Photoshop Actions (and One to Get You Started)

By Steve Anchell Back to


While Adobe Photoshop has many great tools to facilitate creativity, it is first and foremost a production tool for professional photographers, graphic artists and designers. What makes PS a tool for the professional is not just what it can do, but how quickly it can do it. To the pro, and to their clients, time is money. Minutes count when charging by the hour, and minutes can add up if you have to reenter repetitive steps every time you want to call up a particular brush or style.

One of the fastest ways in which to make PS even faster is to utilize Actions. Actions allow the professional to automate repetitive functions, such as enabling a tool with all of your preferred presets so that you don’t have to fill them in each time you go to that tool. If you have been using PS for a while you will probably already have used some of the built-in Actions, such as stitching photos together to create a panorama, or batch processing a group of images to create JPEGs from RAW images for export.

Using Actions is not difficult and after you have created one or two you’ll wonder why you didn’t start sooner. And while your first actions will be mundane things like sharpening, resizing and saving a file to a specific size and digital format, the fun will really begin when you start to create unique actions for yourself.

Basically what actions do is record every keystroke you make and then play them back at lightening speed, pausing to allow you to fill in custom commands along the way. The hardest part is to remember to put everything you want in, and knowing how to add and delete keystrokes when you do forget something, instead of scuttling the entire action and starting from scratch, which I did when first learning how to create actions.

(Figure 2)

You can access the Actions Panel (Figure 1) by choosing Window>Actions or by clicking on the Actions icon in the panel dock on the right side of the screen (the icon looks like the triangular Play button on a DVD Player).

You can also open the Actions panel by pressing Opt+F9/Alt+F9 (Mac/PC).

The controls are straightforward and don’t take long to learn. The Stop, Record and Play buttons do what their names suggest. The Create new set button at the bottom of the panel lets you store similar actions in a set. For example, you might create a set of actions for glamour retouching, another set for landscape enhancement, perhaps a set with different frames for wedding albums, etc. There are also many third party actions which you can purchase or download from the web, and these you may wish to place in their own Action set.

New actions are created by clicking on the Create new action button. Any previously created action can be duplicated either by opt-dragging or alt-dragging it up or down the panel or by dragging and dropping it on top of the Create new action button at the bottom of the panel. The reason you would want to duplicate an action is because you may want a second action that does something slightly different. Perhaps the first action selects the color blue and the duplicate selects the color red, or one action uses Soft Light and the duplicate uses Overlay when creating a New Layer.

In addition to the six buttons along the bottom of the Action Panel (which have drop-down tool tips in case you forget what they do), there are three unmarked panels (which also have drop-down tool tips). The first panel on the left is the Toggle Item On/Off column. In Figure 1 notice that all the actions are collapsed so that only their name shows, such as Vignette (selection), Cast Shadow (type), etc. A black check mark means that all of the steps inside that action are active; a red check mark means that one or more of the steps has been disabled.

The second unmarked panel is a column that contains either empty boxes or red and black dialog boxes with three dots in them. When there is a red box in the column it means that the action will pause for your manual input at selected steps. If there is a black box it means the action will stop at every step in the action for manual input. Clicking on the box will turn off manual input for either the entire action (black box), or a particular step (red box). If you disable the pause Photoshop will input the default settings you chose when you originally wrote the action.

The third unmarked panel lists each action’s name and keyboard shortcut if you assigned one. Clicking on the arrow immediately to the left of the action opens the action so all of the steps are visible. Notice in Figure 2 that the box directly across from Convert Mode has been unchecked, which is why there is a red check mark in the first panel across from the action’s name, Cast Shadow. Clicking on the empty box will place a black check mark in it and turn the step back on. Otherwise, the action will skip over that step when it runs.

