Light and Shadows – Feathering Gradients in Photoshop

The Overview


The Basics of Feathering and Getting Started

gradientcompareSo what is feathering? Please refer to the helpful comparison on your left. Feathering softens the edges of the gradient, which will help create convincing lighting that will blend nicely.
We will be making use of the marquee tool frequently throughout this tutorial, so you’ll save yourself some time if you are already familiar with it.

First we’ll want to take the basic, unshaded version of whatever we are editing. In this case we will be editing snow on a floating rock. I have provided it for you in the attached files under before.psd.

Step 1 – Shade That Snow!

In order to create convincing shadows on the snow, they have to conform to the shape of the snow banks. CMD + Click (Ctrl +Click on Windows) the Snow – Bottom Spillover layer to highlight it with the marquee tool.

Now that we have our foundation selected, let’s refine it to the region we want to add a shadow to – select the elliptical marquee tool and hold Shift+Alt/Option (your mouse should now have the marquee symbol with an X in the bottom left), then select the region you want to edit within your marquee.

Your before and after should look something like this:


Now we are going to apply the gradient, complete with the feathering effect. To do this, go to Select>Modify>Feather in the top menu.

At this point you should be prompted for the feather radius. Basically the larger the number you put here the more drastically the edges will be softened, in this case we will want this to be 5px. Now add the gradient, making it look similar to below.


Next we’ll want to polish up what we’ve just done. You’ll notice that because of feathering some of the gradient edges have spilled over past the marquee, we’ll want to take care of that to add a crisp look to our design. If you do choose to leave this spillover there you will get a hazy look to your design, which is cool too.

We are going to want to CMD + Click (Ctrl + Click Windows) the Snow – Bottom Spillover layer again, and then select the inverse of it (CMD + Shift + I  for Mac / CTRL + Shift + I for Windows). Once you’ve done this you can press delete/backspace to clear the spillover. The following picture should match yours after doing so.


From here you can play with the opacity until you find what fits nicely into your design. The process of shading the rest of the snow is pretty much rinse and repeat of what we’ve just done. In some instances you will want to make use of addition/subtraction with the marquee tool (Shift for adding/Alt for subtracting) in order to make your shadows believable.

Play around with it and get comfortable with this process, below are a few screencaps to help you along.


Step 2 – Shade That Rock!

The next part of our design is the rock face underneath the snow. You’ll notice many of the same techniques from step 1 will be used again here, making things a little easier.

Let’s start off by making a generic dark crevice in order to create a true rock “feel”. You can do this with brushes with the airbrush box checked, but in this case I’m going to stick with gradients. Make a new layer and use a gradient to create something like what is shown below – you do not have to feather it, but feel free to.


Now that we have a crevice to work with we can go about duplicating, resizing and scattering it around to create the full rock effect. You are free to pioneer different rock crevices, I duplicated my original to save time.

Here’s what my rock looks like afterwards (you’ll noticed I applied one shadow based on step 1’s process).


And then continuing on with the same routine brings me something like this.


Lighting is still missing, so let’s fix that up real quick. My approach to light is the same as shadow, only this time we’ll use white gradients.

Additionally, I utilized layer masks to polish up the lighting until I was happy with it. If you aren’t well versed in layer masks, check out this tutorial and get educated.


While these gradients may seem like subtle/unnoticeable changes, all together they create a pretty convincing lighting effect. Again this stage is going to involve some playing around to get it right.

Step 3 – Polish and Finish

Keep on fiddling with it until you arrive at a point where you are happy. I went on and revisited the snow, finishing out with the following.


Closing Summary

The inspiration for this article came from a design that I did for my friend over at HeatedCold Productions, a video editing company, really top notch stuff. I reverse engineered this tutorial from the .psd I had on hand, which is why you may notice a difference between the final product we came up with and the one below.


I have included this in the download (detailed.psd) for you to play around with and maybe even get inspired by. Disclaimer: It’s not exactly the best organized.

So that’s feathering, I hope you have a good sense of the basics now. I’d love to hear your thoughts/see your creations in the comments. Have at it and enjoy yourselves!

Posted Saturday, March 21st, 2009 · Back to Top


Add Comment

24 Comments 31 Mentions

  1. Bill Lowden Author Editor

    Very nice! Thanks for the tutorial.


  2. Cristhian Bedon Author Editor

    Great tutorial and a break down on feathering.


  3. Peter Steen Høgenhaug Author Editor

    I’m stunned! Thank you very much…


  4. Erick Patrick Author Editor

    It´s a great one, many of my friends must read this before try anything and fails ;P


  5. Ian Stradling Author Editor

    great little tutorial! I have a hard time getting things to look like they’re not just laying flat on a page. This really helps!


  6. psaddict Author Editor

    Added to

    psaddict’s last blog post..Light and Shadows – Feathering Gradients


  7. sn.naqvi Author Editor


    sn.naqvi’s last blog post..Complete Web Social Icons


  8. Art Author Editor

    wow man ur really really good :)

    Art’s last blog post..Blasting Art Contest!!!


  9. Brochures Author Editor

    Excellent tutorial! Very detailed and useful, as this can be applied to lots of stuff. Thanks for sharing this!


  10. Markus Author Editor

    That’s really useful. I thought it’s hard to make realistic shadows but this tutorial should help me.

    Markus’s last blog post..Blogitzeljagd 3


  11. PB Author Editor

    Hi this is a good tutorial.

    For those of us who are beginners with photoshop and would like to recreate the scene, can you give detailed information of how to create and add those gradients.



  12. Sam Dunn Author Editor

    I used all the above techniques to create the gradients for the final scene image. Is there a particular part you are confused with?


  13. Sayz Author Editor

    I find this tutorial shows me another way to refine a photo, cool…

    Sayz’s last blog post..15 Inspirational Website Header


  14. Guild Invite Author Editor

    Interesting, definitely a creative example to use for something that would normally be a pretty boring tutorial on other blogs. Great job!


  15. huwaw69 Author Editor

    HEAT COLD!!!! hahaha nice tutorial man! this rocks
    just like winter x games energy drinks

    huwaw69’s last blog post..Diverse Photoshop Design Inspiration # 12


  16. Enk. Author Editor

    Wow, That was a cool tut ! :)

    Enk.’s last blog post..30 Typographic Logos – Inspiration


  17. jian zhang Author Editor

    thank you~!


  18. Claudia Author Editor

    Thanks for sharing, great gradients!


  19. Free Computer Tips Author Editor

    Oh great. that’s fantastic,


  20. akam Author Editor

    really so nice


  21. Ashish Gaikwad Author Editor

    Nice one! Great realistic shadows with a simple trick.


  22. syead amjath Author Editor

    Very nice.thank you


  23. L.H. Author Editor

    I have a question. Can I use this template in a photoshop creation that I am going to submit to Sony for a contest?


  24. kiran Author Editor

    Very realistic……thanks for sharing



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