How To Use Photoshop Actions (Complete Guide)

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 them to make your post-processing workflow both faster and get better-looking images as a result.

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 attain a special look, chances are that you can also save the steps you take to achieve this special look into a Photoshop action and thereby save time and effort the next time you want to process an image to have the same look.

Adding a beautiful border to your image take only a single click if you have previously recorded the steps in a Photoshop action.

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. The guide is quite extensive, so you can use the table of content below to navigate or jump to a specific section if you need to. Otherwise, I suggest you just continue below.

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How To Use Photoshop Actions?

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.

Where Is The Action Panel in Photoshop?

This is the most asked question from everyone new to using actions in Photoshop. They want to find where the Action panel in Photoshop is. Most of them fail to find it.  If you are one of them then let me help you find the right button. It is highlighted 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.

Alternatively, you can show or hide the action panel by pressing the F9 key or use the menus: Window > Show 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 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.

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.

How to Create Your Own Actions in Photoshop?

To create your own actions in Photoshop you need to activate the record button in the action panel and then perform the exact series of steps that you want to record. Don’t click on anything else than exactly what you need to get the result you are after. It is often good to “rehearse” the steps in advance, so you know where to click and what settings to use, before recording the steps into a Photoshop action. You can see an example with an explanation here on how to Photoshop actions to create an exclusive border. It shows you both how to create a border in Photoshop and wrap it into an action for you to use over and over again.

Buttons to record, play, delete or organize the actions you create in Photoshop

Start Recording Your First Photoshop Action

To create a new Photoshop action click the New Action button (looks like a page icon, and you will find it next to the trashcan icon). The New Action button will open the New Action dialog, where you can give the new Photoshop action a Name and assign it to an Action Set (which we will cover later). You can also assign a Function key or key-combination. Finally, you can also assign a color to the action, but this will only be visible in button mode.

New Photoshop Action Dialog in Photoshop CC

Note to modify a previously recorded or imported action; you need to select the action and click the Record button. Photoshop will then append the steps you record to the currently selected action. If you instead of choosing a whole action, select a specific step within an action, Photoshop will insert new steps or commands after the selected action step.

Quick tip: It will often happen that you make small mistakes when recording your actions. Don’t worry. You don’t have to start over again, but only need to find out where you’ve made the mistake and correct that. You can “re-record” the settings for a command quickly by double-clicking on the specific action step you want to modify. If a dialog window is available for the particular command, it will open and allow you to adjust the values. Choose OK to save the changes or Cancel to stay with the original settings you recorded.

Stop Recording/Playing

After finishing the steps you want to include in your action, you can stop it by using the stop button. Otherwise, it will continue to record everything you do in Photoshop until you press stop.

Press the Stop button to end recording or end playing an action that continues to run for a long time, which you for some reason want to cancel. You can also press the Esc key instead of using the Stop button in the Action Panel.

If you at some point need to pause the recording you can also use the Stop button and when you are ready to continue just hit the record button to finish recording your Photoshop action.

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.

If instead of selecting an entire action, you choose a single of the sub-steps and hit the Play button Photoshop will begin running the action from the selected step and run until the last action step in 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/Delete button located at the bottom of 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. You can enable the command dialog for a whole action set, an action with all steps within it or just a particular step depending on where you toggle the modal control on/off.

When the Action Panel shows an empty box, it indicates that modal dialogs for the action/step is disabled, and the Photoshop action will go with the standard settings used when recording the action.

When you toggle on modal dialog, it is indicated by a white modal control icon.

Note: a red modal control icon shows you that some (one or more) dialogs are enabled within that specific action.

In some cases, you might also encounter a gray modal control icon, which usually means that modal controls are enabled, but that the step, action or action set is set to be excluded from playback.

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.

For instance, you may have an action that does several things, where one of the commands is applying an overall sharpening to the image. If your image has a shallow depth of field that you want to preserve, you might not want to apply an overall sharpening, but instead, apply it locally afterward. Then you can disable the sharpening step to avoid it being applied to this image. 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 display when the action encounters this stop. The message should 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.

Below the message, you can tick a checkbox to allow the user to continue directly instead of stopping the action and doing things manually.

Allow Tool Recording within Actions

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 21.34.18

As default Photoshop tools like the pen or brush tool are not recorded in your Photoshop actions. However, if you go to the Action Panel Menu and scroll down to the middle you will find the option Allow Tool Recording. When Allow Tool Recording is checked each stroke with the brush or pen tool will be added in your recorded action as an action step.

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. Below you can see the full list of criteria that Photoshop can test against without needing to make an advanced script. For instance, you can test whether the current layer is a background layer or if the current document (image) has an active selection and so on. After choosing the criteria, you need to specify which action (or none) to run if the image meets the condition, and what to do when the condition is not met.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 21.29.00

Installing and Exporting Photoshop Actions

We will first look at how to export your photoshop actions 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 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.

