#CreativeFriday – Creating long hard shadows in your designs.

There have been a lot of images over the past year or so that contain lots of hard shadow work, i.e. (https://www.behance.net/gallery/7360109/Record-Label-Rebrands and https://www.behance.net/gallery/7850589/Boston-Magazine). So I wanted to write a post on the way that i might do this in Photoshop, using the 3D capabilities and explore the benefits of 3D over 2D for work like this.


In this post, I’ll work to create this image from scratch and see where we end up. You can see that it’s a very simple design, with just the shadow adding great impact to the image.



To start, we will just take a simple character, in this case a tilde sign ‘~’, place it as a text element on the canvas and extrude it as a 3D object. Once the text has been entered, the 3D button (marked in red) can be clicked.



You will see that the object has been placed on the ground plane (the grid). Photoshop has automatically created the ground plane as well as a simple infinite light source for you. Photoshop has also  automatically  created basic textures and faces of the object. In the image that we are trying to re-create, there is a nice textured background that will be used for the shadows  and interest as well as a place holder for the object.


To create a background, insert (either by using Place Linked or Place Embedded (available in Photoshop CC), a background texture. I am just going to use a picture of  some concrete (just a simple JPG).


This is then placed in Photoshop onto a separate layer and extruded as a postcard (using a postcard is the most simplest 3D object  and is perfect to be used as a background). The postcard extrusion is available on the Photoshop menu 3D / New Mesh from Layer / Postcard.


Once the conversion has finished, the new 3D layer (marked red below) will be created and Photoshop will move into 3D mode.

N.B. 3D in photoshop navigation and tools are available on the Move tool, you can also access this by pressing the ‘V’ key at any time.


You will notice that there are now 2 3D layers, and the top layer is obstructing the view of the other(s). To create a single 3D layer that will contain both objects, select the first 3D layer*1, then select the new 3D layer to be added.

*1 : The order by which the layers are added is important. The first layer selected will be the one used for any lighting rigs and IBL (Image Based Lights) within the final scene. Which means, if you have a lighting rig set up in the first layer, then you may want to use this lighting rig, as opposed to a new 3D layer. In this case, the layer with the lighting rig will need to be selected first.

Once the layers have been selected (marked red and in the correct order), choose from the Photoshop menu  3D / Merge 3D Layers (marked yellow)


A single 3D Layer will exist the Layers panel which contains both 3D objects in this example.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 15.39.20

Obviously in the final comp the white areas won’t be needed, therefore we can move the camera backward and forwards by using the ‘Dolly camera’ marked red below (the tool marked in yellow will move the camera up and down. The tool on the left of these tools is used to orbit the camera around the scene. In this example below, the camera was moved to the right and then dolly’d (a little bit of playing around here might be needed to get the object in the right place).


As well as the ability to move the camera,  the objects can be moved independently as well (or as a whole). Selecting just the tilde ‘~’ object by clicking directly on it, will bring up a navigator tool and allow you to freely move it up, down, left, right, forward and backwards in the scene (more on this later). In the following example the tilde object has been selected and moved to a better position by using the on canvas widget/navigator.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 15.45.25

Lights exist around the perimeter of the working space, and can be selected by clicking on them (marked in red below). In the example below, an infinite light is used, moving the light around can be achieved by clicking on the light icon, then grabbing the on canvas widget marked yellow and dragging it. This will allow the light to be moved freely around the scene, also, by holding the SHIFT key and dragging directly on the canvas is another way of moving the lights (Holding the SHIFT key will allow you to position the light and shadows directly where it needs to be).


Within the screen shot shown above, the shadows are highly pixelated. So that Photoshop is not having to render high quality shadows and only when it needs to do (i.e. on the Render), I have the shadows as low quality. I find this setting gives me a balance of performance  and ability to see where the shadows will be in the rendered. The Photoshop 3D Preferences are available from the Photoshop menu.

The area marked in yellow tells Photoshop how much video RAM to use, remember in Photoshop CC you will need at least 1GB of VRAM to run the 3D engine. The Shadow quality is configurable in the area marked in red.


Once the images are placed into a single 3D layer, you may have a couple of issues to contend with. Based on one model size to the other can result in models being located nearer or further away than initially expected. Also, as in the example here, the objects are straddling the ground plane. The ground plane intersection will show up on the renderer, so the objects ideally need to be moved about the ground plane. First thing is to position the 3D objects above the ground plane. To do this, hold the SHIFT key down and selecting the objects that need to be moved (in this case the tilde and the background). Then choose from the Photoshop menu 3D / Move objects to ground plane. The objects will snap upwards/downwards spending where the ground plane is.


