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Lifting Shadows from the Background in Photoshop Elements

An image showing the before and after images of the technique


I recently saw a question on another forum asking how to separate an object and its original shadows from their background in Photoshop Elements, in order to place them on a new background. By a strange coincidence, I was working on this technique myself; so it made perfect sense to write it up as a tutorial.

The key to the technique is using the object’s luminance channel – the highlight and shadow areas. By doing this we can isolate the darker areas of the image, using the  resulting selection to create a separate shadow layer. In Photoshop we can do this using the composite RGB layer in the Channels panel, or with the Color Range command. In Elements we need to think a little more laterally.

We’ll use a simple object on a plain white background here as it’s easy to select and demonstrate the technique, but it will work with almost any shape and size of image. A good example would for changing the background of a product shot for Etsy or eBay. Although we could simply extract the object on its own and create our own shadow, if we can use the real one, we’ll get a much more realistic result.


A screengrab showing a football with a selection border

We’ll begin by selecting the ball with the Elliptical Marquee tool (keyboard shortcut M). Go to Layer > New > Layer via copy (or press cmd/ctrl + j). We now have a new layer containing just the ball.

An image showing a layer mask attached to the main image

Go back to the Layer menu. Select Layer Mask > Reveal All, or click the new layer mask icon in the Layers panel. We’re not going to use this in the way we’d normally apply a mask, however; in this instance we’re going to be using it for a completely different purpose.

An image showing the entire document selected

Click the background layer’s thumbnail in the Layers panel to make it active again. Go to Edit > Select All (or press cmd/ctrl + a) to select the whole document. Go back to the Edit menu and select Copy (cmd/ctrl + c).

An image showing a copy of the image pasted into the layer mask

Hold the opt/alt key down. Now click the layer mask’s thumbnail. The image will go white; we’re now editing the mask directly as an alpha channel. Go to Edit > Paste (or press cmd/ctrl + v) to paste a copy of the background layer into the mask. We won’t see anything happen to the image itself, this is OK.

An image showing the highlights of the image selected

Hold cmd/ctrl. Click the mask’s thumbnail. We now have some of the ball and a small part of the shadow selected. What we have done here is loaded the image’s luminance (highlights and shadows) values as a selection.

An image showing the shadows of the object selected

Currently the selected area contains the highlights, we need the shadows, of course. Go to Select > Inverse (or cmd/ctrl + shift + i). We’ve inverted the selection so now only the shadows are selected.

An image showing a new layer filled in black using the shadows selection

Click the background layer’s thumbnail again to make it active. Now click the new layer icon in the Layers panel, or go to Layer > New layer. Make sure the background colour is set to black. Press cmd/ctrl + backspace to fill the selection with black. If we look at the Layers panel, we see a partial version of the ball.

An image showing the layer without its layer mask

The ball itself appears darker than before; this is because it’s being partially hidden by the mask, so we can see the additional black from the layer below. Right click on the mask thumbnail. Select Delete Layer Mask. The ball looks normal again.

An image showing the ball against a different colour background

Go to Select > Deselect (or press cmd/ctrl + d). Although we can’t see it at the moment, we now have a perfect copy of the shadow, separate from the ball. To demonstrate: click the background layer’s thumbnail once more. Go to Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color. Click OK to accept the default settings. Now use the colour picker to create a new backdrop color.

An image showing the ball in a new image against a photographic background

To make the shadow permanent, click the ball layer’s thumbnail. Now go to Layer > Merge Down (or press cmd/ctrl + e). The shadow is now part of the ball’s layer but still remains semi-transparent, so we could drop the ball onto a completely different image and the shadow would blend into its new background.

About David Asch (32 Articles)
David Asch is an accomplished author, artist and designer based in Brighton, UK. To date he has written two books on Adobe Photoshop Elements for Focal Press: Focus on Photoshop Elements and How to Cheat in Photoshop Elements, now in its 7th edition. He also co-wrote Digital Photo Doctor for Ilex Press and have had work featured in many UK magazines. As well as books on digital imaging, he is also the author of Creative Web Design with Adobe Muse, again for Focal Press. David also designs websites and the occasional logo. When he's not doing this, he likes to roam with a camera, capturing the sights. Some of these are posted to his photography gallery, others may make a guest appearance in his photomontage gallery.

7 Comments on Lifting Shadows from the Background in Photoshop Elements

  1. janetb // 16/11/2012 at 2:32 pm //


    I’m the one from the other forum…:-)….

    Is this just for v.10??? I don’t have Layer>Layer Mask, or a Layer Mask icon in the Layers panel…:-(…

  2. Hi Janet,

    Elements 9, 10 and 11 have layer masks. For earlier versions create a new Levels adjustment layer; Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels. Click OK to accept the default settings. You can use the mask attached to the adjustment layer instead.


  3. janetb // 16/11/2012 at 3:09 pm //

    How funny–I had just tried that and thought Hmmm–looks good, but it’s not on the same layer…:-)….I will now continue…

  4. janetb // 16/11/2012 at 3:27 pm //

    Where you say:
    ” Go to Edit > Paste (or press cmd/ctrl + v) to paste a copy of the background layer into the mask. We won’t see anything happen, this is OK.”

    I do see something happen: The whole backfround image gets pasted over the white mask icon, so instead of it being the white rectangle it was, it turned into the full background image.

  5. Yes, that’s correct; what it means by not seeing anything happen is that the image itself won’t be affected. In fact, using an adjustment layer is better than an inline mask as it will never have an effect on the image.

    I’ll amend the wording 🙂

  6. janetb // 16/11/2012 at 4:32 pm //

    Cool! But I sure would like to know what we’re doing here..:-)… For instance, what is holding down the alt key while clicking the mask’s thumbnail a shortcut for? Why does it go white? What’s going on there? What is holding control by clicking the mask’s thumbnail a shortcut for? Where does one learn these things (shortcuts)? How could one know you can edit a mask directly, or even, more select highlights/luminance??

  7. As with many things in Photoshop and Elements, using the Opt/Alt modifier to edit the mask is just what it does, there’s no alternate way to do it. The screen goes white because, by default, the mask is set to reveal all. If it was set to hide all, it would show as completely black.
    When you hold Cmd/Ctrl and click a layer thumbnail, it will load the layer’s active pixels as a selection. Doing the same on the mask loads the luminance values; again, it’s just what it does.
    As to how you learn things like this, it’s often just what you pick up along the way, or by experimentation. The more obscure things often filter down from the Adobe engineers themselves.

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