Category 'Compositing'

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. [gallery columns="2" link="file" size="medium" ids="2418,2419"]  

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.
[gallery columns="2" link="file" size="medium" ids="2421,2420"]  
  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.)
[caption id="attachment_2422" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Use handles to transform the shadow's shape Use handles to transform the shadow's shape[/caption]  
  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.
[caption id="attachment_2423" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Add Gaussian blur to make the edges less harsh Add Gaussian blur to make the edges less harsh[/caption]  
  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.
[gallery columns="2" size="medium" link="file" ids="2424,2425"]  
  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.
[caption id="attachment_2426" align="aligncenter" width="298"]Blur the top half more Blur the top half more[/caption]  
  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).
[gallery size="medium" link="file" ids="2428,2427,2429"]   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. [caption id="attachment_2432" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Composited vine Composited vine[/caption]   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.
[caption id="attachment_2430" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Layer Style panel Layer Style panel[/caption]  
  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.
[caption id="attachment_2431" align="aligncenter" width="228"]Right click on Drop Shadow to create a new layer Right click on Drop Shadow to create a new layer[/caption]  
  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.
[gallery columns="2" link="file" size="medium" ids="2432,2433"]   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.   [gallery size="medium" link="file" ids="2434,2438,2435,2436,2437"]   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! :)

Using special effects can instantly transform an ordinary photo into a magical scene, and they’re not nearly as complex to create as it seems. Traditionally artists use bright, glowing light to signify magic or special powers but if you set off fireworks or bring out your glowsticks during the day you’re not going to impress anyone. That’s why when working with special effects you’ll ideally want a dark base photo. I’m not saying it’s impossible to use special effects on a light background but they’re probably not going to be super effective.

How to shoot a photo for special effects

You can add special effects to any image you like but if you’re shooting specifically with special effects in mind there’s a few tricks you can do to really sell the effect.
  • Shoot against a dark backdrop – even if you’re going to replace the background later you’ll probably be replacing it with a dark scene so you want the tone of the scenes to match. (This was the first time I’ve shot against a black background cos I was under the mistaken impression that it’s easier to cut out brown hair from a white background. N.B. It’s not. Just try and match the tone of your “studio background” to the tone of your replacement background and everything becomes much easier.)
  • Try and replicate the light your effect will create. For example, I was shooting with a top hat and I knew I wanted light coming from the hat so I put a small torch inside the hat shining out and then lit the top of the hat with a lamp so the rim was lit up. What I didn’t do but should have was to remove the hat from the scene and position the lamp so the light was shining upwards roughly where the hat would be and then photographed myself next to that spill of light so my face was properly lit. You can recreate this lighting in Photoshop but light and shadow are always going to be more accurate if you shoot them for real. You should also colour the light to match the final effect if you're comfortable working with gels.
Hat with lighting

How to add special effects in Photoshop

There’s a tonne of different way to add special effects so I’ll go over a few of them.

Using stock

This can be stock you’ve shot yourself (light painting, sparklers, smoke – all techniques I will cover in future) or stock from an agency. I’m no graphic designer and I don’t have the talent or the know how to create graphics from scratch so I prefer to use a stock agency for graphic art. I signed up for a 7 day trial with Graphic Stock and searched for images using search terms like galaxies, rays, flare, glow, bokeh and fractal. Images on a dark background are best. Open up your chosen stock as layers above your main image, and working through them one by one choose the move tool (v) and cycle through your blend modes using Shift + or – until you find one that gets rid of the dark background (I used Screen, Soft Light and Lighter Color the most). If you can’t entirely get rid of the black background add a levels adjustment layer (clip it to your stock layer by alt clicking between the two layers) and move the sliders until the background disappears. Then just move your stock into place and mask parts out if necessary. Remember you can also use warp (Edit>Transform>Warp)and liquify (Filter>Liquify) to shape the stock to fit your image. So easy! [gallery link="none" ids="2151,2152,2153,2154,2155,2156,2157,2158,2159"]

Flame Painter

Flame Painter is a nifty little tool that creates light effects. You can have some control with the free version or full control with the paid version. Play around with the settings and draw! Then just download the result and use a blend mode to make it fit your scene. So cool! [caption id="attachment_2149" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Light effect from Flame Painter Light effect from Flame Painter[/caption]

Layer Styles

To make it look like my top hat was glowing I used a couple of layer styles. To access the layer style menu double click on the layer of the object you wish to give a glow to (this will have to be cut out and on its own layer). Click on outer glow (make sure the check box is ticked to apply it to the image) and play around with the sliders until you’re happy. Photoshop defaults to a glowing yellow colour but you can change the colour by clicking on the colour swatch. This gave my hat a glowing outline but for realism I wanted it to have some inner glow too so I also ticked the Inner Glow checkbox and making sure the name was highlighted I played around with the settings in here too. Layer styles can sometimes behave in odd ways but I learnt some super useful tips from Phlearn on how to manage these. So glowy! [gallery size="medium" ids="2163,2161,2160"]

Brush tool

Which brings us back to our old friend the brush tool. Using a soft brush and a bright colour you can paint in glows wherever you like. If you need to light a lamp / lantern a great trick is to create a new layer set to Color Dodge, choose a medium hardness small brush with a yellow colour loaded and dot it once on the lamp. Then make the brush softer and larger and dot it again. Do this a few more times until you have a realistic effect. I also created the smoke in my image using a smoke shaped brush and a bright lavender colour, painting some on a layer under the girl and some on a layer above her to make it look like it was wafting around. So handy! Photoshop brush glow If you expect to use special effects a lot in your work the designer sevenstyles creates and sells amazing actions designed to add special effects with a couple of clicks.

About ‘The Magic Show’

Photo 26-07-2015 8 31 56Photo 26-07-2015 8 30 46Because magic is the underlying theme of my blog I decided that turning myself into a magician would be a good way to illustrate how to use special effects. Coincidentally, I recently realised that the bird on my business card (created for me by a designer in the UK) is almost the same bird on the cover of the book I'm currently reading, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which just happens to be a book about two magicians. I photographed myself in my garage against a black sheet using a household lamp and Speedlite for lighting. It took forever to get a flattering light set-up. The girl is made up of different photos of parts of my body while the hat and flying hair were shot separately. The rabbit came from a Graphic Stock image that I turned into a Photoshop brush and added a glow to. The background curtain and all light effects are from Graphic Stock. I was thinking about Donnie Darko while conceiving this image which might be how I ended up with a Frank-like light flare over my eye. This is why it's important to ingest as much culture as you can if you're a creative person so all this stuff can swirl around in your psyche and manifest itself in interesting ways. Hey presto! [gallery link="none" columns="4" size="medium" ids="2167,2168,2166,2165"]

20
Sep

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 […]

26
Jul

How to add special effects to your photos in Photoshop.

Using special effects can instantly transform an ordinary photo into a magical scene, and they’re not nearly as complex to create as it seems. Traditionally artists use bright, glowing light to signify magic or special powers but if you set off fireworks or bring out your glowsticks during the day you’re not going to impress […]