Photoshop Actions

by Art P. Suwansang

September 01, 2011 — There’s no one program that has associated itself so closely to digital photography as much as Adobe Photoshop, having been around now for more than 22 years. It was the program that bridged the gap during the industry transition from analog to digital image-capture devices by introducing us to the concept and open creativeness of pixel manipulation. Through these 22 years, there have been new features released with every new version. Some of these features come and go, or get merged as part of another feature set, depending on their popularity and practical application. One of the features that was introduced with Photoshop 4, and still remains for the most part unchanged, is the macro function known to Photoshop users as “Actions.”

What’s an Action?
Actions, as many of us know, are groups of predefined adjustments that can be done to any of your images with the click of a button. These “actions” can be purchased from many different outlets that offer a variety of post-production effects, or we can create and record our own “actions” as well. Specifically, Actions is a simple function or command recorder built into Photoshop so that users can record groups of repetitive commands to perform on individual or groups of images at a later time. The scope of what users can do with Actions is unlimited. To give you a few ideas of what can be done with actions, and how to create actions, I’m going to walk us through the process of generating three different actions to use with our images.

Preparing the Workspace to Create Actions
Before we start, we should prepare our workspace first by bringing up the Actions panel. We can do this via the menu Windows > Actions, or use the keyboard shortcut shown next to the menu item. One of the first things to notice in the panel is a folder, or set, called Default Actions (fig. 1), which contains the basic actions that ship with Photoshop. When we create new actions we can place them in this folder or create a separate storage folder. At the bottom of the panels are buttons with icons but no names or descriptions; if we hover our cursor over the buttons, their names will show up briefly. Starting from the left is the stop button (square icon) that’s used to stop or pause an action recording session; the record button (circle icon) that’s used to initiate a recording session; play (forward triangle) that’s used to play back an action; the “create folder” button to create new folders, or sets, to store actions; the “create new action” button to generate a new action; finally, the trash icon to get rid of unwanted actions (fig. 1).

Now that our workspace is set, let’s discuss the actions we are going to create. 3 Layers Color Correction, or 3LCC, is the name of the first action. It contains a total of 3 adjustment curves, with an S-Curve as the first layer; the second layer is the empty adjustment curve for color correction; the last is a vignette curve, used to darken the edges of an image and bring attention to the subject. The second action is an alternative image sharpening method, which offers flexibility, and the ability to mask-in selective areas for sharpening. The third action is used to create a new layer, with soft light blending mode, used for dodging and burning.

3 Layers Color Correction Action
First, let’s start out with our 3LCC action.

Open up any image in Photoshop to use as a base for creating this action.

Go to the Action Panel and click on the “create new action” button (fig. 1).

A new action dialog will pop up (fig. 2). Let’s assign this action a name, in this case “3LCC,” select the folder, or set, that you want this action in. Next we see the function key, where you can set shortcut key combinations for the action; I usually set this action to F1. Finally, you can pick a color to label this action name in the list.

When you are ready, press “Record.” Note in the bottom of the action Panel that 3LCC is highlighted and the record icon on the bottom of the panel is now red.

Now go to the layer panel. We are going to create our first adjustment curve by clicking on the create adjustment layers (fig. 3), at the bottom on the layer panel and choose curve, or go to the menu Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves…

To create an S-Curve, we are going to adjust the RGB channel of this curve by clicking and pulling up on the upper portion of the curve to bump the highlight, and pulling down on the bottom portion of the curve to darken the black. This helps create tonal separation and pop to an image. The amount of the adjustment will depend on personal preference. A finished curve looks similar to figure 4.

Now double click on the name next to the curve, in this case “curve 1”, and rename it “S-Curve.”
Repeat step 5 again to create another adjustment curve. Once created, leave this curve alone. This curve will later be used for color correction and density adjustment.

Double click on the name of this curve, and rename it “Color Correction” or “CC.”

Repeat step 5 one more time to create the vignette adjustment layer using the adjustment curve. For this curve, click on the center of the curve line and pull down diagonally toward the bottom right to darken the overall image (fig. 5).

Double click the name of the new curve, and rename it “Vignette.”

Now, reset the color swatches to the default setting by pressing “d” on the keyboard.
Select the mask of the vignette adjustment curve and fill it with black by pressing Command + Delete (Mac), or Control + Backspace (PC).

Go back to the action panel and click on the square icon to stop the action recording. The layers result should look similar to figure 6 once it is applied; while figure 7 shows the recorded command in the Actions panel.

