Post-Processing » Photoshop Tutorials » How To Use Photoshop Actions – Complete Guide (2021)

How To Use Photoshop Actions – Complete Guide (2021)

Photoshop actions make the life of photographers a bit easier. However, if you have never used actions in Photoshop, you might be a little confused about how to use Photoshop Actions to make your post-processing workflow both faster and get better-looking images as a result.

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Jump to key sections:

What are Photoshop Actions?

Photoshop actions are a simple one-click way to apply a series of post-processing steps to your image. The steps are first recorded into an “action” that you can then re-play to apply the same recorded step onto a new image. You can use Photoshop actions to perform the steps that you usually do to prepare a photo for publishing. Instead of doing the same steps over and over again, you can automate the process by using actions.

If you have a certain post-processing “recipe” to give an effect to your photos chances are that you can also save the steps you take to achieve this special look into a Photoshop action. This can save time and effort the next time you want to process an image to have the same look.

So in short Photoshop actions is a tool for recording your process in Photoshop in a way that you can play it again to apply it to other images. The feature has been available in the app since 1996. So no matter which version of Photoshop you are using you can easily apply photo effects using actions. Light leaks, double exposure effects, and matte effects are popular examples of things you can achieve when using PS actions.

Landscape Photo from New Zealand - with an added border by using a Photoshop action
Adding a beautiful border to your image take only a single click if you have previously recorded the steps in a Photoshop action.

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In this article, we’ll give you a thorough introduction to Photoshop actions. You will get to know how you can use them in your work as well as the benefits of spending a few dollars on getting a package of tried and proven Photoshop actions that can speed up your workflow.

How To Use Photoshop Actions in Photoshop?

Find the action in the Photoshop action panel. Select it, and click on the play button at the bottom of the panel.

Before you can apply an action to one of your images, you need to record it or import actions that you have downloaded. The action panel in Photoshop is where you do everything related to actions.

This includes running actions, recording actions in Photoshop, as well as adding or installing actions, and saving photoshop actions, so you can share your own photoshop actions with others if you like. The action panel in photoshop is central to anything you do with actions in Photoshop.

Where Is The Action Panel in Photoshop?

Buttons in Photoshop related to actions

It is located in the right sidebar of Photoshop. It looks like a Play button. If you hover over it, it says Actions. Click on this button to open up the Actions panel in Photoshop.

You can show or hide the action panel by pressing the Alt + F9 key or use the menus: Window > Actions.

Now let us take a look at the different buttons at the bottom of the Photoshop Action Panel. All of the commands activated by the buttons can also be accessed the Action Panel Menu if you prefer this way.

Photoshop Action Panel let's you easily create Photoshop Actions
The main buttons of the Photoshop Action Panel (from left to right you have the buttons): Stop / Record / Play / Create New Action Set / Create New Action / Trash.

Create a New Action Set to Hold All Your Photoshop Actions

New Action Set dialog in Photoshop Action Panel

Photoshop actions can only exist within a folder, which is called an Action Set in Photoshop. This also helps you keeping organized, especially if you plan on using Photoshop Actions a lot.

So you need to create your first Action Set where you will put all your Photoshop actions.

Hit the folder icon at the bottom of the Action Panel to create a New Set. In the dialog type a name for the set that tells you that this is where your own Photoshop actions are stored.

You can create an action set to hold your Photoshop actions related to workflow, and another for complete looks. You can also divide them into image genres, like portrait actions, and another for landscape actions. Alternatively, you can chose to name and organize your action sets after which effect they add to your image, like: HDR Actions, Matte Photoshop Actions, or Black and White Actions.

Quick tip: If you use the Alt key (Win) or Option key (Mac) when you click on the New Set button, you will skip the dialog and go with the default name. You can always rename the set later by double-clicking on the name.

Further down in the guide we go more in depth with organizing actions.

How to Create Actions in Photoshop?

Time needed: 10 minutes.

Quick Guide for How to Create Photoshop Actions Step-by-Step

  1. Open an image in Photoshop

    In order to records an action in Photoshop you need to use an image to work on.

  2. Go to the action panel

  3. Click on the record button

    Now everything you do in Photoshop is recorded into the action. Remember to give the action a meaningful name.

  4. Perform all the steps and enhancements you want include in the action

    Try to separate the actions into meaningful tasks, instead of recording everything into a single Photoshop action

  5. Click on the stop button to stop recording

  6. Open another image

    It is time to test your new actions

  7. Select the new action, and click on the play button to run the new action.

    Cross your fingers, and if everything works, enjoy the magic of actions allowing you to save a lot of time in Photoshop.

