One quick and easy way to speed up your post-processing workflow? Photoshop actions, or preset series of steps that can be applied to any photo. Though actions do take out some of the hard post-processing work, it’s still important to understand how they function and how to achieve the same results on your own. Once you understand how the action works, you can make your own creative actions.
Here I will go over five base actions that will help you achieve a very clean base edit with just a few clicks! These are actions that you could quickly apply to every photo you process. In the image above, I used these base actions and then added some creative touches.
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How to start recording your action
The next series of images will show you step by step how to get started. I’ve put all the info on the images, so it should be easy to follow along. First select your “Window” menu and look for “Actions.” This will open your Actions palette.
At the bottom of the Actions palette is a set of icons, which you’ll use to create a new action set.
- Stop Recording
- New Action Set
- New Action
- Trash Bin
The “New Action Set” button, which looks like a folder, is what you will use to create a new action set. After clicking the folder icon, a dialog box will open up. This is where you will name your new set. I named my set “Base Actions.” After you do this, you will see your new set listed in your actions menu.
To make a new action within your set, you will now select the New Action button, the fifth icon from the left. This one looks like a square with the corner folded down, like a page in a book.
Again, a dialog box will pop up. I named my new action “Foundation,” which is the first action we are going to create. The record button, the second from the left, will start recording your actions.
When you are done, click the leftmost Stop Recording button.
Action 1: Foundation
I am going to start with an image of my daughter trying to make a straight face. I love how she looks like a deer caught in headlights while also trying to eat a piece of candy and hide it.
While the foundation action is a great first step, it will do very little to help if the image is drastically too dark or too bright. I went ahead and brightened it a bit in Camera Raw since this action is not for making major adjustments. I also reduced the noise in the image because it had quite a bit of grain in it.
Remember to push the Record button to start recording your actions.
First, make three copies of your background. You can just hit the shortcut (Mac shortcut: ⌘+J; PC shortcut: ctrl+J) three times and you’ll have the three layers. Now, name them starting from the bottom: “Detail,” “Light” and “Dark.” I’ve already named them in the screenshot below.
Now, we’ll set each of those layers to three different blending modes. That’s the little menu to the left of the “Opacity” option.
- Detail layer: Use the “Soft Light” mode to add contrast to your image, giving it further detail
- Light layer: Set the blending mode to “Screen,” which will lighten the image
- Dark layer: Use the “Multiply” blending mode, will darken the image
As you can see below, my image got darker since the top layer is the last one we set.
Now, click on the “mask” icon for each layer.
Now that we’ve created the masks for each layer, we are going to invert them. This will “hide” the changes (Mac shortcut: ⌘+I; PC shortcut: ctrl+I). You’ll know you got it right when the image goes back to its original form. Click on each individual mask to make the change.
Now, hit the Stop Recording button. That’s your action!
Next, we’ll see what those layer masks can do. You’ll want to use a soft round brush at about 50 percent opacity. Make sure the color is set to white.
I brushed over some darkness on the background and some of the shadows on the Dark layer mask. I brushed over her face and some of the highlights using the Light layer mask and added some depth by brushing on the Detail layer mask. I also decreased the opacity of the Detail layer down to about 35 percent. This is not mandatory, just my preference.
When you brush over a layer mask, you are removing or adding to that particular layer. When the layer mask is white, you are brushing that layer’s properties off of the image. When you invert the mask, as we did, you are adding them back in. The mask protects the image from being directly edited. You can go back and start again without any damage to the original image.
Congrats! You have made your very first action! Now that we have gone over how to make one and actually put one into use, we can dive into the next ones without all the added explanations.
Action 2: Details
This action will add details or de-fog a photo. Sometimes when working with RAW photos, the images might look a little foggy because the images are not “pre-processed” by the camera.
As in with the previous explanation, we are going to start with the New Action button. I named this action “defog.”
We will once again make a duplicate of the background layer after starting the recording of our new action. On this layer, select Filter > Other > High Pass in the menu. If your image looks like the one below, don’t freak out — you are on the right track.
We will now adjust the radius of our filter. The “High Pass” filter sharpens the edges of the image instead of the whole surface. The wider the radius, the farther out it sharpens. I put mine at about 9.5, but you can go higher or lower. As with many of the good things in life, less is more!
Set the blending mode of your now gray, psychedelic layer to “Overlay” or even “Soft light.” When you do so, adjust the opacity to your taste. Again, less is more.
Hit the Stop Recording button. Remember, that’s the square icon to the left of the red recording button.
Action 3: Skin
This is a simple skin action that smooths the skin and adds back the texture where needed.
I use this action all of the time for my own images. I first touch up skin blemishes and use this at a low opacity to finish the skin. Since you are now practically an expert at how the action process works, let’s dive right in.
Start by duplicating your background twice. Name the two new layers “Texture” and “Smoother.”
Turn off the little “eye” icon next to your Texture layer. We don’t need to see this right now and, frankly, I don’t like the way it’s looking at me. Make sure your Smoother layer is selected.
Go to the Filter menu and select Blur > Surface Blur. After selecting the correct blurring filter, I set the radius to 39 pixels and the threshold to 26 pixels. You should see your image become very blurry. I purposely set this high because we will reduce the opacity of this layer later — better to have too much than too little in this instance.
After hitting “OK,” add a mask and invert it, as we did before. Select the Texture layer (you can hit that eye button again to make it visible) and once again select Filter > Other > High Pass in the menu bar. This time, set the radius to about 7 pixels. Set the blending mode to “Overlay,” add a mask and invert it.
Stop your action! Two more to go.
Action 4: Image Size
This action will resize your images for online sharing. It also comes in handy when you need to resize for blog posts, your website or any other sharing outlet.
Start recording, select the from the menu Image > Image Size. When the dialog box pops up, simply put in the needed image size. I typically use a 2048 pixel width for Facebook posts and between 72 and 100 resolution size. I will note that it is easier to set the resolution first, then the width size.
Hit your stop button and you’re done — easy!
Action 5: Sharpen
This sharpen action will do a final sharpen on your images. It is usually a good idea to add a bit of sharpening to your images before sharing on the web. However, if you already sharpened in Camera Raw or with a setting in the camera, you might be able to skip this.
Start recording, then We will select Filter > Sharpen > Unsharpen Mask. You can set the radius and threshold to your liking — I usually keep it fairly low.
Here, I did 21 percent and a pixel radius between three and four. Again, this is personal preference, but don’t go too high.
Now that you have created your own actions and a few to get you started, be sure to play around. See what you can come up with on your own!