The Creative Mama » inspiring art, encouraging women

Understanding Photoshop Actions

I use actions. I love actions. But I also fully understand and modify the actions that I use, which I think is so, so important. I almost always end up adding my own elements (levels, curves, etc.) and tweaking the action layers until I achieve the look I desire. Sometimes I’ll run more than one action. Other times I’ll just totally do my own thing.

Some photographers ask, Why don’t my photos look like yours [insert action developer here] when I run your actions?

When we photograph, we are shooting with different cameras, in different light, with different settings, etc. – resulting in a different starting point for each photographer. This means that most of the time, you cannot just click the button, run an action and get the perfect result for your image. Additionally, certain actions might have been designed to run best on specific types of images – for example, landscape images with lots of bright blue sky or images with dramatic lighting.

The Power of Photoshop

I think it’s extremely important to have a good great understanding of Photoshop (adjustment layers, masks, layers, blend modes, etc.) prior to using and / or depending on actions to do the job. Actions can assist your workflow but they can also quickly become addicting and a crutch, if not careful.

Want to learn more about Photoshop?  You can find tons of information on the main Adobe website. And I personally love Scott Kelby’s Photoshop books. I strongly recommend that you learn about the power of Photoshop and all it has to offer before becoming dependent on actions for your editing.

I’ll be the first to  admit that I don’t know everything about Photoshop, as the learning is never done!!  But I have sat for many, many, MANY hours with Scott Kelby’s books, researching online, viewing forums and learning from peers.  And if there’s a specific task I don’t know how to perform, I will either look it up in Kelby’s book or Google it.  Oh, the power of the Internet!  :-)

Let’s first take a look at the Actions panel

A — Stop recording
B — Begin recording
C — Play action
D — Create new set
E — Create new action
F — Delete
G — Actions panel menu (contains action controls)

Know that recording or modifying an action is simple and powerful

If there’s a series of steps you do in Photoshop over and over again, you can always create your own action. To do this:

· Press the ‘Create new set’ button to create a new action set.  Give your set a name.  If you are placing your new action within an existing set, skip this step.

· Press the ‘Create new action’ button. Here, you will name your action, select the set where you want the action to go and create a function key shortcut and | or color label here, if desired.  For this example, I named my new action ‘brighten & pop’.  I want it within the existing set called ‘deb’s main actions’ and I want to be able to use function key F5, to quick-play this action.

· Press the record button and begin recording your steps. In the example, I did a couple of adjustment layers (curve and level) and then added a fill layer.

· When done, press the stop button (square) to stop recording.  You’ll notice that the record button is no longer red.

You can also modify existing actions by doing the same steps as above, but within an action (instead of as a new action) – for example, if there’s an action that you use a lot, but always reduce the opacity of a layer and add a curve layer, you can add those steps to the existing action.

· Go to the location within the action you wish to modify (I often just go to the end of the action and add new steps).
· Press the record button (circle) to begin recording.
· Perform the steps you wish to record, for this action.
· When done, press the stop button (square) to stop recording.

And if there’s certain steps within an action you wish weren’t there, simply drag them to the trash can.  However, remember that with some actions, certain steps depend on previous steps and layers being there.  If you wish to modify an action by deleting steps, I recommend copying the action first and then modify the copied version, to see if the action will still run properly with your changes.  To copy an action, go into the Actions panel menu and press ‘Duplicate’.

And now for examples

First let me preface this by saying that actions will always run best when you have a properly exposed image!!  Here’s an example of an image with an action run straight (a little bit much for my personal preference) and then the image with my modifications (action layer opacities adjusted, a couple hue/saturation layers and a curve layer).

Also, please remember that sometimes images only need the slightest adjustments.  For example, with the following image, the only thing I felt it really needed was a tweak in curves, a tad more saturation and a bit of warmth.  Voila! Done!  Again, don’t depend on actions to make your images great; get great images right out of camera (ROOC) and then simply enhance them a bit with your editing (actions or not).

Image ROOC…

The edited image…

My hope is that you’ll always keep learning, growing and playing…and know that it all takes time!!

Last but not least — lilyblue actions has been kind enough to offer a 10% discount to all ‘The Creative Mama’ readers.  Please use coupon code ‘creativemama’ upon checkout, to receive your 10% discount.  Offer expires July 15th.

After graduating college, Deb Schwedhelm spent 10 years as a Registered Nurse in the Air Force. It wasn’t until she left the military that her career as a photographer began. In 2006, Deb decided to pursue her dream — she purchased a DSLR camera, began teaching herself photography and never looked back. Whether commissioned portrait sessions, commercial assignments or her ongoing personal projects, Deb always remains true to herself and her artistic vision. Deb is married to a U.S. Naval Officer and is the mother to three incredible children, who are often the subjects of her photographic work. She is currently based in Tampa, Florida. Her work can be viewed on her website, and her inspirational photoblog can be found here as well.

About Deb


After graduating college, Deb spent 10 years as a Registered Nurse in the Air Force. It wasn’t until she left the military that her career as a photographer began. In 2006, Deb decided to pursue her dream — she purchased a DSLR camera, began teaching herself photography and never looked back. Whether commissioned portrait sessions, commercial assignments or her ongoing personal projects, Deb always remains true to herself and her artistic vision. Deb is married to a U.S. Naval Officer and is the mother to three incredible children, who are often the subjects of her photographic work. She is currently based in Tampa, Florida.

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  • http://www.just1step.com Kara @ Just1Step

    Thank you for this! I’ve really been wondering how to record actions.

  • http://www.cherishbryckphotography.com Cherish

    I agree. Actions can become a crutch. It’s important to know how to use your camera first and foremost and then pretty up the pics once you have a proper understanding of Photoshop.

  • Hannah C

    Thank you so much for sharing this info on how to make an action! I don’t use many actions but now that I can create my own I think I will… faster editing here I come!

  • Tavia

    Thank YOU! That was awesome, I can’t wait to try it. Great information, I appreciate you sharing :)

  • http://www.bakedbree.com Bree

    Oh man! I just bought some lilyblue yesterday! I have and love all of the actions.