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Lights and Shadows in Photoshop

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Trying to re-create the interaction of the play of light on objects is always an enjoyable challenge. Here Bert Monroy offers some tips and techniques for doing just that in Photoshop.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

I love the play of light on objects. Trying to re-create that interaction is always an enjoyable challenge. California gives me new insight into the effects of lights and shadows. The California sun is very bright and clear. It tends to overly saturate the colors of a scene. It also casts very sharp shadows.

Artificial light is also striking. It has competing light sources that illuminate a scene from different angles. This creates a myriad of shadows that clash and compete for prominence. Artificial light also comes in colors. Colored light sources create colored shadows.

Shadows add life and dimension to an image. Without them, an object appears flat. Shading a scene properly gives it the illusion that it has a third dimension. Lights and shadows determine the relationship of one object to another and their place in the total scene. The position and strength of the lights and shadows also set the overall mood of the image.

Photoshop is a two-dimensional program. Photoshop's files are configurations of pixels that are placed across the width and down the height of an image. There is no depth, as one would find in a 3D program. The illusion of a third dimension is created through the use of shading and perspective.

The image on the cover of this book is called "late afternoon." The angle and color of the light streaming in through the window identifies the time of day for the scene. The sun is low on the horizon. The late afternoon sun is turning to that orange color of a sun that is setting.

The position of shadows in an outdoor scene automatically establishes the time of day. Figure 4.1 shows a tree in a field at noon. How do we know it is noon? The shadow is directly below the tree, which means the sun is directly above the tree, as it would be at the noon hour. Figure 4.2 shows a scene that represents a time that is a little later in the day. The sun has moved from directly above the tree, and the shadow streams away from the tree. Figure 4.3 shows a scene that is set late in the day. The sun is low, causing the shadow to lengthen.

Figure 4.1Figure 4.1. The noontime sun is directly above the tree, which causes the shadow to fall directly below the tree.


Figure 4.2Figure 4.2. The afternoon sun is off to the left, causing the shadow to fall behind the tree and to the right of it.


Figure 4.3Figure 4.3. The evening sun is low on the horizon, which results in a longer shadow. The setting sun also casts a warmer color over the scene.

Shadows are often the focus in some of my paintings. "Bodega shadows" and "shadowplay" are two very good examples of how shadows play a main role in some of my paintings (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4.4Figure 4.4. The painting, "Bodega shadows," uses a shadow as the central focus.


Figure 4.5Figure 4.5. In the "shadowplay" painting, the shadow is the subject.

The shadow starts as a shape that is outlined with the Pen tool. Figure 4.6 shows the paths created for the shadow shapes in Bodega shadows. In Figure 4.7, the path is turned into a selection and filled with a dark blue color.

Figure 4.6Figure 4.6. The paths for the shadow shapes.


Figure 4.7Figure 4.7. The path is selected and filled with the color for the shadow.

The final touches are illustrated in Figure 4.8. Note that the opacity was lowered in this illustration. The layer was also blurred with the Gaussian Blur filter (Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur).

Figure 4.8Figure 4.8. The layer of the shadow is blurred and reduced in opacity.

Figure 4.9 shows the paths for the shadows in shadowplay. These shadows hint at the structure that isn't in view in the image. The paths are filled with black, and they are blurred. This is a similar procedure as the one used in the previous Bodega shadows example. The difference here is that the area where the shadows are cast is made up of uneven surfaces, opposed to a flat surface. The shadows are made larger than the area they will cover, and they are clipped with the layer that contains the surface shape. Figure 4.10 shows the shadows that are cast onto the wooden board along the top of the scene. Figure 4.11 shows the clipped shadow. Refer to Chapter 1, "Off to a Good Start," for more information on creating a clipping group.

Figure 4.9Figure 4.9. The paths for the shadows in the shadowplay example.


Figure 4.10Figure 4.10. The shadow cast on the wooden board is put in a layer over the layer of the board.


Figure 4.11Figure 4.11. The shadow is clipped by the layer of the wooden board.

