Oscar Jite-Orimiono I'm a self taught frontend web developer. I build websites so everyone finds a home online. The digital space is massive, full of endless possibilities, let's explore it together!

3 ways to style CSS box-shadow effects

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Styling CSS box-shadow effects in three ways

Nowadays, it’s not enough that a website does its job — it has to take the user on a journey, an aesthetically pleasing journey of hues, fonts, shades, and everything in between. Websites have to look and feel realistic, and shadows play a big part.

In this post, we’ll look at the box-shadow CSS property and how you can style it in three different ways:

  1. Layered shadows
  2. Neon shadows
  3. Neumorphic shadows

We’ll also cover:

This is intended for frontend developers with a working knowledge of HTML and CSS. You should also be familiar with the box-shadow property.

What is the box-shadow property?

The box-shadow property allows you add a shadow around an element on a webpage. It can tell us if an element like a button, navigation item, or a text card is interactive.

Our eyes are used to seeing shadows. They give an idea of an object’s size and depth, and the box-shadow brings this realism into our online experience. When styled properly, it can improve the aesthetics of the webpage.

Let’s look at how a typical box-shadow in declared in CSS:

box-shadow: 0px 5px 10px 0px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5)

The first four values are:

  1. The x-offset, which represents the horizontal shadow position
  2. The y-offset, which represents the shadow’s position vertically
  3. The blur radius, which affects the sharpness of the shadow; higher values mean lighter shadows, and vice versa
  4. The fourth value defines the spread

All of these except the blur radius can be negative values. For instance, the snippet above will place the box-shadow on the bottom of the element, but if you add negative values like below, the shadow will be on top:

box-shadow: 0px -5px 10px 0px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5)

An image demonstrating the effect of positive and negative offset values

We made a custom demo for .
No really. Click here to check it out.

The spread value set at 0px will make the shadow the same size as the box; a positive value will increase its size and a negative value will shrink it.

Making the shadows feel realistic

The next value is the color. We’ll be using rgba() colors because of their alpha value. With this, we can specify opacity, which is an important aspect to consider when styling realistic shadows. Shadows in well-lit spaces aren’t black or completely opaque, you can see the color of the area the shadow is cast on.

When styling the box-shadow property, remember that transparent shadows are the best because they look great on multicolored backgrounds. Look around and observe how shadows behave in relation to their light sources; you’ll want to keep this in mind when styling with CSS.

Diagram demonstrating how to observe shadows in the real world
Source: How to Draw Journey

The area closest to the object has the darkest shadows, then it spreads and blurs outwards gradually. Opaque or completely black shadows would be distracting, ugly, and imply a complete blockage of light, which isn’t what we’re after.

Avoid the dropshadow() filter

This is a filter that adds a drop shadow around an image. It’s not the same as box-shadow, which is important to note when adding shadows to images.

The below code snippet shows the distinction between these filters.

box-shadow: 5px 5px 5px 0px rgba(0,0,0,0.3);
filter: drop-shadow(5px 5px 5px rgba(0,0,0,0.3));

The drop shadow CSS filter versus the box-shadow CSS property

Basics with box-shadows

To get started, first create a simple box container with HTML:

<body>
    <div class=box>
    </div>
</body>

Next, the CSS:

div{
  height: 150px;
  width: 150px;
  background: #fff;
  border-radius: 20px;
 }
.box{
  box-shadow: 0px 5px 10px 0px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5); 
}

This will be the output:

The basic box shadow we've created

Using box-shadow with the :hover pseudo class and transform property

The box-shadow can also be affected by the :hover pseudo class. You could add a shadow to a component that didn’t previously have one, or make changes to an existing shadow. In this example, the transform property modifies our shadow.

.box:hover{
  box-shadow: 0px 10px 20px 5px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5);
  transform: translateY(-5px);
}

The transform property aids the illusion of the box being lifted further off the page. In this example, the translate() function is used to resize the box.

The inset keyword can be added to put the shadow inside the frame of the box or element. The box will appear to have sunk into the page.

.box2{
  box-shadow: inset 0px 5px 10px 0px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5);
}
.box2:hover{
  transform: translateY(5px);
  box-shadow: inset 0px 10px 20px 2px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.25);
}

Basically, you can play with the values until you get what you like. This is what the final shadows will look like using these examples:

See the Pen
Simple Box-shadow
by Oscar-Jite (@oscar-jite)
on CodePen.

An alternative to the translate() function is scale(). While translate() changes the shadow position along the x- and y-axes, scale() increases the size of the box along the x- and y-axes.

