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How To Make Realistic Shadows in Photoshop [Trick You Probably Don’t Know]


In this tutorial, you will learn to make realistic shadows in Photoshop.

Getting shadows right is vital in compositing!

When you get shadows right, your whole composite looks more cohesive, and your subject fits better within the scene.

The tricky part about making a realistic shadow in Photoshop is getting the right shape and perspective of the shadows so that it matches your scene.

Most of the techniques that I’ve seen for creating shadows in Photoshop involve layer transformation.

In other words, you’re distorting pixels to get the right shape and the proper perspective. Distorting layers could be a difficult task, especially with complex objects and awkward angles.

The goal of this tutorial is to teach you how to create realistic shadows while keeping the right shape and the proper perspective.

This tutorial will use advanced techniques using Photoshop 3D. But don’t let that scare you. I’m going to divide up this tutorial into small digestible chunks so that you can follow along, even if you are new to Photoshop or 3D.

I’ll be using Photoshop CC 2018 for this tutorial, but every step is fully compatible with Photoshop CS6 Extended.

Steps to Make Realistic Shadows in Photoshop:

  1. Duplicate The Main Subject of Your Composite
  2. Convert the Duplicate Layer into a 3D Extrusion
  3. Match the 3D Scenes Perspective To The Background’s Perspective
  4. Adjust The Extrusion Depth
  5. Match The 3D Model to The Pixel Layer
  6. Adjust the Infinite Light
  7. Adjust the Shadow’s Softness
  8. Render The Shadow
  9. Rasterize Your 3D Layer
  10. Reposition the Shadow to Match Your Scene
  11. Mask The Shadow
  12. Paint The Shadow Back In

Make Realistic Shadows with Photoshop’s 3D Features

To follow along, you can open any composite in Photoshop. The images themselves are not essential to the tutorial.

I will use a composite of a horse on a street.

Starting Image

Step 01 – Duplicate The Main Subject of Your Composite

Start by duplicating your subject. In my example, I am using a horse, so I will duplicate that layer.

You can duplicate a layer by pressing Ctrl J (Mac: Command J).

Duplicate Layer

Step 02 – Convert the Duplicate Layer into a 3D Extrusion

Then we will use 3D features to make realistic shadows in Photoshop.

Start by converting this duplicate layer into a 3D Object by going into 3D > New 3D Extrusion from Selected Layer.

New Extrusion from Selected Layer

Note: If your 3D menu is grayed out, it is probably because your computer does not meet the minimum system requirement for Photoshop 3D.

In Photoshop, 3D objects are created by extruding a 2D shape into the Z axis. Much like pushing Play-doh through a dough cutter.

Extrude Example

In this case, we extruded the shape of the horse.

3D Object

The Ground Plane and Its Importance for Making Realistic Shadows in Photoshop

The Ground Plane is the grid that you see below the 3D object, and it catches the shadows of the scene.

To make realistic shadows in Photoshop it is important to match the 3D model’s ground plane, to the ground in the photo.

If you want to learn more about 3D, then check out all my Photoshop 3D Tutorials!

Step 03 – Match the 3D Scenes Perspective To The Background’s Perspective

When you composite images together, you have to make sure that their perspective matches if you want realistic results.

The best way of matching perspectives is to match the horizon lines of both the background and your foreground element.

As you saw in my Perspective Compositing Tutorial, you can find the horizon line of a photo by following all the parallel converging lines to see where they meet. The meeting point is known as the vanishing point which lays on the horizon line.

Horizon Line - Background

If you match the 3D scene’s horizon line with the photo’s horizon line, then you should have a composite that matches in perspective.

The horizon line in the 3D scene is shown as a gray line going across the canvas.

Horizon Line on 3D Scene

On the bottom left, you will see three icons that control the camera.

When you click-and-drag on the far-left icon, the Orbit 3D Camera icon, you can orbit around the 3D layer.

Orbit Tool

Rotate your 3D scene until it matches your background’s horizon line.

You don’t have to get it 100%. As long as they are near each other this technique should work.

Step 04 – Adjust The Extrusion Depth

The default extrusion depth of your 3D model may be too thick. Reduce it if you need to.

From the Properties Panel, adjust the Extrusion Depth slider accordingly.