How to Run A Photoshop Action

To run a previously recorded action, you need to select it from the Actions panel and push the play button at the bottom of the Actions panel (see the image above). After running the action, you can go to the layers panel and tweak the settings of each adjustment layer added by the action.

Quick tip: If you only want to play a single action step hold down Cmd (Mac) or Ctrl (Win) and double-click on the particular action step you want to run.

How to Delete a Photoshop Action?

If you want to start over with creating a Photoshop action or simply want to delete an action that you never use, and want to keep your actions organized, you just need to select it and press the trash-can icon located at the bottom of the Action Panel. If you only want to delete a particular step or several steps within a Photoshop action, you can select the relevant steps and press the delete button.

You can also left-click on the action or action steps and drag it onto the trashcan to delete it.

Taking Your PS Actions a step further

Now that you know how the basic of how to work with actions like recording, modifying and running them, you can begin to learn more advanced uses of Photoshop Actions.

How to Use Modal Controls in Your Actions?

Toggle modal dialog on/off in the Photoshop Action Panel

In some cases, you want to have full control of what a particular step in the action does. To be able to modify the settings used by a Photoshop action, you can enable the command’s dialog window to appear.

For instance, you might want to play with the gradient bar, when running an action that applies a Sephia effect to your image. In that case, it makes sense to enable the modal dialog for the step that applies the gradient map command.

By default, all dialogs are disabled for actions. However, you can easily enable/disable the modal dialogs by toggling the small dialog icon in the left side of the Action Panel.

How to Exclude Action Steps From Running?

If you want to skip a particular action step within an action, you can exclude it by toggling off the checkbox to the far left of the action step.

Excluding a step will remove the checkmark icon for the action step and make a red checkmark icon appear for the parent action indicating that one or more steps within the action are excluded from running. Just remember to include the step again after you are done using the action.

Insert a Stop in Your Actions to Interact with the User

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 21.29.40

To give instructions to the user before continuing with the action you can insert an action step called a stop. When Photoshop runs an action that includes a stop step, Photoshop will pause the action and display a custom message to the user. This message could tell the user, what to do next before hitting play to continue the action at the point where it left.

You can insert a stop command in your actions by using the Action Panel Menu and chose Insert Stop… This will bring up a dialog window where you can enter a message to tell the user what to do next. You might want to remind the user to press play again after doing the manual work you ask him/her to do, in order to continue the action.

How to Run Actions Based on Certain Conditions?

Insert conditional dialog in Photoshop Action Panel

Finally, you can make Photoshop run other actions within your action set if certain criteria are met. For instance, if the current image is Square you can run an action that does something (or choose not to run an action). If else you tell Photoshop to run an action that you already made that will crop your image into a square format.

In this way, you can make ‘chains’ between your Photoshop actions to ensure your images get the treatment you intend with the Photoshop actions you create. You don’t need to use this option, but it can become useful in certain situations.

You can access this option from the Action Panel Menu: Insert Conditional… In the dialog that appears you first have to set the criteria, you want to test for.

How to Import and Export Photoshop Actions

We will first look at how to export actions in Photoshop cc and them how to import or install them on another computer.

How To Export Photoshop actions?

In order to share your Photoshop actions with others or use them on other computers, you have to export them.

To do that you should choose the action set, that you want to export from the action panel.

Save or Export your actions by using the Action Panel Menu

You can do this by first selecting an action /action set and then opening the Action Panel Menu in the upper right corner of the Action Panel. Scroll down to the menu item Save Actions… and click it. This will bring up a file dialog enabling you to name the action file.

When you save/export your actions must have the suffix .atn in the filename so your PC/Mac will be able to recognize that this is a Photoshop Action file. When you have given a name to the file and chosen a suitable folder, you can hit the OK button.

Now you will have a copy of your Photoshop actions saved as a file outside Photoshop. You can share this file with others so they can benefit from the actions you create, or you can copy them to your other devices that use Photoshop.

How to Install Photoshop Actions?

Installing or loading Photoshop actions is even easier. There are two methods that you can use.

Load / Install photoshop actions by using the Action Panel Menu

The first method is just locating the Photoshop action file on your computer and double-clicking it. This will open Photoshop (if it is not already open), and load the actions within the .atn file into your Action Panel.

The other method is by using the Action Panel Menu, where you should scroll down to the menu item Load Actions… and click it. In the file dialog that appears, locate the folder where you have already placed the Photoshop action file (.atn) and select the file and press OK.

