Design & UX
By Jennifer Farley

Create A Better, More Realistic Drop Shadow In Photoshop

By Jennifer Farley

You can add a simple drop shadow to any object on its own layer in Photoshop by clicking on the “Add a layer style” button at the bottom of the palette and choose Drop Shadow from the drop down menu. This opens up the Layer Style dialog box and you can choose your drop shadow settings from there. Simple. The drop shadow adds a little extra dimension to objects but it doesn’t always look particularly realistic. Most objects such as paper or photographs do not always lie completely flat so let’s take a look at how you can create a more realistic drop shadow with of a hint of a curl.

  1. Open up a photograph that you want to apply the effect to.image
  2. Create a new document which is larger in width and height than your photograph.
  3. Now draw a shape like the one below which will eventually become the shadow under the photograph. You get the best results using the Pen Tool here, but you can also make the shape using a Brush if you don’t feel happy using the Pen. The shape should be slightly bigger than your photograph.image
  4. Blur the edge of the shape by using Filter > Blur >Gaussian Blur. I used a radius setting of 4 so that you get something that looks like this.image
  5. Drag your photograph over the curl drop shadow. They should be on separate layers, with the photograph on the layer above the drop shadow.image
  6. Once the photograph is placed over the drop shadow, select the drop shadow layer and Press Ctrl + T (windows) or Cmd + T (Mac) to Free Transform. You may need to scale the curl drop shadow up or down or even skew it, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Hit Enter/Return to commit the transformation.
  7. At this stage the shadow is too dark. Make sure the Shadow layer is selected and the reduce the opacity to about 40% to make it less obtrusive. If the shadow looks too big, or the picture looks like it is floating too far above the shadow, just drag the shadow so it is sitting mostly hidden under the photograph.image
  8. Once you’ve made your drop shadow you can create different effects by transforming it. For example you can give the impression of lifting up three corners of the photo by offsetting the drop shadow horizontally and enlarging it vertically.image
  9. You can also give the impression of lifting the photo higher off the “page” or surface by showing a larger but softer shadow. Or you can make it look like the top of the photo is lifting by shortening the shadow vertically.image
  10. Finally, tilt the photograph and shadow together for a more natural look. Select both layers in the layers palette, then press Ctrl + T or Cmd + T to free transform. Then bring your mouse close to one of the corner so that it turns into a double curved arrow and drag around one corner. Press Return/Enter to commit the transformation.image

    Ta da! So it does involve a little more work than a simple layer style but you can certainly achieve some nice effects by playing around with it.

  • Mr. O

    Sorry, you seriously call it “realistic” shadow?

  • Mr. O I actually called it a “more realistic” shadow, because it is more realistic than the default layer style.

  • Sergiu Naslau

    To much work!A more effective way, for creating a more realistic shadow, use the blending options drop shadow (the default). after the effect is set , click ok, and just right click on the shadow effect and select…CREATE LAYER (click ok on the popping window) and VOILA! you can manipulate the shadow how you like, because it has its on layer, and the shadow is the exact size and shape of the object in front.

  • I disagree :/ I don’t think it looks too good at all – the shadow is curved but the subject / photo isn’t? Just makes it look odd.

  • the shadow is curved but the subject / photo isn’t

    It could be on a curved background?!

  • Marcus Carab

    It’s a nice idea but I think it’s a little bit exaggerated here. The top left corner is so distorted that it seems like the photo should be visibly distorted too – the angled example is the best overall effect I think, but it still needs some tweaking.

  • Chris Myers

    Just looks hardcore weird – usually the tuts on here are really good – but this is just really bad

  • Bjarni

    I have used a similar technique for creating a background image/shadow applied with CSS to photos for a website, it does add a touch of depth to the page/photo, and yes each shadow needs to be tweaked.

    Shadow Example Here

    Thanks Jennifer you have given a good building block to develop shadows.

    By doing it this way you could really modify your shadows and give them greater depth and realistic appearance over the layer style drop shadow, its just depends how much time and study of the shadow you wish to apply.

  • I don’t see this as a “more realistic” drop shadow at all… I couldn’t think of ANY situation I would use this..

    This post gets a 1 out of 10… because it is kinda useless..

  • Thanks for the comments guys. OK I accept this may not be the greatest ever result but with a bit of tweaking I think it can be effective.

    Thanks Sergiu for the layer tip.

  • Gabriel

    The tutorial is fine, it shows you a step-by-step method of how to do drop shadows before they became part of Blending Options. This is how I still do it when the automated results are less than satisfactory.

    As for those of you complaining that the shadow is too curved… give me a break! Adapt the instructions to give you the look you want! How hard is that, kids?

  • roddog

    Great job Jennifer!

    I have used this technique in various ways and I like it. It looks like you are much too creative for the complaining “Creatives” here. With the exception of Bjarni (nice work there Bjarni!), I see lots of complaints and not one of these so called creatives offers an example of their “more realistic” drop shadows.

    Don’t sweat the complainers Jennifer, they are just too “creative” to grasp the fact that you have provided a technique that should be adapted by the user and that you don’t have infinite time to hold their hand and teach them how to think and apply.

    Sergiu – your method is too much work! By the time one screws around transforming the square shadow the layer style creates they could have done this technique ten times. The pen tool is MUCH more effective at creating the basic shape desired than screwing around with all the transformation you would have to do to get a result like Jennifer has created.

    • Thanks for your positive comments guys, much appreciated. I’m happy to admit that this may not look like the perfect shadow, but it’s the step that I believe are important. From my experience instructing, the people who learn most are the ones who are willing to spend time playing around and experimenting with what they’ve been shown.

  • Steve

    Really good, really simple, creative and fresh :) thanks for sharing

  • moretea

    I kinda like the end result! Plus, this shows some technical details about the inner workings of PS that we n00bs can use.

  • plexasys

    The tutorial is fine, it shows you a step-by-step method of how to do drop shadows before they became part of Blending Options

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