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Drop Shadow Basics for Beginners

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Often the biggest difference between the layouts of a beginner and an experienced digital scrapbook designer is the shadow. Learning how to use a drop shadow will move your layouts to the next level. This tutorial will discuss the importance of drop shadows and basic concepts that apply to all digital scrapbooking programs.

Drop Shadows: Why We Need Them

Look at the things on your desk right now. I have some papers, a tea cup, a pencil, and a computer mouse. Now, really look at the shadows that they create. The papers stacked on top of each other have just a slim line, but the shadow is there. My computer casts a large shadow because it is so far from the desk. My pencil has a shadow that is larger than the papers below it. If you look at a paper scrapbook layout, you will see shadows there too. In order for your digital scrapbook layout to look realistic, you need to add shadows.

I’ve made this simple page with no drop shadows. Take a look at the flower cluster. Do you see how “dead” these elements look. They just don’t look real. Now, you might notice that there are a few shadows in this page. When designers create elements, they keep internal shadows. These are the shadows within the element which you can see very clearly if you look at the pink flower. You can’t change the internal shadows, but you are usually in charge of creating the external ones–those on the outside of the element.

Layout sample of no shadows


For this layout, I am using Capture The Moment Page Kit by Stacy Carlson.

Capture The Moment Page Kit by Stacy Carlson

Not all Shadows are Created Equal

I hope that I have convinced you that drop shadows are needed. Unfortunately, there is a lot more to it than just adding the same shadow to everything. Different sized elements require different sized shadows. As you saw in my desktop example, big elements need bigger shadows than those that are small or flat. In this image, you can see different types of elements with different shadow sizes. They all look odd without a shadow, but too much of a shadow can make the elements look like they are floating above the paper. As you can see, scatter and paper look far better with a small shadow, while the larger elements need the larger shadow.

Drop shadow comparisons


 Shadows are Complicated

Shadows aren’t all about size. There are other aspects which you should consider including the lighting angle, the distance the shadow is from the element, the color of the shadow and the opacity of the shadow. All of these are variables that you can change in your program to make your layout more realistic. When you start considering all of these things, making a drop shadow just got complicated! But, don’t worry, you can make beautiful layouts without thinking about all of these variables. Start with the basics and then add on more advanced techniques as you become more experienced. The good news is that making drop shadows becomes an art–you get to use what looks good to your eye.

When You Shouldn’t Use Drop Shadows

Yes, I know I just told you that drop shadows are critical, but some styles that are unique to digital scrapbooking such as graphic or blended layouts don’t need shadows. In the graphic style, you keep a flat, clean, geometric design similar to what you might see on a magazine page. Blended scrapbooking pages using photo masks and brushes (without realistic elements) don’t need shadows either.

You should not put a drop shadow on your text. If you type or print something on paper, it will not create a shadow, so don’t put one on your digital print. However, if you want your text (usually a title) to look like a cut out alpha, you can add a shadow.

Learn how to Make a Drop Shadow

Now that you know something about shadows, make sure you find a tutorial to use them in your program. If you use Photoshop Elements (or Photoshop CS), look for the Gotta Pixel tutorial, How to Add a Drop Shadow in PSE.


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