Creating Custom Shadows in Photoshop

It’s easy to show what a person looks like with a photograph; but showing what that person is thinking is a different matter altogether. One way of achieving this is by adding a shadow that represents how they feel, rather than directly mimicking the person.

There are many ways you can achieve this. You could show someone working at a computer, with their shadow portraying them screaming in rage; or a couple meeting on a tentative first date, with their shadows dancing with abandon.

In this instance, we’ll take an image of a boy on horseback, and try to show how he really feels.

Step 1: Find a photo

The initial photo will, as always, determine the course of the montage. Here, a child is being led on horseback by a member of the armed forces – and you can download the image here.

Step 2: Cut out the subject

You may be lucky enough to find an image with a clear enough background on which to place your shadow. But you’ll get far more control if you cut out the central figure, so you can choose your own background. Photoshop CC’s new Select Subject feature will often get you 90% of the way there.

Step 3: Add a new background

Although it would have been possible to place the shadow directly on the ground, it would be hard to read – both the texture of the grass and the distorted view would tend to confuse the reader. Instead, I built this simple background from three elements – a wall, some grass, and a sky.

Step 4: Blend the elements together

Making a mask for the wall allows you push some grass up over it, to avoid a hard line at the bottom. And when the wall fills the whole width of the image, it all looks too closed in; chopping it off on the left gives more of a sense of space and distance.

Step 5: Choose the shadow

The shadow should be a simple, recognizable shape. When it’s converted to pure black, it’s the outline that counts more than anything else. This clip art image of a knight on horseback is ideal, and you can download it for free from here.

Step 6: Fill the shadow

It’s a simple matter to select the white outside the horse, and then invert the selection and fill with black. This produces a clear, instantly recognizable silhouette.

Step 7: Add the shadow to the wall

Bring the shadow into your montage, in this case using the wall as a clipping mask so it only shows up over the wall itself. You need to align it so all the key elements are fully visible.

Step 8: Complete the shadow

The bottom part of the shadow, where it runs along the ground to meet the original horse’s legs, is easily drawn on a new layer. You don’t need to worry too much about equine anatomy.

Step 9: Lower the transparency

Make a new group from both the shadow and its bottom part, then lower the transparency of the group as a whole. If you make the group into a Smart Object, you can add some Gaussian Blur to soften it; as a Smart Filter, you’ll be able to adjust the effect later if you need to.

Step 10: Finishing off

Go away and have a cup of coffee, then come back and look at the montage with fresh eyes. Here, I tinted the wall brown to give it more of a woody effect, and to prevent the image from looking too gray.

Posted on: October 29, 2018

Steve Caplin

Steve is a freelance writer, artist and designer, and the author of over a dozen books, including the popular How to Cheat in Photoshop series and the Amazon #1 best-seller Dad Stuff. His training videos can be seen on, Retouch Pro and elsewhere.

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