Photoshop Tutorial: Adding a Shadow

Why would we want to add a shadow to an image? Maybe you’re adding elements to a photo to create a digital collage, trying to add some more depth and contrast to a scene, or want to play around with your readers or viewers. Or – here’s a situation I run into frequently – you need to create a product lineup gallery with lightbox-style images, but don’t have the studio or funding available to shoot them directly. In this tutorial, I’ll be using Photoshop to isolate these jars and give them their own studio shoot – all have none available

We’ll start an image that I want to simplify. The client wants to use this image to represent a single product on their website, so we need to remove one jar from this lineup and use it to create a single product shot. Our final product is shown on the right – it’s vivid and outstanding, but the jar is still anchored to its background, giving it a sense of depth and connection.

Initial image to edit down
The original image, as shot in-camera.
Final edited image with new shadow
The final, isolated image, with a shadow to give it depth and weight.

1: Identify the Light

Before we start, it’s a good idea to take a look at our starting image and get a general idea of where we’ll want to add the shadow.

Starting image, editing to demonstrate lighting direction
The red highlights and blue shadows help us find the light source. Arrows approximate light rays’ direction from light to dark.

Even if it’s not perfectly clear where we’ll be adding our shadow yet, see if you can figure out where the light is coming from in the starting image. In this image, it’s not too hard – we can see a light glare on the light-facing sides of the jars, and a darkening on the shaded side.In the example photo, I’ve highlighted these areas with red and blue, respectively, and drawn an arrow that approximates the direction of the light.

Most humans are naturally good at finding the source of the light, and more importantly, noticing differences in apparent light sources throughout a photo, so we’ll want to ensure that we spend some time placing our shadow in the correct place.

Now that we’ve identified the approximate location of our shadow, it’s time to get to work.

2: Isolate The Object

We’ll start by isolating one of the jars using the Layer Mask tool. If you need a refresher on masking in Photoshop, check here for a quick tutorial on how to create a layer mask.

Product image masked in Photoshop using the layer mask tool.
Masked, isolated, and adjusted jar.

Now that we’ve isolated our one jar from the lineup, it’s time to get to the real work. Our next step will be to create a new background layer for our object, and filling it with a light, neutral tone to give our shadow something to stand out against.

Isolated product image with a new background layer added.
The isolated product image, with a new background layer added.

3: Add the Shadow

We’ve now got a jar that stands out from its background, but we want to add a touch of realism with the addition of a shadow. To get started, select the layer containing our product, then navigate to the Drop Shadow menu found in Layer > Layer Style > Drop Shadow

Navigating to the Drop Shadow menu item. Layer > Layer Style > Drop Shadow...
Navigating to the Drop Shadow menu item. Layer > Layer Style > Drop Shadow…

In the Layer Style window that opens, you’ll see a number of options for editing your new drop shadow. Not all of them will be required for this project, so we’ll keep our explanation concise and relevant to this particular project.

Photoshop's Layer Style window, with its default settings.
The new Layer Style window, with its default settings.
Photoshop's Layer Style window, with Blend Mode now set to Linear Burn.
Changing the Blend Mode to Linear Burn may improve the shadow’s color..
The default Photoshop drop shadow, with Blend Mode set on the default Multiply.
The default drop shadow, with Blend Mode set to Multiply.
The effect of the new Linear Burn Blend Mode on our shadow.
The drop shadow sporting its new Blend Mode: Linear Burn .

We’ll start in the Structure box, and begin by defining the shadow’s Blend Mode and Color. The default Blend Mode is Multiply, which works well for most situations. Another good option is the Linear Burn option, which provides us with a slightly more saturated shadow that takes on the color of our background layer and adds a better sense of connection and dimension to the finished product. The shadow’s Color can be left as black – if we are using the Linear Burn Blend Mode, the shadow will automatically take on some of the color of our background layer.

And Presto – we’ve got it, the beginnings of our masterpiece. Read on to learn how to take it from a cookie-cutter drop shadow to a work of art

4: Fine-tune The Shadow

Next, we’ll want to define the Opacity of our shadow – how dark or light it will appear against the background. 75% is a good starting point, and we can tailor your choice from there depending on how bright or diffused the lighting in your original photo is.

Now comes the fun part – adjusting the size and position of the shadow. Remember when we analyzed our photo for the lighting direction? We’ll now use that information to determine the placement of our new, computer generated shadow. Leaving “Use Global Light” checked, The Angle jog wheel or the text box can be used to determine the angle of the light, and the distance of the shadow from our object can be controlled using the Distance slider or data entry box. Another, more graphical way to change these values is to click and drag in the document while the Layer Style window is open – this allows you to see the changes you’re making in real-time, and can help with getting the perfect lineup with the existing light and shadow on your object. Here are some examples of what changes to the Angle and Distance values will do to our new shadow.

How to adjust the Angle (116°) and Distance (170 pixels) variables in  Layer Options.
Adjusting the Angle (116°) and Distance (170 pixels) variables in Layer Options.
How to adjust the Angle (40°) and Distance (97 pixels) variables in Layer Options.
Adjusting the Angle (40°) and Distance (97 pixels) variables in Layer Options.
How to adjust the Angle (-50°) and Distance (89 pixels) variables in Layer Options.
Adjusting the Angle (-50°) and Distance (89 pixels) variables in Layer Options.

One useful trick to line up the shadow with this method is to click on an area of highlight on your object, and then drag in the direction of the shadow to help line up and place the new shadow. Here’s our image looks after aligning the shadow graphically:

New shadow creation and placement in Photoshop
Our product image, with a rudimentary shadow placed using the click-and-drag method.

Not too bad – but we can really make this photo pop by adjusting some more variables in the Layer Options window. We have two more sliders in the Structure box, Spread and Size. We’ll leave Spread alone for this project, but we are interested in adjusting the size of our new shadow. The Size variable alters the softness of our shadow – at our current 0 pixel setting, our shadow has a hard, defined edge. Adjusting the slider to higher values will generate a softer edge, allowing the shadow to interact more with the background. Because our original photo has a fairly soft light, let’s adjust this value to reflect that – somewhere around 40 pixels looks good.

Photoshop's layer style window, where we have adjusted shadow size.
The Layer Style window, where we have adjusted the Size from 10 to 40 pixels.
Effects of adjusting the size value in Photoshop's layer options window.
The resulting image after adjusting the Size value.

In the Quality box, we have additional options to adjust our shadow using the Contours and Noise variables. We’ll leave the Noise variable alone for this project, but the Contour variable is worth experimenting with. The standard linear contour does a good job of approximating a genuine shadow, but depending on your lighting source (or stylistic choice), you may be interested in some of the other options. You can create a custom shadow contour by clicking the Contour box and then adjusting the resulting mapping curve to change the shadow’s profile.

Adjusting the contour mapping using the contour editor window in Photoshop
Mapping a custom Contour curve in the Contour Editor.
Product image demonstrating the effects of contour editing
Our product image demonstrating the effects of a new Contour curve.

And there you have it – our finished, isolated product, ready for the client’s website!

The finished image with a finalized shadow added in Photoshop, ready for uploading to the client's wesbite
The finished image, ready for uploading to the client’s website.
Reinberger Nut Butter Sensational Seeds website, showing the finished image in place on the client's website.
The final image in place on the client’s website

This tutorial was written as part of a job application, but may become a regular feature. All images used within were taken or generated by Luke Rein.

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