Organizing Your PS Actions

Photoshop actions are a powerful assistant in speeding up the time you spend on post-processing. Use them wisely and you can save a lot of time. However, if your photoshop actions get disorganized you can end up being frustrated by not being able to find the Photoshop actions you use the most.

Label Your PS Actions

Give your Photoshop Actions a name that you can remember. It is one of the first things you should do when organizing your Photoshop actions. You will find that it is easier to give a meaningful name to actions that do a specific task.

If your action simply replicates a look that you like, then it becomes much harder to give them a good name. The action might use several techniques to achieve that look. In this case, go ahead and be a bit creative in the naming.

To change the name of an action, you just need to double-click on the existing name or label. This makes the label highlighted and editable. Now all you need to do is to enter the new name you would like your Photoshop action to have.

renaming PS actions

Organizing your PS Actions in Groups or Sets

Organizing your actions in groups is also fairly simple. One of the benefits of structuring your PS actions in groups is that it becomes a lot easier for you to navigate the Action panel.

The easiest way to group actions is to first select the PS actions you want to include in the group. To select the actions, you should click on the first action, and then hold SHIFT and click on the last PS action you want to include.

If the actions you want to include in the new group aren’t just below the first action, or you want to make your selections from different sets, you should hold CTRL (Win) / CMD (Mac) and click on each of the actions you want to include in the new group.

organize your photoshop actions in groups

After you have all the actions you want to include in the group, click on the folder icon at the bottom of the actions panel.

In the appearing dialog name the new group for your Photoshop actions and you’re done.

Duplicating PS Actions

Some times you might want to modify existing PS actions, but without messing with the original. For instance, if you have bought a set of professional Photoshop actions, but want to change a bit about the way it is working. In this case, it is good, to begin by making a copy of the action. Copying or duplicating Photoshop actions is quite simple.

dublicate photoshop actions

To create a copy of a PS action, just select it, and then go to the menu in the upper right corner of the action panel and select Duplicate. This will give you a copy of the action, which is named with the original file name, and then “copy” afterward.

copied photoshop actions

You can also duplicate groups in the Photoshop action panel if you want to. Remember to rename the duplicate action and give it a meaningful name. You might also want to move it to another group, or up and down according to the structure you want.

Use Button Mode if You Get Disorientated

If you prefer to see an action palette, instead try to switch to button mode. You access Button Mode by opening the action menu in the top right corner of the action panel. Button mode works differently than the default action panel view.

In Button Mode, you only have to click on the action name one time for running an action. The action panels buttons at the bottom don’t show when you switch to button mode.

Remember back to when we covered how to record your own actions in Photoshop. When naming the action you could assign a color to the new action. These colors shows when you switch to button mode, and it can be a useful way to keeping organized if you are more visually oriented

Summary of Key Points for Keeping Your Actions Organized

  • Give meaningful names to your actions.
  • Try to place all your PS actions in groups. Don’t let actions float around outside groups. Otherwise, they will distract you, when trying to find the correct action.
  • Organize your actions based on either workflow phase (i.e. output actions), effect type (HDR actions), or type of image, they are useful for (i.e. landscape actions, portrait actions). Feel free to use your own system as long as it makes sense to you.

How to Modify Existing Photoshop Actions

To modify the default settings of a Photoshop action, simply unfold the action so you can see the individual steps (not in button mode). Next, go to the action menu in the top right corner of the panel and choose record again. This brings up the dialog for the particular step. Once you click OK in the dialog, the actions stop recording again, so you only alter this specific step.

Where Can I Get Professional Photoshop Actions?

If you don’t want to create your own Photoshop actions you can still enjoy the benefits of them, by finding them on the Internet.

There is a wide range of sites that sell actions for Photoshop including here on Photography-RAW.

You can likewise locate some free photoshop actions. The issue with free actions is that you can spend numerous hours pursuing the web to locate free actions, loading them into Photoshop to find that they are not of the best quality, and therefore need to remove them from Adobe Photoshop again. Or you might discover that it suits your needs just fine. That being said paid and professional Photoshop actions are often of higher quality.

Do you want to learn more?

Check out our Photoshop Tutorials

Conclusion

Photoshop Actions are extremely useful for automating the steps you do over and over again in Photoshop, so you don’t have to remember a lot of complex techniques in your head. Even if you master the techniques and know them by heart, you can save a lot of time, by creating several actions that together can assist you in processing your images faster.

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