Let’s demonstrate. On the second box, add the scale() value on :hover:

.box2:hover {
  transform: scale(1.1);
  box-shadow: 0px 10px 20px 2px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.25);
}

This will increase the size of the box by 1.1x the original size.

See the Pen
Translate and scale
by Oscar-Jite (@oscar-jite)
on CodePen.

You don’t want ugly, botched, or boring shadows that look amateurish on a webpage. There are a number of ways to improve the look of the box-shadow and use it nicely and effectively — all of which I’ll explain in the following sections.

Creating layered shadows with CSS box-shadow

You can stack multiple shadows on top of each other by separating their values with commas. This technique can be used to create interesting shadows that blend smoothly into the page.

Let’s demonstrate with CSS:

box-shadow: 0px 1px 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.1), 
            0px 2px 4px rgba(0,0,0,0.1), 
            0px 4px 8px rgba(0,0,0,0.1), 
            0px 8px 16px rgba(0,0,0,0.1);

Notice the spread value isn’t added — it’s not really needed in this case, but ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how your box-shadow looks.

If we set the offset and blur radius to 0px and add a spread value to one shadow, we will add a border to the box.

box-shadow: 0px 0px 0px 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.5), 
            0px 2px 4px rgba(0,0,0,0.1),
            0px 4px 8px rgba(0,0,0,0.1),
            0px 8px 16px rgba(0,0,0,0.1);

Since this border is technically a shadow because no extra space is taken up by the box in the parent element.

This is what the output will look using these two techniques:

Creating a layered box-shadow with CSS and borders

Notice the smooth subtle shadow on the left box. The box on the right shows the shadow border.

Now, let’s look at the box-shadow in a practical scenario. This property can be used on almost any element on a webpage, but the more common ones include the navbar, text cards, and images. It can also be added to input fields and buttons.

See the Pen
Layered shadow Page
by Oscar-Jite (@oscar-jite)
on CodePen.

Build a simple webpage like the one shown in the demo, and try styling the box-shadow yourself!

Creating neon shadows with CSS box-shadow

Real-life shadows are usually black or gray, with varying amounts of opacity. But what if shadows had colors?

In the real world, you get colored shadows by changing the color of the light source. There’s no “real” light source equivalent to change on a website, so you get this neon effect by changing the color value on the box-shadow.

Let’s change the color on our first example:

.box{
  box-shadow: 0px 5px 10px 0px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.7); 
}
.box2{
  box-shadow: inset 0px 5px 10px 0px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.7);
}

This is the output:

See the Pen
Neon Shadows
by Oscar-Jite (@oscar-jite)
on CodePen.

You can get a more vibrant glow by layering the shadows:

box-shadow: 0px 1px 2px 0px rgba(0,255,255,0.7),
            1px 2px 4px 0px rgba(0,255,255,0.7),
            2px 4px 8px 0px rgba(0,255,255,0.7),
            2px 4px 16px 0px rgba(0,255,255,0.7);

Our more vibrant neon shadow

The best way to showcase colored shadows, especially neon ones, is on a dark-themed webpage. Dark themes are very popular and this effect can complement it nicely if you use the right colors.

All the heavy lifting has been done in the previous examples, so let’s darken the earlier site demo and see the result!

See the Pen
Neon Shadow Demo
by Oscar-Jite (@oscar-jite)
on CodePen.

It’s best to use colors that contrast well, as we’ve done in this demo. The blue box-shadow stands out well against the dark background. To make it brighter, you can increase the opacity.

Creating neumorphic shadows with CSS box-shadow

This effect is unique and visually pleasing. It came from skeuomorphism, which tried to replicate objects exactly as they would appear in real life. There are some examples in the linked article on skeuomorphism, but a quick example is the early Apple device UI.

The first two effects we need to create deal with flat web components that seem to float above the page and cast shadows on the background. This effect makes these components look like they extrude from the page.

box-shadow: -10px -10px 15px rgba(255,255,255,0.5),
            10px 10px 15px rgba(70,70,70,0.12);

We can also place them on the inside:

box-shadow: inset -10px -10px 15px rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.5), 
           inset 10px 10px 15px rgba(70, 70, 70, 0.12);

An example of the neumorphic box-shadow we'll create

There are two box-shadows working opposite each other in the above example. The white box-shadow shows the direction of the light source and serves as a highlight. It’s similar to what we see in real life.

See the Pen
Neumorphic Shadows
by Oscar-Jite (@oscar-jite)
on CodePen.

Neumorphic design mimics real life objects. It doesn’t entirely replicate things, but it looks real enough, like you could reach out and touch it.

