Tool Tips |

January 30, 2018

How to get Photoshop's Actions to do your work for you

It's 2018 already, "where's my jet pack?" you may be asking, "...or at the very least my flying car? "Why can't the supercomputer on my desk do my work for me while I go hoverboarding?" Okay, we're still working on Jetsons-style human flight and hoverboards that Marty McFly would appreciate, but getting your computer to do your work for you, this is can be done.

If you're one of the many studio folk I encounter who are still wary of Photoshop Actions, there's good news – with a small commitment to getting your head around them, you can watch your computer do the heavy lifting while you gas about the latest telly.

Since it's quite possible to be a Photoshop Ninja and never touch Actions once, they can get overlooked. But Actions are a trusty automation tool that can handle quite complex tasks and it's with a complex task that you're more likely to invest the time to set up an Action – the payoff is too obvious to ignore. But once you develop the mindset, there are even greater benefits to be had by getting them to handle the small things as well.

We’re all familiar with small Photoshop tasks that are easy to perform by hand, but super-repetitive. These are the borderline cases – the tasks that are so straightforward that you really can't be bothered to fiddle with Actions. It seems like it would be easier to just bring the work ethic and forge ahead. But we humans aren't good at repetition. The mind wanders, mistakes happen, and then you have to fix them. It would have been more efficient to set up an Action and move to another task.

Break this mindset and start using Actions for even the most menial of tasks, and suddenly you'll find you have a ton of time on your hands. Well, enough to think about the next item on your hierarchical to do list (more on that in another post), or to take a minute to consider the directional stability issues of your hoverboard side-project.

I think Actions get overlooked as much as they do because there's no hard and fast need to use them. But the benefits are obvious for repetitive tasks like resizing a huge batch of photos or creating a repeatable record of a sequence of adjustments that can be used later. And the process is simple too. Just record what you do in Photoshop, and replay the recording later.

The only barrier to entry is figuring out what an Action can and can't do. For example, if you record yourself creating a mask with the brush tool, you can't expect an Action to work out what you want masked on a different image. So you have to rely on adjustments that will work 'blind'.

It's a simple process, figure out what you want to do – set up a New Action in the Actions palette, hit record (just like on a tape recorder) and off you go. Photoshop watches what you're doing and records it. As long as you remember to switch the Action off when you're done, you're good. Now you can trigger that Action to perform the same sequence of adjustments to another file. But herein is the sticking point, the reason that so many people dodge Actions altogether; it's the "figure out what you want to do" part.

Like most people I've worked with, I use Photoshop fairly intuitively. I try things, see what works, use the history palette to back-up if I need to and proceed with a combination of know-how and experimentation. I think this is a fair representation of how a lot of pros handle their daily interactions with Photoshop, but this 'suck-it-and-see' approach runs counter to the nature of Actions. Actions require planning, and sometimes you don't know what you want Photoshop to do until you do it. But that, right there, is the only habit you need to break to start reaping all the automated goodness of Actions. If you can identify early, that you will benefit from using an Action and then, instead of charging forward, just take a moment to plan out your moves, you can harness your computer to do the grunt work for you; like a good minion should.

It might require a trial-and-error test or two until you have it down before recording your Action. and often this feels like an unnecessary loop to go through, it feels kind of off-piste when you just want to get the job done. But when you hit play and your screen starts flashing as your computer takes the reins and starts crunching through a pile of drudgery, it all makes perfect sense.

To get started the first thing to look at is the Actions Palette: Menubar/Window/Actions. This is where almost everything Actions related happens. In this palette you can record a new Action, save and organise and also edit existing Actions. You'll also find loads of preset Actions to play with.

If you look at the foot of the Actions palette you'll find a row of controls that look just like old-school recording icons. Left to right, there's stop, record (this goes red when recording) and play. Then there's New Action Set, New Action, and a bin for deleting Actions and sets of Actions. Actions are portable too, they can be moved to different versions of Photoshop, the only proviso being they use features that are common to both versions.

Use the drop down menu in the palette to Create New Action. This is the first step, then all you need to do is give your new action a name, hit record and start performing the tasks you want to save as an Action. Don't forget to stop the Action when you're done!

Now that you have your Action saved you can use it to perform that sequence of commands on an individual file each time you hit 'play' with that Action selected. But to unleash the true power of Actions – the coffee break level, hey my computer's taking care of business grade automation, you need to combine it with the power of Photoshop's Automate menu.

So go to menubar/file/automate and you'll see the top and third options are Batch, and Create Droplet respectively. Both of these give you the power to apply your Actions to a folder full of files. So for example, if I have an action that takes an image, changes its PPI to 72, resizes it 1024 px wide, sets RGB and saves as a 70% quality Jpeg, all I would have to do is invoke this action in the Batch menu to perform the task on a giant batch of images.

Create droplet is a similar process but a 'Droplet' is an alias that you can keep in the folder you are using to batch process. Simply navigate to that folder and drop any number of files onto your Droplet. It will then batch process them according to your Action. You can also 'nest' Actions, so an Action can contain the triggering of a different Action within it. Handy if you set up a few simple Actions to build more complex ones with.

I won't go into the minutiae of how all these options work because it will be quicker for you to play with them and figure them out yourself, than to read a detailed how-to, and then play with them and figure them out yourself. But I hope this piece has given you the impetus to break through any Actions-aversion you might be harbouring and finally get your computer to work for you, instead of the other way around.

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Freelance designer/photographer in London.
Social Media content design, visual design and photography services.
Contact me at jaz@atelier-k.co