Articles, General, Tips, Tutorials

Better Drop Shadows in Photoshop

December 4, 2009 • By

Most real sheets of paper and card are not completely flat, but a standard Photoshop drop shadow can make an object look like its floating in mid air a lot of the time. However, a slightly curved or rolled page, a folded corner or a small crease is enough to go from looking too ‘Photoshop’ to looking quite natural. Using Photoshops ‘Selection’ tools you can crop your basic drop-shadows to make them appear much more realistic and more 3 dimensional.

1: Define Your Page Element

> Open a new Photoshop file to page requirements (72 dpi for web, 33dpi for print)
> Create a new layer and name it ‘Page’ (or a name of your choosing)
> Using the rectactangle selction tool – draw the page you want to apply the effect to


2: Apply a Drop Shadow to the Page

> Layers (from the main menu) > Layer Style > Drop Shadow


The settings used for this tutorial are; Distance=”4px”, Spread=”0px”, Size=”16px”. You can adjust these drop shadow settings to be appropriate with the particular type of image you want to emphasise; a poster, a postcard, an old sheet of paper etc.

shadow settings

Basically you need to imagine the natural 3D quality of the physical object and recreate it. A new sheet of paper would have very little 3D quality when layed flat so you wouldn’t need more than 16px in size, but an old photo may have heavily curved corners for example – in which case you would increase the size of the shadow. Here we are aiming for something in between.

The more you increase the distance of your shadow – the more you can control the direction of light to your page.


3: Flatten and Rasterize the Page Layer

> Right-click and convert your rectangle into a ‘Smart Object’
> Right-click again and ‘Rasterize’ your new Smart Object



4: Start Cropping the Shadow

> Take the Spherical Select tool from your tools panel and draw yourself an extreme oval
> Place the bottom edge of this oval at the top edge of your page
> Hit the Delete/Backspace button to crop your 1st curve into the drop shadow


What you may find is that for darker or larger shadows – the crop looks to clinical and precise to be natural. The cure for this is to add a Feather effect to the Spherical Select Tool before you carry out the crop. The Feather setting is found at the top of your workspace window, below the main menu. The darker and more dramatic the shadow – the more you will need to increase this value.


Once you have cropped the top of the shadow do the same with the bottom. The distance that you applied to the shadow in the settings box will actually do most of the work for you in terms of simulating natural light direction.


Once both the top and bottom edges are cropped we have a more natural looking drop shadow than is possible with the standard Photoshop effect. The image now looks 3 dimentional without appearing to hover in mid-air. See below …


You may want to add some more depth to the image. To do this, apply the same cropping technique to both the left and right sides of the page as well.


Now you have the a more natural effect to plant your nice image or content on to. Here I have used a photo I took in Barcelona.


Now the finished image has a natural quality all of it’s own and now sits ON the page rather than hovering above it.!


*This is a taster of things to come. Help us to deliver the things you want to see by leaving constructive feedback and requests for future Photoshop tips!!

By Lee Mason, a freelance graphic / web designer based in Norwich.