Creating Realistic Shadows in Photoshop

Contact Shadows:

  • Set your object on top of the ground Layer
  • Select the Ground Layer
    Grab the Paint Brush, set it to about 25% Hardness & 35% Opacity (adjust as needed for object)
  • Paint on the Ground layer, under the Object layer, so the edges of the brush are all that appear under the object Layer
  • Continue painting beneath all edges of the object, tracing inside the object layer as you go, until it looks good and even
  • You can paint on a new transparent level between the ground and object layers, and link it to the object layer, for a non-destructive method with better portability
  • Move on to Soft Shadow

Soft Shadows:

  • These lack specific form, but add a great deal of realism
  • Set another Brush to about 20% or less, and paint on the ground layer, or a transparent layer between the ground and object layers, beginning at the Contact shadow and moving out, fading the effect the further away you get from the subject
  • Add a little Gaussian Blur to fade the edges out even more naturally
  • Use the Burn tool and / or a Gradient Clipping Mask to further enhance your effect
  • Move on to Cast Shadows for the Most Realist shadows of all

Cast Shadows:

  • Click a Layer’s Icon
  • Check & Select “Drop Shadow”
  • Set Opacity to 100%
  • Modify “Size” to add Gaussian-style blur
  • Click ok & Close
  • Right-Click the Drop Shadow under the Layer and select “Create Layer”
    • This can be done with all Fx
  • Select your new Drop Shadow Layer
  • Hit CTRL+T to enter Transform mode
  • Right-Click and select “Flip Vertically”if the shadow comes to the front, if it goes off to the side and lays on a a wall, you dont need to need to flip, and if it lays out on the ground to the side, you may want to try to flip horizontally & Vertically, depending on your light and image..
  • Hold Ctrl to Distort, and drag on the corners of the Transform box until it appears to be laying flat on the ground, in the direction away from the sun – use Ctrl+Shift to
  • Skew, and Ctrl+Alt to expand both sides at the same time, and hold Shift to Scale
  • Line up the bottom of the drop shadow in line with the Contact Shadows, and on the same layer as all other shadows
  • Reduce opacity until it looks good
  • Drag it around and repeat Ctrl+T as needed until it looks natural
  • To cast it on an uneven surface, lay it down so its flat on the bottom-most surface first, then enter
  • Warp and adjust it so it goes around other objects
  • For hard square surfaces like stairs or boxes:
    • Duplicate your drop shadow layer
    • Apply the distort to an entire shadow down to the level of the bottom surface
    • Use the Polygon lasso to select along the back of the flat part of the bottom stair
    • Cut the shadow at that point, and keep the shadow plane the same, just drag it up to the next stair, line it up with the front of the second stair, and use the polygon lasso to draw along the back of the same stair, then move the rest of the shadow to the next stair up, and repeat until you reach the top level, or as high as you want it, deleting an equal space between each segment to be filled in with the vertical shadow
    • Grab your duplicate shadow and distort it so it lays as it would on a flat wall parallel to the object, and at a 90 degree angle to your last object
    • Repeat as above, only keep this shadow on the vertical front-facing wall between each step, cut & paste until you have done as far as you need to, leaving the opposite segment omitted from the shadow / the section you placed on the horizontal plane
  • Fade your Shadows with a Clipping mask and Gradient Black to Transparent for some final touches

Vary the detail of your Cast Shadow depending on the hardness of light in your image

Use Cast Shadow over a light Soft Shadow for a soft light shadowing effect in a multiple light source environment

Use Contact Shadows whenever possible to set the foundation for all your shadows and establish their presence & foundation location

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