How To Make Realistic Shadows in Photoshop

By having realistic natural shadows in your composite, your subject will fit better within the scene make the entire image more cohesive.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn a super simple way to create highly-realistic shadows in Photoshop!

When it comes to creating natural-looking shadows, three of the most difficult things to get right are color, perspective, and shape.

Let PTC show you how to get all these right to create realistic shadows in Photoshop!

Tutorial Images

How Others Create a Shadow

Before showing the correct way to create realistic shadows, here’s how others would create their shadow:

Select the subject layer and hold Ctrl (Windows) or Command (macOS) as you click on the New Layer Mask icon to create one directly below it.

Rename the layer to “Shadow.”

With the Shadow layer selected, set the Foreground color to black(#000000) and press Alt Backspace (Windows) or Option Delete (macOS) to fill the selection with the color. 

Deselect the selection by pressing Ctrl D (Windows) or Command D (macOS).

Transform the shadow > right-click > Flip Vertical and bring it down to emulate the shadow’s position. 

The Problem with Common Techniques

Starting from the color itself, shadows aren’t solid black as there’s always a hint of color to it. Try using the Eyedropper tool and pick up the darkest shadow in the image, and you’ll see that hint of hue that shows it’s not pure black.

Two other issues are the alignment and the perspective of the shadow. The human shadow should start from the base or the foot, and in the image below, it skips that. 

Color the Shadow

To fill the current shadow with the correct color, pick up the darkest shadow in the image to set it as the Foreground color, press Alt Shift Backspace (Windows) or Option Shift Delete (macOS).

Change the Blending Mode to Multiply and reduce the Opacity so it blends perfectly on the ground’s texture and actual colors. 

Match Shadow Perspective

Select the Move tool and press Ctrl T (Windows) or Command T (macOS) to transform the layer.

Right-click > Perspective.

Click the lower handle and drag it away from the subject to resemble the scene’s perspective.

When you’re done, click on the checkmark to save the changes. 

Use Puppet Warp to Distort the Shadow

The shadow should be touching its primary source.

Choose Edit > Puppet Warp, this will put a mesh all over the layer and if you can always disable that on the Options bar. 

Click on areas of the body that you want to transform and areas that you want to anchor in place. An excellent guide to start with is to add these in the joints of the body. 

Add a pin to the foot’s shadow and drag it towards the actual foot.

In this example, the heels aren’t touching, and you can warp the shadow by holding Alt (Windows) or Option (macOS) to bring out the rotation tool. Then, rotate the foot’s shadow until it touches the heel.

Then, click on the checkmark to save the changes. 

Click here to learn how you can create beautiful customizable drop shadows!

Blur the Shadow

Shadows aren’t 100% sharp unless they are very close to their source. In this case, the shadow stretches across the ground, and it becomes blurry the further it expands. 

Choose Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and adjust the Radius value depending on the blurring needed by the composite. 

Add a Contact Shadow

Create another shadow below the current shadow and start by creating a new layer underneath the Shadow layer.

Use the same shadow color used earlier and set it as the Foreground color.

Select the Brush tool and with the Hardness set to 0 and start painting in the contact shadow—the part of the shadow that directly touches its source and the surface it lies on.

You can add Gaussian blur to the layer to create a smooth transition between the shadow and the contact shadow.

Use the Gradient Tool to Fade the Shadow

On the Toolbar, select the Gradient tool.

On the Options bar, set it to Black to White gradient and uncheck the box for Reverse.

Starting from the bottom of the canvas, hold the Shift key, then click-and-drag to create a straight line.

Upon release, it will reveal a fade applied onto the shadow.

You can also unlink the Layer Mask from the layer, and use the Move tool to click-and-drag on the mask and adjust the fade effect. 

Rather than just creating a solid black silhouette, that is how to make realistic shadows in Photoshop that can improve your total composite!

Another great way to improve your eye is to look at images and study the characteristics such as how the shadow behaves under different directions of light.

If you enjoyed this tutorial, make sure to follow PTC on YouTube! And if you create something using this tutorial, share it on social media with the hashtag #PTCvids for a chance to get featured!

Final Image

Drag The Slider To See Before & After

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