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Add realism to your shadows with a displacement map

Added on Saturday 26th of March 2005 11:59 pm EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


Photoshop, Image Editing, Shadows, Displace Filter, Displacement Map


Creating drop shadows that look like they belong in the image can be difficult. By combining a Drop Shadow effect with a displacement map, we’ll show you how to produce natural looking shadows that blend perfectly with your image.


To produce more realistic shadow effects, we’ll:

     Evaluate our image to better plan our shadow effect.

     Apply the Drop Shadow layer style and adjust it to meet the needs of our image.

     Create a displacement map to make our shadow conform to the textures in our image.

     Fine-tune our shadow effect to better blend it with the existing colors and lighting.


Basically, shadows made using a layer style (such as the Drop Shadow effect) are flat, semitransparent images that are feathered. So, if you want a shadow to actually take the form of the surface it’s falling on, you can’t rely on the Drop Shadow layer style alone. Instead, you have to use the layer style in conjunction with a displacement map.


Quick collage

For maximum results, you’ll need an image with interesting form and texture. Open an RGB image in Photoshop that you want to place another image or text onto. For our example, we’ll use the brick wall in Figure A. You can follow along using the same image by downloading and extracting the file brickwall.psd from the URL given at the beginning of this article. Now you have to add an image to your document to apply a drop shadow to it. We used a custom shape for our example.


To add a custom shape:

1.       Click the Create A New Layer button create_new_layer at the base of the Layers palette to make a new layer.

2.      Select the Custom Shape tool custom_shape from the Toolbox.

3.      Click on the Shape pop-up menu on the tool options bar to open the Custom Shape Picker.

4.      Select Animals from the Custom Shape Picker’s pop-up menu.

5.      In the resulting message box, click Append to load the additional shapes.

6.      Select the Bird 2 shape.

7.      Change the Set Foreground Color swatch to whatever color you want your shape to be. We chose a bright green so the bird would be easy to see against the brick wall.

8.      Click the Fill Pixels button fill_pixels on the tool options bar, and draw a bird on your image, as shown in Figure B.

9.      Name your shape layer Bird in the Layers palette.








Note: You can apply a shadow to any type of image or text, as well as any custom shape.



To create your shadow effect:

1.       Click the Add A Layer Style button add_layer_style at the base of the Layers palette and select Drop Shadow from the pop-up menu.

2.      In the resulting dialog box, adjust the distance of your shadow so it corresponds to the light source in your image. For our example, we adjusted the Distance slider to 133 px (pixels), but it varies for every image.

3.      Change the Opacity of your shadow to approximately 50%; this also varies for each image so use your judgment.

4.      Click OK when you’re satisfied with the shadow.


Transform your shadow

Now it’s time to skew the shadow so it doesn’t appear quite so flat. Examine the lighting and direction of other shadows in your original image to get a sense of how your shadow should form.

1.       Choose Layer > Layer Style > Create Layer.

2.      In the resulting dialog box, ignore the warning and click OK (your effects will be fine). This just places your shadow onto its own layer, as displayed in Figure C, making it easily editable.

3.      Select the Bird’s Drop Shadow layer.

4.      Press [command]T ([Ctrl]T in Windows) to access the Free Transform command.

5.      Skew your shadow according to the light source in your image, as displayed in Figure D.

6.      Double-click inside the bounding box to apply your transformation.





Map your shadow

Next, we’ll create a displacement map to apply to our shadow. In other words, we’re going to apply the shapes of our background image to our shadow to warp it a bit.