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How to Use Drop Shadows in Photoshop

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Photoshop layer styles are a popular way to add effects, such as drop shadows and strokes, to layers in a non-destructive way. With the right knowledge and experience, any effect can be achieved. To achieve these effects, however, you need to understand what each setting does and how they can be combined to achieve a certain look. In this series by John Shaver from Design Panoply, we will explain every aspect of Photoshop's layer styles feature and show you how to unlock their potential. In this article, Part 2: How to Use Drop Shadows in Photoshop we will explain the Drop Shadow settings, what they each do, and how we can use them to create different effects. Let's take a look!


What Are Drop Shadows Used For?

The traditional use for a drop shadow is to simulate 3D depth in a 2D image. This is done by creating an offset shadow behind an object to indicate that the object is hovering above the background in 3D space.

Below you will see an example of how a drop shadow can indicate how big the light source is and where it is coming from, as well as how far away an object is from the background. By changing only the settings of the shadow, you can dramatically change the look of an image.

drop shadows in photoshop

The Layer Styles Drop Shadow Dialog Box

The Drop Shadow Dialog Box is a good place to start for beginners because the settings are pretty basic and will give you an overall feel of how to use the rest of the effects as well. A subtle drop shadow is also one of the best effects to give your design a little pick-me-up.

drop shadows in photoshop

Blend Mode

The Blend Mode allows you to set the blending mode for your shadow. Typically you will want this to be Multiply or Linear Burn, so that your shadow darkens the layer that is behind it.

If you are unfamiliar with how all the different Blending Modes work, I highly recommend checking out the Blending Is Fun Basix tutorial.

This is also where you set the color of your shadow by clicking the color block next to the Blend Mode dropdown menu. By default, the shadow color will be black, but you can add a tint of color or even try something outrageous to get special effects.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, you can see that the color of the shadow on the left is black, while the color of the shadow on the right is a dark maroon color. This creates the result you see below. One simple change can make a totally different looking style.

drop shadows in photoshop

Opacity

The Opacity slider allows you to specify how transparent your shadow will be. A setting of 0% is completely see through while 100% is completely opaque.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, you can see that simply by changing the opacity from 25% to 60%, the shadow becomes much more prominent.

drop shadows in photoshop

Angle

The Angle spinner and corresponding box allow you to change the apparent angle that the light source comes from. By turning the "Use Global Light" checkbox on, any changes you make to the angle of the drop shadow will also change the angle of the light sources used in other effects like Bevel and Emboss, Inner Shadow, etc. By leaving it unchecked, you can change the light angle for the drop shadow independently of other effects.

The recommended setting is "checked" for most cases, because we want to have a uniform light source for the most cohesive looking effect.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, changing the angle of the light source changes the way in which the shadow falls, and since "Use Global Light" is checked, it also changed the light angle for the Bevel and Emboss effect as well.

drop shadows in photoshop

Distance

The Distance slider changes the apparent distance between the subject and the background. The effect is achieved by altering the distance between the subject and the drop shadow itself.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, increasing the distance gives the effect that the text on the left is hovering just above the background while the text on the right is farther away.

drop shadows in photoshop

Spread

The Spread slider changes the falloff of the shadow in a linear fashion, or in other words, how gradually it fades out at the edges.

For a typical drop shadow, you will normally want to leave this at 0%, but for harder shadows you should increase it, and for shadows with hard edges or even extra strokes you can set it all the way to 100%.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, increasing the spread percentage changes the falloff of the shadow so that it stays darker longer as it fades out at the edge.

drop shadows in photoshop

Size

The Size slider changes the apparent size of the shadow. When it is set to 0, the shadow is exactly the same size as the shape of the object. As you increase the size, the shadow grows in 1 pixel increments.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, increasing the size of the shadow gives us flexibility over controlling not only the overall size of the shadow, but the softness of it as well.

drop shadows in photoshop

Contour

The Contour shapes allow you to change the falloff of the shadow in a non linear fashion. By choosing different curve profiles, you can get the shadow to fade out in different ways.

The only time this is really useful is when you are trying to achieve special glow or abstract effects.

In addition, the "Anti-aliased" checkbox allows you to improve the quality of the shadow falloff with a very slight drop in performance. The performance decrease is negligible, so we recommend always keeping the box checked.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, changing the Contour shape to an inverted "U" results in an odd looking "halo" shadow effect.

drop shadows in photoshop

Noise

The Noise slider is a useful tool to give your shadow a gritty feel. If you are creating a style that is going to resemble dirt or concrete, adding some noise can help the overall effect. For a totally smooth shadow, leave it at 0%.

drop shadows in photoshop

In the following example, setting the noise to only 15% gives us a pretty substantial amount of grit in the shadow. A good range to use is 0%-25%, as going higher than 25% can often result in a very unnatural look.

drop shadows in photoshop

Knock It Out

What in the world does "Layer Knocks Out Drop Shadow" mean? It is simple once you understand the concept, but can be tricky for beginners because it only applies in certain situations. Luckily, this setting is almost always better left checked.

drop shadows in photoshop

When you create a new layer and apply a drop shadow to it, you are looking at two things, the layer contents, and the layer style. If you recall from Part 1 of our guide, you can hide the layer contents while still showing the layer style by setting the "Fill" in the Layers Palette to 0% for a given layer.

In the following example, both sets of text have their "Fill" set to 0%, but the one on the left has the "Layer Knocks Out Drop Shadow" checkbox checked, while the one on the right does not. The result is that the text on the left creates a type of transparency mask (or "knocks out" the drop shadow), which does not allow the drop shadow to show through. Alternatively, the text on the right does not "knock out" the drop shadow, allowing it to show through.

drop shadows in photoshop

Saving and Loading Default Settings

You can save and load default settings for each effect in the Layer Styles dialog box. By clicking "Make Default", Photoshop will store whatever settings are currently active as the new default settings for that effect.

By clicking "Reset to Default", Photoshop will then load whatever settings were last saved. This allows you to experiment and simply reload custom default settings if you want to start over.

drop shadows in photoshop

One for the Road

Until next time, this free, exclusive layer style and accompanying .PSD will allow you to experiment with your own Drop Shadow settings.

drop shadows in photoshop

Download This Style

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