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Getting Started With Photoshop Actions


Actions are one of the most powerful features in Adobe Photoshop. With actions you can automate almost anything. If you have a process that you regularly do over and over, actions can really save you a lot of time.

As you start using more advanced Photoshop techniques, you’ll find that many of them involve multiple steps. For example, setting up a portrait for frequency separation retouching requires you to go through at least six steps. With an action, you can combine all of them into a single button press.

In this tutorial you'll learn how to get started with actions.

colour toning action results
The layers created by my colour toning action.

How to Install Actions

There are two ways to get actions: you can build your own or install ones created by someone else. Building your own gives you the most control but it can be a complicated process. If you can find a high quality action that someone else has made, it can save you a lot of time.

The Envato Market has hundreds of great actions for sale. You can often find one that does what you’re looking for. You can also find hundreds of actions available for free online although they aren’t always very good.

To install an action, download the .ATN file. Open the Actions Panel in Photoshop and select Load Actions from the dropdown. Navigate to the .ATN file and select Load. The actions will then be available for you to use.

For a more detailed walkthrough, check out Kirk Nelson’s tutorial on installing Photoshop actions.

In Defence of Presets

Actions can be a divisive subject. Some photographers dismiss them as a heavy handed tool for beginners. While there is some truth to this—a lot of bad, free actions get overused by photographers when they’re just starting out—there are plenty of great reasons to use actions in your workflow. 

The biggest problem with actions is when someone uses them to apply a complete effect without tweaking it in anyway for the specific image. The final effect is normally over-the-top and ugly. This is the wrong way to use actions.

Instead, actions should be used to automate different parts of your workflow, not slapping on someone else's. For example, rather than applying a gaudy high-contrast sepia effect, an action should create the layers for you to add your own split toning. The default can be sepia, but the layers should be easy for you to modify so they work for that image.

I’ve written a full defence of presets and actions before. If you’re still not sure where actions can fit into your workflow, check out my article on five reasons to automate your post-production.

What are Photoshop Actions and How to Create Them?

You’ve probably picked up by now that, while I’m a huge fan of actions, I’m not always big on using ones created by other people. I think that by far the best way to use them is to create actions that fit your needs perfectly. While it’s a bit more effort, it pays off in a big way. I use two or three actions on every image I edit—collectively they’ve saved me days of post-processing time. 

To record an action in Photoshop, open the Actions Panel, press the New Action button and then press the Record icon. Every step you take will be saved. For example, if you create a Curves adjustment layer, that will be added to the new action. When you run it, an identical Curves layer will be created.

Melody Nieves has a great article that covers the basics of creating Photoshop actions as well as offering some really helpful tips. If, however, you’re completely new to actions, Kirk Nelson’s course, Building Your Own Actions in Adobe Photoshop, is the best place to start.

Finding the Actions In Your Workflow

The hardest part of creating your own actions isn’t the actual recording, but thinking about your workflow and breaking down what you want an action to do. It’s too easy to limit your actions to a single, specific situation rather than creating ones that can work with any image. It’s not about creating a single perfect action, but rather using them to assist in how you approach post-processing.

Go For Broad Strokes Over Specifics

The best analogy I’ve found is to think of actions as a Swiss Army Knife: you won’t use every tool each time, but it’s really handy to have them available. For that reason, I tend to create broad, all-encompassing actions with more layers than I need. I can always delete the layers I don’t use.

As an example, I’ve an action for colour toning images in Photoshop. It creates five layers:

  • A Gradient Map layer that I can modify to have any effect I want.
  • A Solid Colour layer that’s limited to the Highlights.
  • A Solid Colour layer that’s limited to the Shadows.
  • A HSL layer.
  • A Curves layer.

I’ll rarely use all five layers to colour tone an image; instead, I’ll use two or three and delete the rest. However, the action provides me with all the tools I need to colour tone almost any image at the single click of a button. It’s a Swiss Army Knife.

Find The Repetition

The key is to analyse your workflow from a high level to find repetitive techniques that can turned into actions. Adding an action too early when you're learning how to process photographs in a particular style can actually be detrimental: not doing the work manually stops you from feeling things through. It's the sticky points, the things you find yourself doing over and over again, that are perfect for automation.

Rather than creating three or four different colour toning actions, it’s better to create one that can be adjusted so that it works for any image. I always colour tone my photos, but the technique I use depends on the effect I want. Make action that are flexible enough to work in a variety of situations.

If there are steps, such as cleaning up an image, that you always do but you often use different techniques, look at how you can combine them into a single Swiss Army Knife action. I’ve similar actions for dodging and burning, black and white conversions, and sharpening.

I’ve gone into more detail on how to break your workflow into actions in this article. While it is more concerned with creating actions for a consistent post-processing approach than general tools, everything I said in it still holds true.

Wrapping Up

Actions are one of my favourite Photoshop features. They save you a tonne of time and make using Photoshop much more pleasant. Over the next few months, I’m going to be covering actions in more detail by breaking down and teaching you how to build some of my actions.

If you’ve any questions about actions, please ask away in the comments. I’m happy to help.

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