Photoshop Actions: How (and Why) I Use Them

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I oftentimes will see photographers say (with their nose slightly upturned?) “I NEVER use actions with my photographs!”. This always kinda makes me chuckle. I think I understand some of what they’re saying, I really do. Yet I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using actions, or with not using actions … and maybe it would be helpful to have an honest conversation with one of these photographers to pick their brain on the topic.

You see, my guess is that when they say they never use actions they mean they never us other people’s actions. You know, the ones you can buy and install into Photoshop, press a button and “voilà!” their photo is magically transformed into Photoshop “awesomeness”. But … could they also mean that they don’t use actions at all? Do they never open up the actions panel out of some inner principle that they shouldn’t automate anything in Photoshop?

You see, while I don’t use pre-created (by other people) actions in my work in Photoshop, I do create my own actions all the time (many of them are in screen-shot above of my actions panel). There are a lot of things that, even if I had to do them to a hundred photos, they would be done exactly the same. Since most of what I create are stock photographs then a lot of the edits I do are similar … some things like levels adjustments will always be different, but if I want to whiten teeth, add a dodge burn layer or even sharpen my image then they are all going to be the same steps repeated over and over. So, the way I see it, it would be time-consuming for me to not use any actions with my photographs.

The more you can automate repetitive and mundane tasks in Photoshop, the more time you have to push your brain cells towards being creative. This doesn’t just apply to actions … I use keyboard shortcuts, sync RAW edits in Lightroom and use some of the Photoshop scripts, like merging photos into a panorama. In my opinion it’s best to work smarter, not harder. :)

(For tutorials on creating your own actions in Photoshop, check out my video tutorials section here on my blog.)

By | 2016-12-18T17:01:10+00:00 May 19th, 2011|6 Comments

About the Author:

My name is Nicole and I'm a photographer, author, & educator living in Portland, Oregon, USA. When I'm not making photos I'm writing books and tutorials for my online store, Learn more about me and my story here.

6 Comments

  1. I laugh when I hear that too. I love my bundle of presets – especially my HDR one. They’re fantastic and shorten my processing time. I no longer just click on an action, but I do test them out and continue to edit. I love the time it saves and I adore having fun with my images.

    I was worried that they’d become a crutch at first, but no action can completely satisfy me when it comes to all of my photography so the worry was unwarrented.

  2. Matt Vanecek May 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    I don’t use other people’s actions. Never ever. Until I’ve played with the action a bit, first. :)

    Actions, others or your own, are SO useful! What make them even better, if you record your own, is Photoshop’s keyboard shortcut for navigation. E.g. Select Top Layer, or Select Bottom Layer, or Select next/previous layers, etc. Using generic keyboard shortcuts when recording makes it easy to use actions across differently-structured files. Like, Select Bottom Layer, instead of Select “Background”.

    Anyhow, Actions are awesome, and make a great starting point for most edits. Mostly, painting masks and certain filters are the only things not really do-able with Actions. Unless Nicole knows something I don’t, which is quite likely.

  3. Suzi May 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Love hearing about workflow! And I, too, use actions. My most recent fave I named “squash”. One tap to ditch extra layers; I’m a genius… The goal I set, though (just for me), is to maintain consistent style that isn’t over-the-top trendy. I look back and wince at my “dreamy” phase, and my “vignette-crazy” phase. And I won’t mention my “uber-contrasty-what-was-I-thinking?” phase.

  4. Terry Ellis May 19, 2011 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    I would love to know your action “remove banding.” Perhaps you could do a vid. I’ve looked and looked for ways to do this.

    Really enjoy your vids and blog, Nichole. You’ve helped me in many ways. Thank you.

    • Nicole May 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm - Reply

      If I can find a good example with banding, I’ll do a tutorial. :)

      • Terry Ellis May 20, 2011 at 9:38 am - Reply

        Thank you, Nicole. I would love it.

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