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3D Text Shadows in Photoshop

"True" 3D text shadow effects are easy to create in Adobe After Effects: set up a text layer, make it 3D, and put a spotlight behind it. But they're not quite as straightforward in Photoshop, since Photoshop isn't a true 3D environment. However, it is easy to simulate 3D text shadows in Photoshop, and in this article we'll show you how. 

Step 1 - Create A Ground Plane

To begin, make a new empty Photoshop file, of whatever size you like (mine is 500 pixels square). Make sure your foreground color is black and your background white. If they aren't already, click the Default Foreground and Background Colors button at the bottom of the Tools palette, or just type D. Then grab your Gradient Tool (or type G), make sure it's set to the standard Linear Gradient, and drag with it vertically from top to bottom, through a short range in the middle of the background layer. We want to create a gradient in which the upper part is solid black, a relatively narrow middle band is dark gray to light gray, and the bottom area is solid white.

A ground plane

This will form our simulated ground plane onto which we'll cast our text's shadow.

Step 2 - Create A Text Layer

Next, select the Horizontal Type Tool (or type T), choose your font and font color, and enter your text (I'm using our mPV logo).

Text layer with MPV logo

A heavy bold sans-serif font will tend to work best for shadow casting but it's up to you, of course.

Step 3 - Align the Text to the Ground Plane

Next, select your Move Tool (or type V) and drag the text layer so that its bottom edge lines up with the beginning of the white area of the ground plane, centering the text as you do so.

Align text to the ground plane

As you can see, we already have some sense of perspective thanks for our receding ground plane, which our cast shadow will greatly emphasize.

Step 4 - Duplicate the Text Layer

Next, select your text layer in the Layer palette, Control-click on it, and choose Duplicate Layer from the menu. Call the Duplicate layer Shadow Layer, if you like. Once you've duplicated it, drag it in the Layer palette so it's below the original text layer:

Duplicate text layer

Step 5 - Flip the Shadow Layer

Next, with the Shadow Layer selected, choose Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical to flip the duplicate layer on its axis.

Flip shadow layer

Step 6 - Nudge the Shadow Layer

Now, with the Move tool selected (making sure the Shadow Layer is still selected), nudge the Shadow Layer down with the Down Arrow key until it exactly lines up with the bottom edge of the original text.

Nudge the shadow layer

Step 7 - Rasterize the Shadow Layer

At this point, because of the next series of modifications we're going to do on the Shadow Layer, we need to rasterize it, or turn it into pixels. Photoshop won't let us do these operations on the original vector text layer so with the Shadow Layer selected, choose Layer > Rasterize > Type. You won't see a difference at this point, but now we can continue with "shadowizing" the text layer.

Step 8 - Fill the Shadow Layer with Black

Next, set your Foreground Color to black (if it isn't already) and choose Edit > Fill.... In the Fill dialog, set Use: to Foreground Color, leave Blending Mode set to Normal, Opacity to 100%, and make sure Preserve Transparency is checked. This will ensure that only the text itself is filled with black, not the entire layer:

Fill the shadow layer with black

Then click OK to fill the Shadow Layer text with black.

Fill the shadow layer with black 2

Step 9 - Add Perspective Distortion to the Shadow Layer

Next, we'll distort the Shadow Layer to add a sense of perspective to it. So, with the Shadow Layer selected, choose Edit > Transform > Perspective, then drag horizontally on either the bottom right or bottom left handle on the Transform control box. This will proportionally distort the layer to simulate perspective.

Adding perspective

Finally, hit Enter to set the transformation.

Step 10 - Fade the Shadow Layer

Our next step is to add a Layer Mask to the Shadow Layer to both fade it out a little as it gets further away from the original text, and to provide us with a blur map later—we'll explain what that means in a bit. But first, with the Shadow Layer selected in the Layer palette, click the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layer palette to add a Layer Mask to the Shadow Layer.

Fade shadow layer

Then, with that Layer Mask selected in the Layer Palette, grab the Gradient Tool (making sure your foreground color is black and your background white), and drag vertically, from bottom to top, through one of the characters in your Shadow text to create a gradient in the Layer Mask that will fade the letters out as they stretch.

Fade shadow layer 2

As you can see, we're getting pretty close to a reasonable cast shadow; a little perspective blurring, and we'll be done. 

Step 11 - Progressively Blur the Shadow Layer

Now, if we just added a standard Gaussian Blur to our Shadow Layer, we'd have something that would look pretty good. But a more realistic effect would be to increasingly blur the shadow the further it stretches from the original text. To do that, we'll use the Lens Blur.

So, with the Shadow Layer selected (not its Layer Mask), choose Filter >  Blur > Lens Blur... to open the Lens Blur dialog.

Blur the shadow layer

We can use the default settings here for the most part (you can see that this filter gives us a nice photographic blur), but the key to our effect here is the Depth Map setting. Using a Depth Map will let us use the layer's alpha channel or layer mask  to progressively blur the shadow. And since we already have a gradient layer mask in our Shadow Layer that aligns with the shadow, we can use that.

So, under Depth Map, choose Layer Mask as the Source, then click the Invert checkbox. Now adjust the Blur Focal Distance slider so that the blur starts more or less in the middle of the text and blurs more towards the bottom. You may also want to increase the Iris Radius to increase the amount of blur; this will depend on your image's resolution and your particular text. (You should, of course, experiment with the other settings too to see if that improves the effect.) When you're done, you should see something like this:

Blur the shadow layer 2

Click OK, and your final results should look something like this:

Final image

And there you go! Some variations to try are different types or degrees of transformation on the shadow, which will create different perspective or depth effects, changing the Lens Blur settings, colorizing the shadow, and so on. I'll leave those up to you. And as always, experiment, and have fun.

Richard Lainhart

Richard Lainhart | Articles by this author

Richard Lainhart is an award-winning composer, filmmaker, and author. His compositions have been performed in the US, Europe Asia, and Australia, and recordings of his music have appeared on the Periodic Music, Vacant Lot, XI Records, Airglow Music, Tobira Records, Infrequency, VICMOD, and ExOvo labels. His animations and short films have been shown in festivals in the US, Europe, and Asia, and online at ResFest, The New Venue, The Bitscreen, and Streaming Cinema 2.0. He has authored over a dozen technical manuals for music and video hardware and software, served as Contributing Editor for Interactivity and 3D Design Magazines, and contributed to books on digital media production published by IDG, Peachpit Press, McGraw Hill, and Miller Freeman Books. Previously an Adobe Certified Expert in After Effects and Premiere, a demo artist for Adobe Systems, and co-founder of the official New York City After Effects User Group, he was, from 2000-2009, Technical Director for Total Training Productions, an innovative digital media training company based in New York and California.


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