Photoshop Beginners Basics Series: Actions Explained

After a short break, my video tutorial series on Photoshop Beginners Basics is back, this time covering Photoshop Actions in detail. If you've ever fumbled around trying to figure out what Actions were, or how they worked, and found yourself confused, then read on. Oh, and watch the video while you're at it.

Actions in Photoshop can be enormously useful and radically impact your workflow for the better, but they can also be crutches and cause lazy retouching when misused. I know that's a very generalized statement, and if you don't know what Actions actually do (or what they can do I should say) then it's clear as mud, so let me itemize the basics every beginner should know about them.

Scripts, Macros, Shortcuts, etc

An Action in Photoshop is essentially a series of commands you pre-program to then use later with just a click. Depending on your experience with computer applications, you may already be familiar with this concept and perhaps refer to it as a script, macro, or shortcut. Simply put, these names refer to the process where you manually go through a series of steps in an application, all the while recording the parameters of each step in a linear set of instructions that can then be called on again (or run) to repeat the steps instantly. Note that Actions are not Key Commands, but can contain functions called by Key Commands.

Recording Parameters & Settings

As you go through the process explained in the video tutorial above, you will see I clarify that recording an Action is not like recording screen activity or video. While some new Photoshop users immediately grasp the concept based on their previous computer application experience, some are initially confused by the Record button in the Actions palette, and assume it records either screen video or every literal cursor or keyboard interaction. This might be for naive reasons or wishful thinking, but it's not what Actions do. In actuality, recording an Action is recording a set of parameters and settings, for the most part, in order to document said steps for use later (or often).

These parameters can include Adjustment Layer settings, Selections, Layer naming and organization, almost every single menu option in the program, and much more including triggering other Actions inside an Action. Cool huh? And that's just the beginning of what Actions can do.

Actions Are Not Cure-Alls

Finally, while it is imperative that you play with Actions a lot at first, simply to get a feel for how they work, after you're comfortable with them do yourself and your work a huge favor: Don't use Actions for your entire workflow. At least not to the point where you run your Action, as is, and then declare your image complete. I urge you to give each shot, at the very least, a cursory review to ensure your Action did what you wanted it to do for that particular shot. There is no way one Action is perfect for every shoot you do, every single time, for eternity. That's simply being lazy, and your work will suffer if you fall into that habit.

However, consider making your Actions with liberal use of the dialog box prompt option on most or all of your Action instructions. The video will explain using this in more detail, but the main idea is that each instruction (containing a menu function, a layer function, or any parameter setting) prompts you with a dialog box with said settings that is pre-filled with whatever default parameters you want to start with. Upon each dialog opening, you make a decision on the settings based on the specific image you are working on. This is the best of both worlds because your workflow is sped up, but you aren't blindly accepting whatever an Action does by default and then exporting a final image with it.

Pre-Purchased Actions

Finally, if you're a beginner and you want to buy Actions from a company or an individual photographer that offers them, by all means do so. But when you do, consider this evil tip: Buying Actions is a great way to learn new Photoshop functions because you can dissect the Actions you purchased to see what they are specifically doing. Sure, they are probably very useful to you as originally intended, but don't discount the idea of reverse engineering what they do. There is a wealth of information in there, all in a nice package for you to learn from. 

I welcome you to check out my Photo & Retouch Tutorials to download my utility Actions and see how I use them.


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