Drop shadows can be tricky – they can add realism to your artwork or they can ruin it. Sometimes it’s best to create your own drop shadows, but here are a couple of tips on using the built in drop shadow layer effect in Photoshop.
If you’re using layer styles for beveled edges and drop shadows, click the USE GLOBAL LIGHT option on all your layer effects that use Drop shadow, Inner Shadow, or Bevel and Emboss. This will keep the light source consistent throughout. If you’re importing an element that’s been created by someone else, does it have a light source? If it has a highlight on the upper right, the drop shadow should go on the lower left – I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often small details like that get overlooked.
A slight drop shadow on a lot of stacked elements can add depth and realism, but remember that a flat piece of paper doesn’t cast much of a shadow when placed on another flat piece of paper. Adjust the distance slider to make the shadow closer to the edges of flat things and slightly further for thicker things. If you want the shadow around the whole object, set the distance to 0.
Experiment with color
The default blend mode for drop shadows is MULTIPLY and the default color is black. I find that black is usually too harsh, especially against a lighter background. In this example I created three little oval blobs. The drop shadows are all the same distance, opacity and blend mode, but I’ve used different colors. The first uses black, the second is dark brown, and the third is orange. Then to make it more complicated, I copied those same three blobs onto different backgrounds with a gradient shadow.
As you can see, a shadow that works on a lighter background might not work as well on a different background, so wait until you have your object placed on the background before adding a shadow.
Experiment with blending modes
Another thing, nobody said that drop shadows have to use the multiply blending mode. I mean sure, you may go back to that one, but try some of the other modes too – depending on your background you might find something that works better.
Creating a layer
Once you’ve created your drop shadow, you can make it into a separate layer and edit it some more. Right click on the drop shadow effects layer and choose CREATE LAYER from the drop down menu. Your drop shadow (and other effects) will be placed on their own layer. Now you can erase the parts you don’t want, apply a mask to fade the effect, or use any of the transform tools to adjust the size and shape of the shadow in any way you like.
One last thing, if you’re not happy with what you’re getting with the built in drop shadow effect, you can always make your own!