Extrusion Depth

Step 05 – Match The 3D Model to The Pixel Layer

Once the perspective matches the scene, reposition the 3D model so that it matches the pixel layer.

Click on the 3D object, and use the Move handles to move the 3D model.

Move 3D Object

The only areas that are important are where the shadow touches your main subject in the ground plane.

Step 06 – Adjust the Infinite Light

This is where the magic happens!

In Photoshop 3D, you can control where the light is coming from, and the shadows on the ground plane will react to any changes made to the light.

From the 3D Panel, click on Infinite Light.

Infinite Light

Use the overlay to adjust the direction of the light source. As you click-and-drag on the overlay you will see the shadow move.

Try to match the shadows already found on your photo to get more realistic results.

In my example, I AM NOT MATCHING THE LIGHTING OF THE SCENE ON PURPOSE. Because I want to make the shadow noticeable for the tutorial and to give you a better representation of how this technique works.

Step 07 – Adjust the Shadow’s Softness

If you want to adjust the softens (sharpness) of your shadow adjust the Softness slider in the Properties Panel.

Soft Shadows

Step 08 – Render The Shadow

When you work with 3D, you need to render your scene to calculate the shape, perspective and look of the shadow.

The noisy low-quality shadow that you see on screen is merely a representation of the outcome, and not the final image itself.

To render your shadow, and see the final image, use the Marquee Tool to select your shadow.

Select Shadows

Then click on the Render button in the Properties Panel.

Rendering a 3D scene may take some time. The duration depends on the complexity of the scene and the speed of your computer.

Note: You can stop or cancel the render by pressing the Esc key on the keyboard.

Step 09 – Rasterize Your 3D Layer

Once your shadow finishes rendering, you can rasterize it (convert it into a normal pixel layer).

Right-click on the layer and select Rasterize 3D.

Step 10 – Reposition the Shadow to Match Your Scene

From the Layers Panel, move the shadow layer below the horse layer and rename the layer “Shadow.”

Move Horse Layer Back

If you need to reposition the shadow so that it fits the composite better, Press V on the keyboard to select the Move Tool. Then click-and-drag the shadow and place it accordingly.

Step 11 – Mask The Shadow

Once your shadow is in position, hold Alt (Mac: Option) and click on the Layer Mask icon to create a mask that is completely black instead of white.

Inverted Layer Mask

A black Layer Mask hides every pixel in this layer.

Step 12 – Paint The Shadow Back In

The select the Brush Tool, and paint with white on the Layer Mask to reveal the shadow.

Paint Mask

Rendering Shadows Without 3D Objects in Photoshop

If you prefer, you could instead render the 3D shadow without the 3D Object.

To do so, click on the “Invisible” checkbox in the Properties Panel. This option hides the 3D object, but the shadow remains on the Ground Plane.

Invisible 3D Object

“Could Not Complete the New 3D Extrusion” Warning

If you get this notice:

“Could not complete the New 3D Extrusion from Selected Layer command because the path is too complex.”

It might because you have a mask that has too many semi-transparent pixels (not completely visible or completely hidden).

Photoshop CS6 is a little less forgiving than Photoshop CC. I tried the same shape on both versions and CC can convert more complex shapes.

No matter what version of Photoshop you are working in, if you get this warning, you should create a mask with straight sharp edges that represent the main shape of your object. Don’t worry about small details like flyaway hairs.

You could also try making a Vector Mask instead, and use the Pen Tool to create a simple shape.

Your Turn!

And there you have it! That’s how you can make realistic shadows in Photoshop!

Give it a try! If you create something using this tutorial you can share your results on Instagram with the hashtag #ptcvids!

Check out our Photoshop Techniques section for more tutorials like this!

Final Image

Drag The Slider To See Before & After

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amol

nice

Michael Ro

It’s great! Thanks! But do you know how to render only shadow, without object? I mean could we toggle visibility of object, when we render only shadow and at the same time object is invisible?

Michael Ro

I am using 3D layer from file. It is not an extrusion layer. Actually when I render nothing happens – obeject is visible after render 🙁

Michael Ro

I am sorry. I figured it out, but it render with silhouette of object. So accordingly object is still visible 🙂

Michael Ro

Everything is okay! Thank you very much 🙂