How to Organize 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.

In this section, we’ll share with you the best tips for keeping your Photoshop actions organized so you can always find them, no matter whether it is only your own actions, bought PS actions or a mixture.

We will go through naming, ground, action sets, copying and duplicating them, and also what issues might arise by doing changing the structure.

One word of caution. Renaming and reorganizing your actions might make actions dependent on another (renamed) action fail.

Label Your PS Actions

Giving your Photoshop Actions a name that you can remember is the first thing 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, because the action might use several techniques. In this case, go ahead and be a bit creative in the naming.

Finding a name, that makes you remember the type of effect your PS action creates can save you quite a bit of time and frustration so you don’t have to run multiple actions before you find the effect you had in mind. Renaming your PS actions is also very simple.

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

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.

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.

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 Are PS Actions Different From Presets And Scripts?

Now that you know how to use and create Photoshop Actions, you should consider where you can use them in your own workflow and where it makes more sense for you to use presets in Lightroom or Capture One, or use powerful scripts within Photoshop to get the work done.

The decision between using i.e. Lightroom presets or Photoshop actions comes down to the sort of work you’ll essentially be doing. In case you’re a wedding or event photographer and need to edit hundreds to thousands of photographs, using presets in Lightroom will be a lot quicker than running actions in Photoshop.

However, if you have a proven workflow in Photoshop that you like and trust to give you a high-quality result, it makes sense to use actions to automate the process. For instance, I always resize and prepare my photos for using online by using a special recipe or workflow that Lightroom simply cannot mimic in terms of the final image sharpness.

Another example could be a series of steps in Photoshop to bring out the details in your images or applying a special border to all images in a folder by combining actions with batch processing.

Using Photoshop actions instead of presets offers you more flexibility in terms of what you can ask Photoshop to do for you.

Workflow specific Photoshop actions

In Photoshop you can also use Scripts to automate post-processing even more, but these require coding skills and are not for the average Photoshop user. While actions are incredible at playing out a lot of steps over and over, these are not savvy. Consider the possibility that you need Photoshop to perform several steps over and over again, but if certain conditions are met you want it to do things a bit differently. That is the place Scripts come in. A Script is a made of JavaScript code giving guidelines to Photoshop to play out a specific errand using coding logic. In short, actions are built using the user interface while scripts need to be created manually using coding.

Both scripts and actions allow you to automate things in Photoshop. However, scripts are viewed as a more intelligent type of actions, but way more complex to create.

Using Photoshop actions don’t require any other knowledge or technical insight other than what you find on this page and knowing how to perform the functions you want to record as actions. This is why I love them. You don’t need to know how to program different scripts to automate even complicated tasks in Photoshop.

The Benefits of Using Actions From a Photographer’s Point of View

Working with Photoshop actions has ended up being stunning for photographers. Here are a couple of the favorable experiences a photographer may find by using Photoshop actions.

  • Save time and accelerate your work process in Photoshop.
  • Improve your photographs and give them a special effect.
  • Makes altering your photographs fun and intriguing.
  • With premium actions, you have the possibility to use the methods of pro photographers, while you are still learning to master Photoshop yourself.
  • Achieve the same look across a set of images.

Even quite simple tasks can take a long time if you have to search for the right solution because you forget how to do it. However, if you have created a Photoshop action of how to do it, you only have to remember to find the action and run it.

Examples of Actions You Can Create

There are a lot of possibilities for you to create your own actions if you like. For instance, you can record the steps to:

  • Create your favorite border (8 steps). Remember to make different actions for each border size you want.
  • Create luminosity masks (around 70 steps).
  • Give you optimal output sharpening while resizing the images so they are ready for export.
  • Enhance details in your image (12 steps).
  • Add a retro effort to your image (20 steps)
  • Apply high-frequency sharpening
  • Add a watermark to your images.
  • Add three different contrast curves for shadows, mid-tones, and highlights based on luminosity values. It gives you excellent control of the contrast in your image (23 steps).

Photoshop action watermark

This were just a few examples of some techniques in Photoshop that you could record as an action.

After recording it you would save a lot of both time and mouse-clicking because you turn the technique into being a one-click affair + a few necessary adjustments to modify the result to your specific image. It’s is amazing to be able to go from i.e. 20 clicks to do just being able to do it in 1 click instead.

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 (link is just below).

You can likewise locate some quality actions that are accessible for free. 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 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.

Here at Photography-RAW, we deliver high-quality Photoshop actions built especially to help photographers get amazing results by automating the complex techniques Photoshop offer, so you don’t have to do everything over and over again.

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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Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape, nature and macro photography. I hope you enjoy the site 🙂
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Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape, nature and macro photography. I hope you enjoy the site 🙂
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