Photoshop Actions

As we’re all stuck indoors at the moment, now could be a good time to dig out images from your old photoshoots and catch up on a bit of processing.  If you’ve been on a workshop post-processing session you’ll know we cover processing with Lightroom and Photoshop but that both Sam and I use Photoshop all the time for our landscape photography.  One of the things that make it so powerful is the ability to create actions to suit your own preferred workflow, so here’s a quick post on how to create them…

You’ll need a version of full Photoshop to create actions (though you can still run them in Photoshop Elements) but you don’t need to subscribe to Photoshop CC if you’ve got an old standalone copy – this functionality goes back quite a long way in Photoshop.  The example here is using CS5.1 but it’s pretty much the same in any version (the look and feel might be a little different).

Photoshop Actions palette
Photoshop Actions palette and New Action dialog box

First, open an image you want to process and then go to the Actions Palette on the toolbar (or Window > Actions on the menu, or Alt-F9).  As we’re in lockdown, I’ve picked a shot out of my office window at sunset a few days ago!  Then click the “Create new action” button at the bottom of the palette to bring up the New Action dialog box.

One of the first things you’re likely to want to do is add a levels adjustment layer, so let’s create an action to do that as an example.  Give your action a name, such as “Add Levels Layer” and assign it a colour (which will come in handy later).  Then click the Record button…

Adding a Levels adjustment layer

Now you can perform the operations you want to be included in your action – so it’s important to get each keystroke correct!  Yu might want to do a dummy run first before recording it.  To create the Levels layer, open the Layers palette from the toolbar (or Window > Layers, or F7).  This will bring up the Levels dialog…

Adding the Auto Levels layer to the action
Adding the Auto Levels layer to the action

This is the point where you would normally drag in the black point and white point on the histogram to where the data starts and ends to make sure the histogram fill the entire tonal range.  But we can’t do that in an action, as each future image will be different.  What we can do instead is use the Auto functionality – hold down the Alt key and hit the Auto button at the top right of the dialog box.  Pick Enhance Monochromatic Contrast (we don’t want to mess with the colour here) and then set the black and white clip to the smallest height of the histogram you want to retain.  I’ve gone for 0.05% in the example above (in my own workflow I normally use just 0.01% and adjust manually later if it needs more).  That’s all we need the action to do, so you can now head back to the Actions palette and click the Stop button (the first one at the bottom of the palette).

The recorded action in the Actions Palette
The recorded action in the Actions Palette

The action is now recorded so it should look something like the example above at the end of the actions list.  You can click and drag the action to another place in the list if you prefer.  With your action selected in the list you can now press the play button at the bottom of the palette to run it against any new image that you open.

Actions Palette in button mode
Actions Palette in button mode

But the best thing in the Actions Palette is that if you click the flyout menu (the top-rightmost control in the palette) and choose “Button mode” – then the Actions Palette turns into your own customised set of buttons.  This is where the colour of the action comes into play – you can colour code your actions into the types of things they do (e.g. a set of actions for different levels of contrast with a tone curve) and then your whole workflow is available at the click of a button or two!  You’ll then only need to drill down into the underlying layers to make fine adjustments.

Happy processing!

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