Figure 4.12 shows the larger shadow that is cast over the main part of the wall. Figure 4.13 shows the detail of the fence at the bottom of the image. Notice the shapes that the shadows take as they travel over and around the banister.

Figure 4.12Figure 4.12. The large shadow over the main wall.


Figure 4.13Figure 4.13. The shadow that is cast over the railing has to conform to the various angles that make up the construction of the railing.

Shadows with Layer Style

Up to this point, the shadows are created as separate shapes. Each is unrelated to the shapes in the scene and only hint at the shape of the objects casting them. There are times when the object casting the shadow is completely visible in the scene.

The traditional drop shadow is one of these instances in which the object casting the shadow is visible. The drop shadow is commonplace in today's design circles. Figure 4.14 shows a traditional drop shadow effect.

Figure 4.14Figure 4.14. The drop shadow is a commonly used design element.

The drop shadow has the identical shape of the object casting it. The distance from one object to another object and the direction of the light source determine the position of the shadow. Layer Styles enable you to add a drop shadow to layers. The shadow is controlled in many ways. Figure 4.15 shows the Layer Style for the Drop Shadow blending option.

Figure 4.15Figure 4.15. The Drop Shadow blending option controls in the Layer Style dialog box.

The position of the shadow is established by adjusting the Angle field's value in the Structure area of the dialog box. The distance determines how far the shadow falls from the object casting it. The Spread field works like the Hardness feature of the brushes—the higher the percentage, the harder the edge. The Size field allows you to control the size of the shadow.

The Quality section of the dialog box includes a Contour field that allows you to set parameters to control the shape of your shadow. In Figure 4.16, you see a drop shadow applied to a red circle. The Distance value is increased to add separation to clearly view what happens with the Contour control. In Figure 4.17, a contour is chosen (not the default contour) by clicking on the arrow bar located to the right of the Contour icon. Note the shape of the drop shadow. You are not bound by these presets. Clicking the Contour icon brings up the Contour Editor in which you can set your own parameters (Figure 4.18).

Figure 4.16Figure 4.16. A drop shadow is applied to a layer in the Layer Style dialog box.


Figure 4.17Figure 4.17. The contour for the drop shadow is changed.


Figure 4.18Figure 4.18. The Contour Editor enables you to modify the contour effects on the drop shadow.

The Noise field enables you to set a noise level for the shadow, which aids in the prevention of banding. If you use the Add Noise filter, it applies the noise to the entire layer. In the Layer Style dialog box, the noise is applied to the shadow only.

The command at the bottom of the Drop Shadow dialog box, Layer Knocks Out Drop Shadow, sets the shadow's visibility when the object casting it is transparent. Figure 4.19 shows the red ball casting a shadow. In Figure 4.20, the Fill Opacity for the red ball is reduced to 40%. The drop shadow remains hidden behind the ball. In Figure 4.21, the Layer Knocks Out Drop Shadow button is deselected, which makes the shadow visible through the transparent ball.

Figure 4.19Figure 4.19. The solid red ball casts a drop shadow.


Figure 4.20Figure 4.20. The opacity for the red ball is lowered. The shadow remains dark, but is not visible through the ball.


Figure 4.21Figure 4.21. With the Layer Knocks Out Drop Shadow option turned off in the Layer Style dialog box, you can now see the shadow through the transparent red ball.

In the Layer Style dialog box, there is a section for Blending Options. Here, you control General Blending and Advanced Blending options (Figure 4.22). In the General Blending section, you see the Opacity setting. You can set the opacity for the entire layer's content. In the Advanced Blending section, you see the Fill Opacity setting. This setting lets you lower the opacity of an object in the layer without changing the style effects (Figure 4.23).

Figure 4.22Figure 4.22. General Blending and Advanced Blending are two of the sections of the Layer Style dialog box.


Figure 4.23Figure 4.23. The first ball on the left is the original object. The second is the one that has Layer Styles applied to it. The third is the ball that has an Opacity setting of 50%. The fourth ball has an Opacity setting of 100%, and the Fill Opacity setting is lowered to 50%.

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