To use this action, simply open up an image, highlight the action and click the play icon, or double click on the name, or use the shortcut function key—in this case, F1—to apply the action. Now it’s time to adjust the layers. Since the S-Curve has already been set, it can be left alone. For the color-correction layer, you can adjust the red, green and blue channels individually, as appropriate to fine-tune the color.

Finally, we can darken the edges of an image by painting with white on the Vignette mask in the areas around the image. A quick tip: use a large brush, a soft feather and low opacity to paint in the edges of an image. The before and after sample image with the layers created can be seen in figure 8.

Sharpening Action with High Pass Filter
Now let’s move on to creating a sharpening action.

Open up any image in Photoshop to use as a base for this action.

Go to the action panel, and click on “create new action” button at the bottom of the panel (fig. 1).
In the New Action dialog box (fig. 9), name this action “Sharpening” and select the set or folder you want this action to be in. Next, we have the option to give it a shortcut key combination. Select a color to label this action (I’ll leave it white in this case).

When you are ready press “Record.” Notice that the record icon on the bottom of the action panel is now red.

Navigate to the layer panel and go to the menu Layer > Duplicate Layer. A dialog box will pop up (fig. 10); name this layer “Sharpening” and click “OK.” Afterward make sure that this layer is highlighted in the layer panel.

Now go to the action panel and click on the panel menu icon (fig. 1) to bring up the contextual menu (in the upper right) and then select “Insert Menu Item…” in figure 11. A dialog will pop up asking you to record a menu command using the mouse. Simply go to the menu Filter > Others > High Pass…, then click “OK.”

Make sure the “Sharpening” layer is selected in the layer panel, then change the blend mode to “Soft Light,” and click on the “add layer mask” icon to add a white layer mask (fig. 12).

Go back to the action panel and click on the stop icon to finish recording.

To use this action on an image, select the layer that you would like to sharpen and apply action. It will duplicate the selected layer and prompt you with the High Pass Dialog where you can input a radius value (fig. 13); a good number to use here is 3, but this can change depending on the image. Once you press OK, you will have a sharpening layer. If the sharpening effect is too much, you can lower the opacity of the sharpening layer. If you desire more sharpening, simply change the blend mode to either “Hard Light,” or “Overlay,” and then adjust the opacity to achieve the desired sharpen amount. You can paint on the mask with black to block out areas that you don’t want to sharpen as well. Figure 14 shows the before and after result of this action.

Soft Light Layer for Dodging and Burning
The last action that we are going to create here is a layer for dodging and burning our image. Many times when we dodge and burn directly on an image it creates unwanted color shifts and saturation changes. One way to avoid this is by creating a layer filled with 50% gray and use “Soft Light” as the blending mode. Here are the steps:

First, we need open a base image to record the action on.

Go to the action panel, and click on “create new action” button at the bottom of the panel (fig. 1).
In the New Action dialog box (fig. 15), name this action Dodge & Burn Layer; select the set, or folder, you want this action to be in. Next, we have the option to give it a shortcut key combination. Select a color to label this action or leave it white.

You are ready press “Record.” The record icon on the bottom of the action panel is now red.
Navigate to the layer panel; go to the menu Layer > New > Layer…

A New Layer dialog will pop up (fig. 16); name this layer “Dodge and Burn.” For the “Mode” select “Soft Light” from the dropdown list, and, selecting the check box below, label “Fill with Soft-Light-neutral color (50% gray).” When done, press “OK.”

Go back to the action panel and click on the stop icon.

This action can be applied on any image. Once applied, we can now use the dodge or burn tool in Photoshop to darken or lighten any given area of an image, by painting on the Dodge and Burn layer, using a brush with low exposure value. Also we can use a dodge brush with this layer to enhance eyes as well, by lighting the iris on the opposite side of the key light; final result shown in figure 17.

These three tutorials represent some of most fundamental image-editing methods used in Photoshop. When we combine the basic building blocks together, we can create an advanced, flexible image-editing toolset. I have presented the steps necessary to recreate any actions here, so plan ahead, think broadly and get creative with actions.


Art Suwansang is an award-winning international wedding photographer, educator and lecturer based in Southern California. He lectures for multiple photographic organizations, consults for multiple photographers and companies internationally, and offers digital photography tutorials through his new Web site Rule of 3Rds www.Ro3Rds.com. He is also an adjunct professor at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and at Santa Monica College. Visit his Web site at www. Wedding64.com.

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