How to Create a Shadow in Photoshop

You can’t make good composites without learning how to create realistic shadows because elements that you add will look like they are floating in midair without a shadow to anchor them. And poorly done shadows will make the element still looks completely out of place. 

That’s not what you want right? So it’s important to learn how to create a shadow in Photoshop. 

Hello! I’m Cara and, while I admit that learning to composite is quite the beast, it is also very doable. Just take things one step at a time. 

Today, let’s learn how to create a shadow in Photoshop!

There are various methods for creating shadows in Photoshop. If you’ve worked with Photoshop a lot, you’ve probably used the drop shadow layer style. This method is great when you want a quick shadow for a simple object, but quickly becomes ineffective with more complex shapes. 

You can also create a copy of the object and fill the layer with a solid shadow color. You’ll see a lot of tutorials based on this method. It works, but only with a bit of finicking around to get the shadow just right. 

For this method, we’ll start with a gradient effect layer to cut down a little on the finicking around. Let me show you how it works!

Step 1: Create a Gradient Effects Layer

Remember how I mentioned that you need shadows to create realistic composites? You can see how our shadowless flower looks like it is floating above the sand.  

With the flower layer selected, click on the fx button at the bottom of the Layers panel. Ignore the Drop Shadow option and go for Gradient Overlay.

Step 2: Pick the Gradient Colors

The Layer Styles panel will open and automatically jump to the settings for the Gradient Overlay. We want to create a gradient going from dark gray to light gray. Click in the colored Gradient box to choose colors. 

In the Basics Presets folder at the top of the Gradient Editor, you can choose the black to white gradient as a starting point. 

Now we need to choose our shadow colors. Contrary to what you may have heard, black is not a good shadow color as shadows are not actually black. They will always have something of a color cast depending on the image you’re working with. 

If your image already has shadows, I would suggest color matching your gradient to the existing shadows. I don’t really have any shadows to color match in this image so I’m going to color match to the sand, then choose a dark and a light gray with the same brown undertones. 

Pick one side of the gradient by clicking on the little square on the bottom left side of your gradient preview. Then click on the color box at the bottom of the dialog box. The color picker will open and you can choose your color. 

Then do the same thing with the other side of the gradient and choose a lighter shade of gray.

Click OK on all the windows to close out everything. 

Step 3: Turn the Gradient Effect into a Layer

At this point, the gradient is still appearing as an effect on top of our flower layer. We want to turn the gradient effect into its own new layer. 

Right-click on the word effects that are snuggled under your flower layer and choose Create Layer.

It will pull the effect out as its own layer and automatically clip it to the flower layer. 

But the clipped method doesn’t work for us. We want the gradient to be independent of the flower layer, yet retain the flower shape. So we need to create a selection and mask off the unneeded parts of the gradient. 

Hold Ctrl or Command and click on the flower layer’s thumbnail to make a selection. 

Highlight the gradient layer and click the mask button at the bottom of the layer’s panel.

Right-click on the mask and choose Apply Layer Mask to merge the mask onto the gradient layer.

You’ll end up with this.

Step 4: Put the Shadow Behind the Object 

Remember that the top layer shows first. To put the shadow under the flower where it belongs, click on the gradient and drag it down until the blue line appears under the flower layer and release.

Step 5: Transform the Shadow

Now we need to put the shadow down where it belongs. Press Ctrl + T or Command + T to activate the transform tool. Click and drag the reference point in the center of the selection to the point where the flower stem meets the ground. 

If your reference point is missing, check this box up in the toolbar.

Click and rotate the image to lay the shadow on the ground.

Step 6: Warp the Shadow

Transform keeps things too uniform, as you can see. Now we need to warp the shadow. 

Go to Edit, and hover over Transform to see your warping options.

The Perspective option allows us to elongate the flower (or shorten it, depending on the perspective needed for your light source). 

Warp lets us flatten down that backside a bit to account for the direction of the light.

Feel free to play around with the other options as needed to get your shadow where you need it. 

Step 7: Blur It!

Shadows are not tack sharp like we’re seeing here. If you want to add more realism, we need to blur the edges. 

We could do this by adding a Gaussian blur filter, but that will uniformly blur the entire shadow. We need something that allows us to blur it more as it gets farther away. 

Go to Filter, Blur, and choose Field Blur. 

The field blur allows you to drop pins at various points throughout your selection. Then you can spin the dial and choose your blur level. 

Wow, we are almost there!

Step 8: Adjust the Opacity

Now let’s adjust the strength of the shadow. This will depend on the lighting in your image. Since we’ve got a beach image here, the light is fairly strong. I think I’m going to dial it back a tiny bit though. 

Do this easily by adjusting the opacity of the layer. 

Look at that! So much better than the floating flower at the beginning!

There are a lot of steps in this tutorial, but don’t worry. You’ll find that once you add a shadow a few times, you’ll get the hang of it and it goes pretty quick. 

Excited to learn more about creating realistic images? Check out how to add fog in Photoshop!

About Cara Koch
Cara fell in love with photography circa 2014 and has been exploring all corners of the imagery world ever since. When she felt limited by Lightroom, she dove headfirst into Photoshop to learn how to create the images she wanted.

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