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How to Build Custom Photoshop Actions For Your Photography Workflow

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Designing Photoshop actions is easy as long as you approach it in the right way. If you just jump in and start recording random things, you’ll get disillusioned, fast. The actions you build won’t work all the time, they’ll throw up random errors, and just not behave as you expect.

In this tutorial we’re going to going beyond simple actions and look at how to build complex ones. It’s all about the best way to approach things. Let’s get started.

The Plan

If you’re designing a complex action, you need to approach it properly. If you don’t build it correctly you’ll run into problems later on when you try to use it on other images that aren’t the one you created it with.

You need to start with a plan. Think about what you want the action to accomplish. Is it to develop a workflow, streamline repetitive steps, create a specific look or something else? 

You also need to consider what level of automation you want. Does the action do everything for you (usually a bad idea!) or just create the layers you need? Maybe you want it to fall somewhere in the middle where it creates all the layers and fills them with some default values that you then just have to tweak. 

Remember, automation is quite rigid. It ties you into one thing. This is good for creating consistency but can also limit how you approach your images. Consider whether you even need an action, or whether it’d be better to have several different actions that all do smaller steps in the process.

Once you’ve an idea in your mind for what you want the action to do, it’s time to start sketching.

1. Plan and Test The Effect

With the first sketch, you should know what you want the action to do and what layers it will take to make it, so just go and do it. You’re not looking to record the action yet, just get the effect working in Photoshop. Be conscious of the order you take to do things. It may even help to take notes.

sketch onesketch onesketch one
The first sketch for a black and white action.

With your first rough sketch, you’ll quickly realise what the best way to stack and organise the different layers is, which ones you want visible and whether the overall action will work. Play around with things until you’re happy. Consider this an extension of the planning stage.

2. Make a Rough Action

When you have the first sketch working, it’s time to build the action. Create a new action and start recording. Slowly work through building all the layers you need. 

Sometimes you’ll get the action perfect first time through, but most of the time you’ll find one or two spots where the order you thought you should do things in doesn’t actually work. 

creating the second sketchcreating the second sketchcreating the second sketch
Creating the second sketch.

At this step, you should also consider how you want the final action organised. Do you want everything in folders or just as layers? In general, the best build order is to create everything and then tidy it up.

3. Build the Action

Now that you have a working, although rough, action you can go ahead and create the real thing. Work through everything deliberately, step-by-step applying everything you’ve learnt with the first two sketches. 

Once you’re done, you should have an action that works perfectly every time. 

Best Practices

Streamlining Steps

On general principle, you want actions to be as efficient as possible. If something should take one step and in your action it takes four, that’s bad design. Although it doesn’t matter so much now that computers are more powerful, it’s still better to make efficient actions.

dodge burn layerdodge burn layerdodge burn layer
This dodge and burn layer is being created in one step, rather than three or four.

When you’re working through the sketches look for places to streamline things. For example, if you’re creating a new layer, you can name it, select the blend mode and set the opacity all from the New Layer Dialogue Box. Don’t do it in three separate steps. There are countless little areas like this where things you do on a day to day basis in multiple steps can be combined into one step for actions.

Using Tools in Actions

Normally when you record an action, Photoshop ignores any tools you use. It’s safe to assume that most of the time you’re not going to need the same brush stroke or clone stamp on two separate images. Occasionally though, it can be useful.

The overlapping HG logo watermark was created with a custom brush.

For example, one of the easiest ways to apply a complex logo as a watermark is to turn it into a custom brush. If you’re creating an export action that applies that watermark, you obviously want Photoshop to remember how you use the brush tool.

To get Photoshop to record tools, click on the menu icon in the Actions Panel. Select Allow Tool Recording and anything you do with a tool will be tracked.

Unique Layer Names are Important

When you create a new layer in Photoshop, it gets called Layer 1 by default. If Layer 1 is already taken, Photoshop moves on to Layer 2 and so on. Most of the time, the only problem with using default names is that it makes it difficult to work out what layer does what; with actions, however, things can go wrong in very weird ways.

photoshop errorphotoshop errorphotoshop error
One of the errors Photoshop will throw if you mess up.

Let’s look at a simple example. Say you make an action that creates a new layer and applies an effect to it. When you create the action, the new layer will be called Layer 1 so that’s the layer that will be targeted by the effect. However, if you run the action in a document that already has a Layer 1, the action will create a new layer called Layer 2 and apply the effect to… Layer 1. Not what you wanted at all.

That’s why you always need to name your layers when you’re building actions. Anything else is leaving yourself at the whims of Photoshop.

How to Make Your Actions Appear on Top

When you run an action, the layers are created above whatever layer you currently have selected. This can make a mess of whatever organisation you already have going on. It’d be great if Photoshop let you set an action to create its layers on top of the layer stack automatically but it doesn’t. Instead, you need to do it manually.

If you want your actions to always appear on top, you need to set it up when you’re recording them. This tip won’t work in a document that only has a single layer. 

actions in the middleactions in the middleactions in the middle
You don't want your dodge and burn action creating layers in the middle of your toning group like has happened here.

Start recording an action and create a new layer. Next, press the keyboard shortcut Command-Shift-Left Square Bracket a couple of times to bring it to the front of the layer stack. If you only press it once, you run the risk of the layers only being brought to the top of the group.

Continue creating the action as normal. Now whenever you run the action, the layers will jump to the top of the stack.

Undo Your Mistakes

If you’re developing your own actions rather than just following along with one of our tutorials, it’s inevitable that you’ll make mistakes during the sketches or final build. The problem is that any mistakes you make are saved into the action. You can undo or delete the offending layer, but that adds unnecessary steps. 

Thankfully, Photoshop offers an easy way to undo any mistakes you make when recording an action. First, click the Stop button in the Actions Panel. Now you’re free to act without everything being recorded. 

Next, in the action, select the steps that are mistakes and drag them to the Trash icon. This will delete them.

Select the last good step in the action and click Record. You’ll now be back to where you were.

Wrapping Up

Once you put in a bit of thought, creating powerful, complex actions that work every time is no harder than making inefficient actions that randomly throw out errors. You just have to approach things more systematically. In this tutorial I’ve shown you how to do just that.

If you’ve any questions about how to use actions in your workflow or want me to write more tutorials on different areas of actions, please let me know in the comments.

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