This is a post I’ve been working on for a while. My most asked question in digital scrapbooking is how I shadow and/or whether or not I could do layer styles or actions of my shadows to sell in my store. If I had one (or a dozen) tried-and-true consistent ways of shadowing I would give it a shot. The fact of the matter is, though, I have no magic formula for shadowing an element. It always depends on the colors, where it’s located on the page, what’s near it, what the element is made of, etc.

I do have some jumping off points, though, and I’ll gladly share them (for free!) for Photoshop users here on my blog. You may be able to easily adapt these to other programs, but the screenshots and instructions herein are from Photoshop CS4. There’s nothing I do that isn’t also available in earlier versions of Photoshop, it’s pretty basic.

I’m no rocket scientist. For the sake of brevity, though, I’m going to assume you already know where all the buttons are for adding drop shadows and how to bring up the right-click menu and such. If you’re to the point in scrapbooking where you’re working on your shadow realism, chances are you know those things already.

I’m going to start with this sad little unshadowed flower on a piece of light kraft paper. I chose a flower because it has enough variables to learn from, and the kraft paper because shadows show up really well against it.

Ok, now get ready for an intense, mind-blowing shadow revelation here, folks. For my drop shadow settings the most important part as far as I’m concerned is to change the blend mode from “Multiply” (default) to “Linear Burn”. This makes all the difference for me.

I’ll give you a bit of technical mumbo jumbo to explain why I prefer this mode, then you go ahead and decide whether you want to use it or not. Multiply “multiplies” the average color intensity of the top layer with the average intensity of the bottom layer. This produces darker colors within the composite image and creates contrast. Linear Burn also produces darker colors within the composite image, however the main difference is that Linear Burn breaks the bottom layer down into its individual color channels (for scrapbooking those are your R(ed), G(reen), and B(lue) channels) to determine the degree of darkness for each pixel in the top layer. Channel information for each color is used and the darkest color’s intensity is increased by a certain degree. So your shadows have more variation throughout, depending on all the colors beneath them.

If you decide to stick with “Multiply” then there’s no shame in it. However, if you switch to “Linear Burn” your shadows will take on a new level of AWESOME.

On my pages my light source is usually set to the upper right corner – at or around 42 to 45 degrees on the little spinny box. I shadow things like stitches and staples at 90 degrees with my light source coming straight down from the top of the page. My shadow color (totally subjective, whatever floats your boat) is #2c1901 which is a really deep orange. It’s almost black, to the naked eye it’ll look black.

The Linear Burn blend mode tends to produce darker shadows in general, so if you’ve been using Multiply at about 70% opacity, you should expect that your opacity levels will drop a bit with the change in blend mode.  Tinker around with them until it looks about right to the naked eye.  What I tend to do is find the point where it looks okay to me, THEN I move the opacity up by another 5% or more.  (So if I fall on 35%, I’ll actually move it up to about 40%) because I err on the side of them being too dark and I recognize my “inner wuss”.  The one that tells me “No no! That’s too dark!”  Nudge it up another 5% and tell that inner wuss to quiet down.

Make sure your “Global Light” box is unchecked. Mine is always unchecked. Then if you monkey with a shadow later on down the road it won’t affect all of your other shadows.

The sliders are going to vary by element. Here’s a quick (and very general!) idea of approximate values:

So at this point you’ll have a fairly static, uniform shadow for your element. If it’s an item that’s fairly solid (acrylic pieces, sequins, etc) I’ll usually leave it as a uniform shadow. Those things don’t have a lot of “flex” on your page so the shadow would naturally be very precise.

For items like flowers, leaves, ribbons, bows, etc. you’re going to want to mess these shadows up a bit. In real life they wouldn’t necessarily lay perfectly on the same plane on your page. So this is where you’ll right click on the shadow in your Layers Palette and choose “Create Layer”.

And look, someone magically named my layers for me! You’ll notice that on your new separated shadow layer, the blend mode is still “Linear Burn” and the Fill is set to the percentage you specified within the drop shadow dialogue. So you can continue to tinker with that Fill setting as your page develops if you find that you need to change the strength of the shadow down the line.