Then using the 3D navigation tools, move the camera (marked in red) or the objects back into place (don’t forget that the on canvas navigation widgets can be used either on all objects, or individually by directly selecting each one). If for some reason when you select the objects, the widget (as below) is not shown, then press the V key until it’s shown.


As we start to work on the lights, it might be worth while improving the materials used in the background. For this I am going to try something of medium reflective quality, some thing bright and something that will be enhanced with the concrete texture. To do this, i need to remove the existing texture and replace with a base material.

To add a new base material, click on the background object (the concrete in this case), until the navigation widget is shown. Click again to access the material properties, once there, a new material can be selected (marked pink) from the properties of the 3D object’s face that was clicked (remember this object is a postcard, but has a front, back and side (these are faces)). Then I have chosen the Gold Material (marked green), the effect on the background  can bee seen below.


Once the base material is there, the texture can be replaced with the concrete texture by clicking on the texture options (marked red) and choosing replace texture (marked yellow), then choosing the appropriate texture (concrete for this example). The colour of the diffuse property can be changed by clicking on the colour selector (marked blue), then choosing a colour from the colour picker (marked green). Also, as there will be a light in the scene, depending on what the final effect needs to be, a white light might be needed, or a in fact a colour one. In the following example, I want to have the yellow colour to be used for any specular display. The new background, material and colour can be seen below.

The lights can be move to a better position to create the hard shadow(s) from the tilda object. As the infinite light is moved, the shadows will be seen in realtime, and will be cast across the background. To create a long shadow, the light needs to be moved near to the surface of the ground plane, however, the scene might go very dim when this is done. This could be down to a few things :-

In order to create the long shadow the light needs to be lowered/heightened in relationship to the height of the tilde (don’t forget we are in 3D space here, so the tilda has a Z height, which is not visible from this top view).


As in the example the viewer will not see the height of the Tilde in the final scene, therefore, it doesn’t matter how high or low it is from the ground plane (as long as it has a long enough Z extrusion to create a full shadow and not have any gaps). The light can then be moved higher in the scene, which will brighten the background, but reduce the length of the shadow, move the light source to where you are happy (we will re-visit this during the moving of the objects, as this might take a little bit of playing with to get right). Try and get the end of the shadow to where you would like it. When the light is in the right place and the shadow length is good,  the background may still be a little dark, in this case, you can increase the intensity of the light (or change the colour) within the properties panel of the light (marked in red).


One common issue is that the background is bright enough and the shadow is in the right place but there is a gap between the object and the start of the shadow. In this case, it may be that the extrusion (Z height) is not long enough. By clicking on the 3D Object, the navigation widget will appear. Once the widget is shown, clicking the ‘V’ key will bring up the second widget (there is a series of 3 widgets on the ‘V’ key), this is marked red, and is used for extrusion, bend, twist etc. The extrusion of the 3D Object can now be increased (if required), so that it intersect with the the background (remember in 3D space objects will interact with each other). The extrusion length can also be changed by using the properties panel (extrusion), marked in yellow. You should see the shadows move in real time (unless shadows have been turned off on the light properties).


Let us test the outcome and hit the render button.

Render is available in many locations, however, the main ones are marked in red (from the 3D menu / Render, on the properties panel in 3D mode and on the 3D panel, as well as others).


The quality of the renderer can be controlled by the Photoshop 3D properties menu option. A value of 5 will produce lovely results, but will take quite a long time, depending on the complexity of the models, lights etc.


Once the render has completed, you should see the shadows in place.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 17.36.50

At the current time the top face of the tilde is flat, this can always be rounded or beveled at a later date, depending on what is required. By clicking on the object until the widget appears, then pressing the ‘V key twice, the widget for modifying the bevel and it’s strength (right) and the inflation and strength on the left will be shown.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 17.39.08

The result can be more impactful, but will depend on the effect that is desired.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 17.44.40

If the whole scene is inspected (by using the orbit camera option, marked in red) you will see how the models are working tougher to create the final effect.


The beauty of working in 3D is the opportunity that the camera brings. Different views (closeup or far away from the objects) can be controlled by the camera position, then rendered.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 17.51.24

Because the lights and background are already configured, anything else in the scene will have the same effect.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 17.58.59

There are so many other things to try in 3D. There are different colours, textures, camera positions, lights etc, can be applied to this image and it will look completely different.

PSD for download

Hard Shadows Project on Behance

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