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How to Speed Up Your Adobe Photoshop Workflow With Custom Built Actions

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Read Time: 9 min

Despite their checkered reputation, actions are a great way to speed up your Adobe Photoshop workflow. There are a lot of resources out there that offer free actions, however the quality is highly variable. Some are crafted by excellent post-production experts and can help you develop a better workflow. Others promise to perfect an image in a single click and are a waste of your time.

The best way to use actions in Photoshop is to create custom ones to fit your workflow. In this tutorial you will learn how to analyse your workflow and find the parts to turn into actions.

Why Use Actions?

As you get deeper into post-processing and retouching you’ll use more advanced techniques that require multiple steps to apply. For example, duplicating a layer, renaming it and then applying a filter, a blending mode and a mask takes at least 30 seconds every time you do it. You visit at least three different menus to apply the technique. To speed up your workflow, you can combine all the steps into a single action.

One of the hallmarks of a talented artist is a consistent style. The reason you can recognise an Annie Leibovitz portrait is that she approaches every image in a consistent way (although the specifics of the approach are unique to her). Instead of editing every image you create individually, having a sequence of actions that you always use helps you keep a consistent look and feel.

A Few Misconceptions About Actions

Thanks to all the misguided promises to make an image look great at the push of a button there are some misconceptions about actions. Many people are unaware of just how customisable and powerful they are when used properly.

action before afteraction before afteraction before after
Import from Lightroom on the left. Processed image on the right. Every adjustment, including the watermark, was created using just two actions.

Actions aren’t just for beginners or people who don’t know how to use Photoshop well. Many professional post-production specialists and retouchers rely on actions to speed up their work. Actions don’t have to do everything all at once. You can use multiple actions that all build on each other. In fact, this is a great strategy.

Actions are not a one-size-fits-all tool, either. You don’t have to apply the same settings every time: you can have an action pause automatically at the appropriate places and load the dialogue box for whatever command you are applying at that point so that you can enter the values that work best for the image.

In the right hands, and with a little bit of planning, actions are an important component of a fast and flexible Photoshop workflow.

My Photoshop Action Workflow

To put everything into real terms, I’ll describe the two main actions I use and how they fit into my workflow. Then I’ll look at how you can break down your own workflow and develop similar actions.

My Set Up Action

After I create a neutral, white-balanced image in Lightroom I open the file I want to  process in Photoshop. There I create a duplicate layer and use the healing tools to remove any unwanted distractions, like dust on the sensor or the scan, for example.

After the clean up is done I run my Set Up action. This action creates almost all the layers and effects I use. Amongst other things, it applies a customisable amount of frequency separation, creates dodge and burn layers, creates the layers I need to retouch eyes and teeth and finally creates all the adjustments I need to colour tone the final image.

Once all the layers I need are created I work through each of them applying the effects, like dodging and burning, by hand and tweaking the adjustment layers. Things like the eye contrast boost are masked out so I paint in the effect where I want it—this gives me complete control.

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Some of the steps in my Finishing action.

My Finishing Action

Once I’ve completed all the retouching and toned the image with the layers from my Set Up action, I run my Finishing Action. This action creates three masked out High Pass layers with different Blending Modes to sharpen the image and a watermark that says “Harry Guinness Photography”. Once I paint in the sharpening and position the watermark in the image, it’s finished.

Analyse Your Workflow for Action Suitability

As great as actions are, not every effect or technique should be turned into one. In general, multi-step techniques and global adjustments make the best candidates. These are the first thing you should look for when you are breaking down your workflow.

1. Review Your Completed Images

Start by looking at a couple of images you have recently edited. It’s best if they are of similar subjects—it’s not a good idea to try and compare your processes for portraits and landscapes. If you photograph multiple kinds of images you can break down each workflow individually and create more than one set of actions.

While analysing the images, look for techniques and effects you used consistently when you processed all of them. If you already have a normal workflow developed for yourself worked out this step will be easy. If you edit in a less deliberate way this self-analysis process is a little more challenging.

