Enhancing Your Layouts Part five: Realistic Custom Shadows
by Ruby Rynne
In this tutorial I will show you how to create realistic drop shadows for photos and other elements.
Let’s start with our layout as it was at the end of part four.
The photo doesn’t have a drop shadow, which it really needs to make it pop off the page. The default drop shadow in Photoshop can look a little flat and lifeless, and doesn’t have the variation a real shadow would have, so I don’t want to use that. I’m going to make a custom drop shadow, and I will show you two ways to do this.
First we’ll look at some basic rules for drop shadows. A shadow is formed when light is prevented from reaching a surface by the presence of something. The further away the item is from the surface, the larger the shadow appears to be, and the more blurred it’s edges are. It also has less opacity than the shadow of an item close to the surface. Here are some examples.
Notice how the left A appears much closer to the page than the right A, which has a larger shadow, which is more blurred and less dense. For more realistic shadows, make choices about size, blurriness and density with this in mind. A sticker will cast almost no shadow, whereas a curled ribbon sitting off the page will cast a larger, softer shadow. Using inappropriate shadows is a common cause of less than satisfactory layouts, where things that should appear to be on the paper seem to be flying above it. Fortunately, everything you will find in DSP products that needs a shadow will already have one, but sometimes you need to add a shadow to a non-kit item, or to replace the shadow in a kit item to make it work with your layout. Perhaps because you have rotated the element, or want to layer it with others. I’ll show you how to remove a drop shadow from a flattened element, in case you need to do this at some point.
First I select the element, by holding down the CTRL key and clicking the icon of the layer on which it sits. Then I invert the selection (Shift + CTRL + i, or Select Menu, Inverse). Then press delete or backspace three or four times to remove everything except the actual element. The shadow is gone. I have added a white stroke outline in the next image so you can see there is no shadow left. This is a good technique to check for shadows and stray pixels whenever you change an element, just remember to delete or turn off the stroke before you save the new element!
OK, so now we have an element that is ready to have a new drop shadow added to. I want to make this item look as if it is attached to the page with a sticky dot, which would lift it off the paper by a few millimetres. First I’ll duplicate the element layer, and use Hue/Saturation to reduce the Lightness to 0, making it completely black. Then I will use the Gaussian Blur filter (Filter – Blur – Gaussian Blur) to make the edges soft. I will choose a 6 pixel blur setting, as I want the edges to be very soft because the element is going to be ‘floating’ off the page thanks to the imaginary glue dot. I’ll then move the shadow layer to below the element.
Now for the magic part! First I will make sure the Selection tool (the arrow, top of the toolbar) is selected, and use my down and right arrows keys on the keyboard to move the shadow down and to the right a few pixels. Each press on an arrow key moves the shadow in that direction by one pixel. If you wanted to have the shadow suggest a light source other than the default ‘top left’ or 120 degree setting, just press the arrow keys that move the shadow away from the light source direction.
Once my shadow is in roughly the right place, I will press CTRL+T to create a transform outline, and then right click and select Warp.
Now I can bend the shadow by clicking and dragging the handles of the transform outline, or any of the horizontal and vertical lines. I’ll play around with that until I have an effect I like. When I’m finished I’ll click the check mark in the top menu bar to accept the warp.
Looks harsh doesn’t it? That’s because the shadow is too dark to be thrown by something so far off the paper. So I’m going to reduce the opacity of the shadow layer in the layers palette, concentrating on getting the darkness right at the places that should be darkest, which will be about 70% opacity.
That’s better, but the shadow is still too dark near the edges of the petals. I’m going to correct that using the eraser, choosing a large (size 300), very soft (0 hardness) brush, and an opacity of 25%. I’ll gradually erase part of the outer extremities of the shadow to lift the petals off the page.
Nearly there! Now I just want to make some final adjustments to create a more natural look. I’ll use the smudge tool (tools palette) with settings of Size 300, Mode Normal and Strength 80% to drag the shadow about a bit. It softens the lines and makes it less uniform. And we’re done!
In the final tutorial of this series, I’ll show you how to put this technique into practice on a photograph, with another way to create a custom drop shadow.
Supplies: Sisterology Page Kit by Ruby Rynne
© 2009 Ruby Rynne