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We all know the default Photoshop drop shadow:

enter image description here

I know that ideal is subjective, but I have a hard time producing anything that doesn't seem nearly as crude as this does.

A drop shadow that is more "ideal" is one like this:

enter image description here

I love how the drop shadow is sharp and defined (almost black) up close to the object, but has a large spread. I suspect it might be achievable with contours, but I don't know well how to utilize them.

This is a quick effort:

enter image description hereenter image description here

And these settings don't work well at all on text.

Anyone have any better advice? How do I produce a drop shadow that isn't as crude-looking as the default? Using what techniques can I achieve drop shadows like in the example image?

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That image is not one shadow... it's at least 2, if not 3. – Scott Mar 28 '12 at 4:44
There's no ideal drop shadow, so as it's currently phrased, this is not a productive or answerable question. However, if you want a drop shadow that is like those pictured, you simply need to soften the drop shadow and increase its opacity and perhaps a little bit more spread. The reason you can't reproduce it is because you're using different foreground and background colors. If you use a dark background that is closer to the shadow color and a lighter foreground color, then there will be sharper contrast between the FG and shadow while blending the shadow with the BG more. – Lèse majesté Mar 28 '12 at 5:14
@Lèsemajesté Added answerable questions. – NickC Mar 28 '12 at 5:36
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Scott is right. To reproduce the effect I had to use 3 sets of drop shadows. One for the buttons, one for the text, and one that is slightly in-between the two. Here is the result:

(The right half of each icon is the original; the left half is the reproduction.)

Drop shadow sample next to original

There are some kerning differences, and I didn't bother to reproduce the background noise, but it's fairly close for a quick mockup.

Here are the settings for the two main shadows: enter image description here

Here is the PSD file.

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