2. Find Your Workflow Building Blocks

Ideally, you will find things that you do again and again. If you’re a portrait photographer you’ll likely use some form of skin smoothing, dodging and burning, and sharpening. These will be the building blocks of your actions.

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In the Layers Panel you can see some of the many adjustment layers created by the actions.

Once you’ve identified these common building blocks, look at which ones can be grouped together. Continuing the example, skin smoothing and dodging and burning can easily be combined into a single action; neither relies on the other.

Sharpening, however, cannot be paired with most kinds of skin smoothing. You don’t want your sharpening layer affecting details that you’re removing with the skin smoothing. Until you’ve completely applied the smoothing effect you can’t sharpen your image. 

3. Plan Your Recipes

Next, work out a sequence for the actions. While you’re doing everything manually you can apply techniques in many different orders. If you’re using an action it’s best to do it in the most logical sequence, like a recipe.

Generally, when making your recipe it is best to start with global effects, like contrast and tone. Work your way up to local adjustments, like retouching and sharpening, as these are dependant on the global adjustments.

Also decide on how many actions you will break everything into. I’ve managed to condense everything into two. You may need more, depending on the kind of work you do.

Record the Actions

We’ve all ready covered at how to record actions here on Tuts+. Although Josh’s article is a few years old, the process hasn’t changed. While I won’t talk you through the all the steps of building an action, here are some best practice guidelines.

Get Started

If you've never built a complicated action before it's a good idea to analyse what other photographers have done. Download a few high quality actions and examine how they work. It will give you ideas as to how to structure your own action.

Start with an image you know your planned actions will work well on. Slowly start working your way through your workflow while recording what you do. Be careful and take your time; any mistakes you make will be recorded as well. It’s okay to pause, start over, or re-record some of the steps. It always takes me a few tries to build actions.

As you go, test often to make sure everything is working as planned. Adjust the Playback Performance to Step-by-Step to see where things aren’t working.

Stay Organized

Naming and grouping layers in Photoshop is one of those things that everyone knows is a good idea but seldom actually do. An advantage of actions is you only have to organise everything once and all your future work will organised too.

Name each new layer you create. It's a good idea to name every layer something descriptive. You can also add notes for yourself, like what brush opacity to start with, for example.

Building an action is also an opportunity to use some of Photoshop's other organisational features. Layer groups and colour coding are great ways to link layers that effect the same thing, like the image's tone or the subject's eyes.

Masks and Layers for Adjustments

Depending on the type of images you work with, here are two ways to apply adjustment layers for maximum control:

In the first method, create an adjustment layer with a fully opaque (or inverted, to 100% black) Mask. Then when you are editing the image you can then paint in the effect with a white brush or lower the density of the mask as you need it.

The second method is to add adjustment layers with their Opacity reduced to zero. These layers don’t make any changes. As you work through the process after the action, increase the layer opacity to achieve the effect you want. For example, my action adds a simple, unaltered curves adjustment on top of everything so I can fine tune exposure and contrast because I know this is something I do with every image.

Interactive Actions

As I mentioned previously, actions don't have to apply a set amount of any effect. When you are creating steps that rely on image specific values, like skin smoothing or sharpening, have the action pause and the dialogue box for the filters you are applying pop up. Dial in the the values you need and press Return or Enter and the action will continue running.

When you're doing this, make sure to turn off any layers above the one you're working on. If you don't, you won't be able to see a preview of the effect you are applying.

Final Touches

As the last step in any action, select the layer you’re going to be working on first and the tool you’re going to be using. This sets everything up for you to get straight to work once the action has finished running.

If you plan to use your actions a lot, assign them a keyboard shortcut or a dedicated button on your Wacom tablet

With all that done, your actions are ready for use.


In this tutorial you have learned how to analyse your workflow and break it down into Photoshop actions. I’ve hopefully convinced you that actions aren’t just for people looking for one-click effects but are instead a great way to speed up your Photoshop workflow. If you are constantly applying the same techniques, creating actions will also help you maintain a consistent approach to editing images.

Do you use actions? Have you built your own? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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