Light and Shadows – Feathering Gradients in Photoshop
The Basics of Feathering and Getting Started
So 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.
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!