of shadow. For example, I have these vines climbing through a hole in my image but they didn’t feel like they belonged there so I added a little drop shadow to anchor them in place.

Composited vine

Composited vine

 

Method 2:

  1. Your object will need to be selected as we did in step 1 of the previous method. Add a layer mask to hide all the parts you don’t need. Ctrl/Cmd i inverts the mask if it has masked the wrong area.
  1. Double click on the far right hand side of the layer to bring up the Layer Style panel.
  1. Tick Drop Shadow and then click on the name to access its options. Play around with these to taste and click OK when done.
Layer Style panel

Layer Style panel

 

  1. Right click on the word ‘Drop Shadow’ in your layer. Choose ‘Create Layer’. This turns your layer style into its own layer which is super cool.
Right click on Drop Shadow to create a new layer

Right click on Drop Shadow to create a new layer

 

  1. Now you can add a mask to that layer and paint away any part of the drop shadow that you don’t like. You can also use this technique as an alternative to steps 1 and 2 in the first method.

 

And that’s it. Shadow achievement unlocked!

 

About ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’

Sometimes an image just works and you’re excited about it from the get go. This was not one of those images. I’ve spent two weeks massaging these pixels to within an inch of their lives and it still doesn’t make me happy – generally a sign that it’s time to put it aside and move on. Unfortunately you can’t win them all. But funnily enough I’m working on another concept from this shoot which I loved almost instantly.

The image is composed of a shot of me photographed in my garage, a wall in Venice, a bird from Stradbroke Island, a Graphic Stock shot of clouds (which was just laziness as I have plenty of my own), and a vine from a garden in Melbourne. My photographs are very well travelled. I combined the shadows of the bird and the girl into one but I had to be careful using the blurring and fading techniques discussed in this tutorial so the bird didn’t disappear. I took plenty of shots of the girl lit by a Speedlite so I could see how her real shadow looked and replicate it in Photoshop but I ended up using a photo where the flash didn’t fire. I had to use Lighting Effects in Photoshop to light her side and back and make the harsh shadow believable.

 

 

If you have any advice about shadows or wish to share a shadow photo of your own, please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear/see them! 🙂