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Adding Drop Shadows and Other Layer Effects

What’s interesting (and important) to know about adding layer effects, like a drop shadow or a glow, is that it doesn’t just apply the effect to your object (in this case, we’re applying a drop shadow to a guitar), but instead, it applies the effect to that entire layer. So, anything you do on that layer will have a drop shadow added to it. For example, if you grabbed the Brush tool and painted a few red strokes on your guitar layer, those strokes would have the exact same drop shadow you applied to the guitar applied to them. That’s why they’re called “layer effects” and not “effects.” Whatever you choose, it gets applied to the entire layer.

Step One:

Open an image you want to apply a drop shadow to (in this case, it’s a guitar. Don’t forget, you can download this same practice image from the book’s companion website. The URL can be found in the book’s introduction). Since the guitar is on the Background layer, we can’t add a layer effect to it—it’s technically not a “real” layer yet, but we can fix that. First, go under the Select menu up top, choose Subject, and it will select our subject (in this case, the guitar). Next, press Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J) to put that selected guitar up on its own separate layer, minus the white background because we selected just the guitar itself (as seen here, in the Layers panel. That checkerboard pattern you see on Layer 1’s thumbnail shows you the areas on that layer that are transparent—all those areas around the guitar).

Step Two:

To apply a drop shadow (or any one of the 10 different layer effects), click on the Add a Layer Style icon (the fx) at the bottom of the Layers panel (it’s the second one from the left), and from the bottom of the pop-up menu, choose Drop Shadow (as shown here).


Step Three:

When you choose Drop Shadow, the Drop Shadow options appear in the Layer Style dialog (seen here), and it applies a drop shadow to any objects on this layer. The default settings were made a long, long time ago when file resolutions were much, much lower, so these settings are so subtle you probably won’t even be able to see that a drop shadow has been added (as seen here. Don’t worry, you can set your own defaults from here on out, but for now, your drop shadow is nearly invisible).

Step Four:

The first thing we’re going to do is choose where we want our drop shadow. There are Angle and Distance settings to figure out the exact proper angle, but unless you’re a nerd, there’s a better way: a visual way where you put the shadow exactly where you want it without the math. Just move your cursor outside the Layer Style dialog, right out onto your image, and click-and-drag on your image to drag the shadow right where you want it. Here, I clicked on the guitar (since the shadow was hidden behind it with the default settings) and dragged the shadow down and to the right, so we can now at least see it. As a general rule, the farther away the shadow is from the object, the higher it appears off the background. You’ll notice the shadow is hard-edged, so we’ll need to soften it up a bit in the next step.

Step Five:

The Size slider controls the softness of the shadow (I know. Why isn’t it named blur or softness? Don’t get me started). Here, I increased the Size slider (softness) to 133 pixels and you can see the shadow looks much softer (it goes up to 2,000 pixels). You control the darkness of the drop shadow using the Opacity slider up near the top. Here, I increased the Opacity slider from 35% (the default) to 43% to make the shadow darker. One more thing before we move on: Notice that Use Global Light checkbox? What that means is, if you add more layers in this document, it will apply this same shadow, with the same angle and distance. If you were to change the angle or direction on any layer, all the other layers you applied a drop shadow to will all move, as well. The shadows move together—globally. Okay, let’s take a look at a different effect just to say we did.

Step Six:

Let’s turn off the drop shadow effect for now. You see that list of effects along the left side of the Layer Style dialog? Turn off the Drop Shadow checkbox (as seen here, below left). Okay, now that it’s off, let’s try an outer glow effect. But first, click OK at the top right to close the dialog for a minute. In the Layers panel, click on the Background layer to make it the active layer (as seen here, below right), press the D key to set your Foreground color to black, and then press Option-Delete (PC: Alt-Backspace) to fill the Background layer with black. This way, we can clearly see the glow once we apply it. While we’re here, take a look in the Layers panel and notice that the word “Effects” appears right below the guitar layers’s thumbnail (that lets you know a layer style was applied), and below that is the name of the effect (Drop Shadow). More on this in a moment.

Step Seven:

To apply an Outer Glow layer style, click back on Layer 1 in the Layers panel, then click on the Add a Layer Style icon again, choose Outer Glow, and it applies the glow effect, which you can barely see because (once again) the defaults were created a long time ago for much lower-resolution images. Speaking of defaults, once you come up with some settings you like better (trust me, it won’t be hard), click the Make Default button near the bottom center of the Layer Style dialog and now your new settings are the new defaults. So, when you apply an outer glow it will apply your new defaults, instead of Adobe’s old ones. Same thing for the other layer styles. Okay, let’s tweak that glow a bit.

Step Eight:

To increase the size of the glow, drag the Size slider to the right (here, I dragged it over to 196 pixels). To make the glow more visible, increase the Opacity slider (as I did here, to 75%). The various layer styles have a lot in common, so once you learn how to use one, the others have many familiar sliders and checkboxes. Also, take a look over at the Layers panel, below the guitar layer, and you can see under the word “Effects,” it now shows that two layer styles have been applied to this layer (you can apply all 10 if you want). But, also look to the left of Outer Glow—it has an eye icon. That lets you know that effect is visible. The Drop Shadow doesn’t have an eye icon here because we hid it earlier by turning off its checkbox in the Styles list. You can show or hide effects right from the Layers panel by clicking on those eye icons, or the eye icon next to Effects to hide/show them all. After you click OK and apply these effects, you can bring back the Layer Style dialog to make changes by going to the Layers panel and double-clicking right on the layer style’s name.

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