People ask me whether I use the Warp tool to alter my shadows, and there are some instances (very few) where I do. Usually just with skinny frames or small pieces of paper. My tool of choice is the Smudge Tool. You’ll find it over in your toolbar just beneath the Paint Bucket.  Click and hold it down to see all the options nested underneath (see below).


Up on the top select a large, soft brush. Something substantial. You’re going to want to move more than a couple of pixels here.  My image below is pretty poor, but I selected a 300px brush with a hardness of 0%, and then set the strength (along the top bar) to 50%.

You can adjust that Strength slider depending on your needs. Basically the stronger the Smudge Tool is set, the more exact your move is. SOMETIMES that means you can end up with “lumpy” shadows if you use it at 100% strength.  If you move the Strength down to about 30-40% you’ll gently “smudge” your shadow in the direction that you drag the brush. Just like the tool says. Truth in advertising!

Now you’ll just return to your Drop Shadow layer, and gently (no sudden moves!) drag the Smudge brush over the edges of your shadow – pushing and pulling them around until you achieve the desired effect.

The reason I prefer this over the Warp tool is that it’s a little more organic. A little more subtle. The Warp bounding box gives you about 20 points where you can adjust the shadow, and those points never seem to be exactly where I want them to be. With the Smudge Tool if I just want to bump the petal of a flower out a little bit, I can do it easily without affecting the rest of the shadow.

This is a much happier flower:

You can consider this a job well done at this point. You’ve messed your shadow up a bit, made it a little less refined. You’ve unleashed your shadow’s liberal, tree-hugging, fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants unpredictability. But if you want to take it to the NEXT level. Read on.  Because after this, your shadow will be so free-spirited you’ll be able to buy it a Prius and teach it how to make its own granola bars.

Select that Drop Shadow layer, Duplicate it (right click then “duplicate layer” or CTRL + J). Now you have two identical drop shadows and they’re going to look a skosh dark just for a few seconds. Select the bottom shadow layer.

And then run a Gaussian Blur Filter on it (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) with a radius of about 30 pixels (variable, mess with this to your liking)

With the blurred shadow layer still selected, gently bump it (using your arrow keys) a few times down and a few times to the left (or in whatever direction you shadow) to move it further away from center.  And adjust the Fill Opacity down to about 20%. You want it to be fairly light, it’s a secondary shadow.  Then move up one layer to your non-blurred shadow layer, and adjust the Fill Opacity down on that one by about 20% (if you were at 45%, move it down to 25-30%).

Below you’ll see the slight difference this makes in the depth of your shadow.  The one on the left is just one shadow layer that we tweaked with the Smudge Tool.  The one on the right side has the two shadow layers, with the Gaussian Blur one bumped out about 10 steps to the left and 10 steps down (I use the arrow keys to do this).

The absolute last step I usually take after shadowing an element is to select the layers for the original element and the two shadows, right clicking in my layer palette and selecting “Link Layers”.  Many times I’ll also “Group Layers” immediately after that to keep everything together when moving it around. These are just general housekeeping steps.

For the sake of this little How To I used the flower, but the same dual-shadow technique can take a lot of elements from “not bad” to “Wow, that looks touchable!”  Buttons almost always benefit from a second shadow layer, I always shadow them using the techniques in this post.  The same goes for curly, swirly ribbons.  On those I go a little more wild with the Smudge Tool and mess the shadows up REAL GOOD by pulling the shadows for the “high” parts of the ribbon pretty far away from the original image. Bows are another one that, at the very least, you need to tweak with the Smudge Tool. Depending on where you have the bow on your page (close to the background or layered up and away) there’s sometimes no point in putting a second shadow layer on them.  Nevertheless, you’re not out anything if you try it.

My hope is that this at least gives you one new tool in your arsenal. Like I said in the beginning, there’s no magic bullet for shadowing every element, it all comes down to tinkering. The more you tinker, the more commonplace these things become and the faster you fly through them.

Shadow Like Me Layer Styles

I’ve gone ahead and created Layer Styles of my most-used shadow settings and they’re for sale in my shop – so if you want to save yourself a few steps and apply some shadows in a jiffy, then please check them out. They’ve been tested in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements and they’ll fast-forward you through the first couple of steps in this tutorial. Happy Scrapping!

Shadow Like Me Layer Styles by One Little Bird