Now let’s create something cool, a push switch using a checkbox.

The push switch we'll create using a checkbox and CSS box-shadow
To get started, create a checkbox input.

<body>
    <input type="checkbox" />
</body>

Now for the CSS:

input[type="checkbox"] {
  height: 200px;
  width: 200px;
  top: 50%;
  left: 50%;
  -webkit-appearance: none;
  box-shadow: 
    -10px -10px 15px rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.5),
    10px 10px 15px rgba(70, 70, 70, 0.12);
  position: absolute;
  transform: translate(-50%, -50%);
  border-radius: 50%; /*Makes the circle*/
  border: 20px solid #ececec;
  outline: none;
  display: flex;
  align-items: center;
  justify-content: center;
  cursor: pointer;
}

Next, adding the icon. I got this particular icon from Font Awesome. Link the CDN and copy the icon’s Unicode.

input[type="checkbox"]::after {
  font-family: FontAwesome;
  content: "\f011"; /*ON/OFF icon Unicode*/
  color: #7a7a7a;
  font-size: 70px;
}

Set the properties for when the button is clicked. We’re adding the box-shadow inside the circle, so that means creating two inset layers.

input[type="checkbox"]:checked{
  box-shadow: 
  -10px -10px 15px rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.5),
  10px 10px 15px rgba(70, 70, 70, 0.12),
  inset -10px -10px 15px rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.5),
  inset 10px 10px 15px rgba(70, 70, 70, 0.12);
}

Finally, set the color of the icon after the click.

input[type="checkbox"]:checked::after{
  color: #15e38a;
}

The result:

See the Pen
Switch
by Oscar-Jite (@oscar-jite)
on CodePen.

CSS box-shadow browser support

It’s important to note that the box-shadow is not fully supported on all browsers, especially earlier versions, so it’s necessary to use the webkit extension when styling shadows.

-webkit-box-shadow: 1px 1px 0px rgba(0,0,0,0.1);/*For webkit browsers*/
-moz-box-shadow: 1px 1px 0px rgba(0,0,0,0.1);/*For Firefox*/
box-shadow: 1px 1px 0px rgba(0,0,0,0.1);

This property is partially supported in Chrome from version 4 to 9, using the prefix -webkit-, and it’s fully supported from version 10.

For Mozilla Firefox, versions 2 and 3 do not support CSS box-shadow. It’s partially supported on 3.5 and 3.6 using the -moz- prefix and fully supported from version 4.

The now-retired Internet Explorer supports this property from versions 9, 10, and 11, and is also supported on all versions of its successor, Microsoft Edge.

The Safari browser versions 3.1 and 4 partially support this property with the prefix -webkit-, and fully supports it from version 5. Opera browsers support box-shadow, except version 10.1 .

If a browser doesn’t support shadows, they are just omitted from the webpage with no effect on the layout.

Tips on using box-shadow

The box-shadow is a really nice way to make your website look good, but it could easily ruin your project if it’s not used properly. Here are some tips to consider when styling shadows:

Less is more

When layering shadows, the browser does more work. This might not be an issue on fast modern devices, but you always have to consider users with older, slower devices or poor internet connections.

Be consistent

You can’t have your shadows looking haphazard! All your shadows should look similar because you should be using a single light source.

Use animations sparingly

A quick way to reduce performance is by animating the box-shadow. Plus, this property already looks great on its own, so there’s really no need for animation.

Animations can be a simple :hover to transition, add minimally.

Use a shadow layering tool

Now, if you don’t feel like writing multiple lines of code, you’re tired, or just feeling lazy, there’s a great tool at shadows.brumm.af that can help you create layered shadows. It allows you add as many as 10 box-shadow layers to your object, which saves time as you don’t have to manually enter multiple values to get the perfect shadow. Plus, you can get more intricate shadow values a bit more quickly.

Setting our box-shadow properties using the shadow tool

The preview of our shadow and the final code to produce it

Simply set the properties, preview the box-shadow, copy and paste the code in your project and you’re set!

Conclusion

We’ve looked at how to layer shadows, how to create neon shadows and transform them into highlights, and how to bring realism online with neumorphic shadows. You’re well on your way to becoming a shadow expert!

Practice makes perfect, so try styling some shadows yourself. See how many box-shadow layers you can add to an element. Try combining colors and see what works. Remember to test on as many devices as possible for optimal performance.

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Oscar Jite-Orimiono I'm a self taught frontend web developer. I build websites so everyone finds a home online. The digital space is massive, full of endless possibilities, let's explore it together!

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