Photoshop comes bundled with dozens of built-in actions which can be used as is or edited. Only a few of these show when you first open the Actions Panel, as seen in Figure 1. Clicking on the Panel Menu in the upper right corner (Figure 2) will open a list of seven more Action Sets created by Adobe at the bottom of the menu. They are Commands, Frames, Image Effects, Production, Text Effects, Textures and Video Actions. To load any of these just select it from the drop-down menu and PS will add it to the active Action Panel. I strongly suggest that you spend an afternoon running each of these actions to find out what they do and how they can improve both your creativity and productivity. Once you are familiar with them, try duplicating and then modifying them.

So let’s create an action of our own. The first will be a dodge and burn tool. While PS has greatly improved the dodge and burn tool in successive versions, there are still those among us who like to create our own. The dodge and burn tool I use was shown to me by Linde Waidhofer many years ago and I use it so often I have made an action to open it.

Before you create your first action create a new set for it to reside in. You may want to use your name to identify those actions you have personally created from those you have downloaded or purchased. For this example I have created a Steve’s Action Set by clicking on the Create new set button at the bottom of the Action Panel. To create a new set you don’t need to have an image open.

(Figure 3)
(Figure 4)

Next open an image, almost any image will do for this action. I am using an image made in Cuba. I am naming this action “Dodge & Burn” and assigning it F2 as a Function button because I use it so often. Once you click on the round Record button, PS will begin recording all of your key strokes until you click on Stop (recording). So, click on Record (Figure 3). Open a new Layer: Layer>New>Layer. Call it Dodge & Burn and click Record. For mode select Soft Light (some photographers prefer Overlay; try both and see which works best for you), set Opacity to 100%, and check Fill with Soft-light-neutral color (50% gray) and click OK (Figure 4).

In the Tool Panel on the left select the Brush Tool. Next pull down the Brush Preset Picker (second item in from the left), and select a soft round brush. Set the Hardness at 0%, and to start, set the current brush size to about 800 px, though this will be adjusted later according to the size of the area to be worked on.

(Figure 5)

Back in the Tool Panel reset the default foreground colors to black and white by clicking on the small overlapping black and white swatches with the curved double-sided pointer next to them. Now click on the square Stop Playing/Recording button. The results should appear as they do in Figure 5. If, by mischance, you created one too many steps or decide a step is not required, simply drag that step to the trash can in the lower right of the Action Panel. If you decide to add a step highlight the step above where you want the new step, click on Begin recording and add the step(s). When you are through, click on Stop playing/recording.

To use the Dodge & Burn action either press F2 (if you assigned it as the Function button), or highlight Dodge & Burn in the Action Panel and click on the Play button at the bottom. What this will do is create a new Dodge & Burn Layer and enable the Brush Tool with all the presets you chose.

(Figure 6)

Note: Dodging and burning should be done after all other adjustments such as Levels, Curves, and color corrections have been applied in order to avoid tonal and color shifts in the image.

To dodge (lighten) an area make certain that the large, white Foreground Swatch in the Tool Panel is in front of the black swatch. Next, adjust the brush size for the area you wish to lighten and the amount. In this example I want to lighten the man’s face so I chose a brush size of 200 px and an opacity of 30%. I almost always leave the flow at 100%. I then lightly brushed across the man’s face to open the shadows under the hat. I also dodged the dog on the right.

To burn (darken) an area, choose the black Foreground swatch. I am going to darken the entire background, in order to emphasize the man and the dogs. I will vary the size of the brush as I go using a 1000 px brush for the largest areas of background, and a smaller brush to burn around smaller areas. I will leave the opacity at 30% and adjust it as needed. When using this tool remember that each time you pass over an area you are adding more density up to the maximum of 100%.

The results can be seen in the before and after, Figures 6 and 7. The only other correction made on this RAW file was cropping which I did when the image was first opened.

Resources: Photoshop and Lightroom:

About the Author

Steve Anchell
Steve Anchell is an internationally published photographer, teacher and writer. His books The Darkroom Cookbook, The Variable Contrast Printing Manual and The Film Developing Cookbook are international photography bestsellers.