How To Make Cool Hand-Shadow Figures

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.

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).

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Moon Festival: Shadow Puppets

Celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival by staging a shadow puppet show based on the Chinese Moon legend that explains the origins and traditions of the festival.


Beauty and the Beast: Shadow Puppets

Inspired by the Beauty and the Beast fairy-tale, these printable shadow puppets will let the kids tell their version of the “tale as old as time.

Add The Drop Shadows

We need three drop shadows: one on the body, one on the left wing, and one on the right wing. This is to emphasize that the wings are in front of the bird’s body. You can see a similar application in the Pen Tool Tutorial – each part of the cat and mug got a drop shadow so you could see how they overlapped.

Select the body, to which we will apply a drop sha
Select the body, to which we will apply a drop shadow

Go to the Layers palette, and select the Body layer. Go to Effect>Stylize>Drop Shadow.

Click Preview. That will show you what the shadow looks like, and you can see the changes when you alter the rest of the controls.

Since our light source is overhead and to the right, we want our shadow to be underneath and to the left. Put the Y Offset at 2 and the X Offset at -2. Change the blur (the size of the shadow) to 3.

Here’s how the X and Y offsets work in Illustrator:

Positive Y values: shadow moves lower Positive X values: shadow moves to the right

Finally, decrease the shadow opacity to 50%. Click OK.

These are the settings for your drop shadow
These are the settings for your drop shadow

We want the shadows on our wings to be the same as on the body. Luckily, that makes our life easy! Just select both wings (hold Shift while selecting to select multiple shapes), go up to Effects and click “Apply Drop Shadow”.

All right — we’re on our way!
All right — we’re on our way!

As you can see, now our bird has wings that are visually covering up part of his body, and the whole bird stands out more from the background.

When To Use Drop Shadows

Use a drop shadow on objects or characters when they need to look like they overlap. For example, without the drop shadow on the apples below, they blend into each other.

Apples with and without drop shadows
Apples with and without drop shadows

Drop shadows also help objects pop out of the background. For example, game controls (like a Play or Pause button) with a drop shadow will make it clear that they are not part of the action going on behind them.

Things You’ll Need

  • Light-source (lamp, candle, etc)
  • Screen (Baking paper)
  • Cardboard box
  • Wooden sticks or straws
  • Paper (A strong type of paper is even better)
  • Tape
  • Sofa or table where you can hide behind

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