Editing your images is a rewarding part of digital photography. However, if you ever shoot in volume, some of the simplest jobs in Photoshop can take a frustratingly long time. What may have only taken a few seconds to achieve on one image soon becomes a very repetitive process.

You might also struggle to remember how you’ve achieved great editing results before. Maybe you perfected an editing process a while back, but time’s passed and you wish you’d documented how you achieved it. Here’s where Actions come in. Though they may take a little effort to set up, in the long run they are a valuable time-saver.

What are Photoshop Actions and what do they do?

Actions are essentially a series of recorded tasks or user commands. Creating an Action is very simple. First you start recording, manually see through a task from start to finish and every step will be captured along the way. Once you stop recording you can play back this Action on any other image, and it will very quickly apply all those steps automatically.

There’s no limit to what you can achieve with Photoshop Actions. One one hand, it can be something as simple as a ‘Save As’ command. On the other, it can be an extremely complicated edit, complete with many layers, masks, and adjustments.

If you’re methodical and plan your tasks out so that they don’t throw up any errors when you repeat them with different images, you can free up a lot more of your time.

How to use Photoshop Actions

You can locate Photoshop Actions at Window>Actions. Photoshop comes loaded with a basic set of default Actions. The usefulness of some of these is questionable, although if you’re not familiar with how Actions work it’s worth looking through and expanding the list to see how they’re constructed.

There are two different views within this Actions panel; ‘List Mode’, which you can expand to show the step of each Action (you’ll need to be in this view to organise, play or record) or a more simplified, one-press ‘Button Mode’.

how to use Photoshop Actions for a faster workflow

Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

Let’s start our journey by creating a very basic ‘Save for Web’ Action. All we want to do for this is to resize our image and save it in a designated folder ready to upload to a blog post. To show the images off at their best and keep our file sizes down we want all images to be 1500 pixels wide, at 75% JPEG quality and we want our images to be saved in a designated folder.

  1. The key to useful Actions is stay organised and systematic. If you’re looking at Actions in List View things soon start looking quite hectic and confusing. At the bottom of the Actions Panel, you’ll find a small folder icon called ‘New Set’. Let’s create a Set called ‘Resizing’.

    how to use Photoshop Actions for a faster workflow

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  2. Press ‘New Action’ button and call it ‘Resizing for blog’. When you create this, you could assign it a Function Key or a colour for ‘Button Mode’.

    how to use Photoshop Actions for a faster workflow

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  3. Press ‘Record’. Now resize your image as normal. For this, we want to select Image>Image Resize. Set the Resolution to ‘72’ and the width to ‘1500 pixels’. We want to honour the image ratio, so make sure the ‘chain’ button is highlighted and Resample is set to ‘Automatic’. Press OK.

    how to use Photoshop Actions for a faster workflow

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  4. Now we can ‘Save for Web’, which compresses the file, removes unnecessary EXIF data and optimises it for web use. Although it’s possible alter the image size in the ‘Save for Web’ window, when making Actions this can throw up a few problems, so for this purpose we’ve used ‘Image Resize’. You’ll see the width is correct at 1500px. Set the Quality to 75 choose ‘JPEG’. Press ‘Save’ and locate your Export folder. Press ‘Save’ and then close the image. We don’t want to overwrite our original image so then choose ‘Don’t Save’.

    how to use Photoshop Actions for a faster workflow

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  5. Press ‘Stop’.
  6. Now we can open more images. Making sure ‘Resizing for blog’ Action is selected in the Actions panel, hit the ‘Play’ button. Your Action should run, your image should close and your new saved, resized image should be ready and waiting in your Export folder.

Saving a Photoshop Actions as a Droplet

The Action we’ve created is a handy time-saver if you have just a few images to work through. But what if you have 300 images you need to adjust?

Although your Action will undoubtedly save you a huge amount of time, for each one you’d still have to open the image and hit the Play button (though if you’ve thought it through well enough, your Action can include a save and close). Those clicks soon mount up. There are two extra features that work alongside Photoshop Actions that can add a bit of extra magic.

A Droplet is a shortcut for running an Action. It’s a very handy drag-and-drop widget. You can simply drop an image, a series of images or a whole folder onto a Droplet. It can save you a lot of time as it means you don’t have to open your images into Photoshop first.

Droplets can be stored anywhere. You might find it handy to have a Droplet on your Desktop or a designated folder. If you’re working on a Mac, you can even add a Droplet to your Dock.

Making a Droplet from an action is very simple:

  1. Choose File>Automate>Create Droplet.

    Saving a Photoshop Actions as a Droplet

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  2. Decide where you want the Droplet to be saved.
  3. If you’ve been organised with your Action sets, it’s quick to find the correct Action in the Play section.
  4. There are a few processing and saving options you can explore. Because we included a ‘Save As’ command when we created our resizing Action you might not need to change this. If you don’t, to make adjustments, you can tick the ‘Override Action ‘Save As Commands’ and make tweaks here.

    Saving a Photoshop Actions as a Droplet

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport

  5. Choose the Destination Folder.
  6. Make any file naming adjustments and press OK. You will now find the Droplet in your saved location.

Creating conditional Photoshop Actions

Exporting images for a blog and resizing them can be a bit more laborious if you have a mix of landscape and portrait-orientated images. Say you need each image in your blog to be 1500px wide to look their best. If you create an Action as above, it will only work if the orientation is the same as the image you used to Record your Action. Here’s where the “Insert Conditional…” command comes in handy.

  1. When we created the ‘Resizing for blog’ Action we used a landscape image. Select this Action, double-click and add a suffix of ‘- Landscape’ to the name.
  2. Create a new Action called ‘Resizing for blog – Portrait’. You can follow the same steps, but this time use a Portrait-orientated image whilst recording.

    Creating Conditional Photoshop Actions

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  3. Once done, click back on the ‘Resizing for blog – Landscape’ Action and the fly-out menu top right.
  4. Create a new Action within the same set and call it ‘Conditional Resizing’.

    Creating Conditional Photoshop Actions

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  5. In the fly-out menu with this Action selected choose ‘Insert conditional…’ and select the following options: If Current: Document is Landscape; Then Play Action: Resizing for blog – Landscape; Else Play Action: Resizing for blog – Portrait.

    Creating Conditional Photoshop Actions

    Photo credit: Emma Davenport.

  6. Remember to press ‘Stop’.

With this set up you can now create a Droplet from this ‘Conditional Resizing’ Action. Now it doesn’t matter if you drag a portrait or a landscape-orientated image onto this Droplet! The Conditional Resizing will run the appropriate Action and sift your images for you. All your images should now be 1500px wide.

Batch Processing in Photoshop

An alternative to making Droplets is to Batch-process files. The controls here are essentially the same as in the Droplets panel but it gives you the flexibility to work with Actions on the spur of the moment. In this Dialog box you’ll need to remember to select the Source for your images. Again, you can choose whole folders to speed things up.

You can find this by choosing File>Automate>Batch…

Sharing Actions

It’s possible to save Actions for use on another computer or to share with friends. You may even want to sell your Actions! Actions are saved as a .atn file. If you use compatible versions of Photoshop, and there aren’t any features in an action not available in a version of Photoshop you are trying to load an action into, you shouldn’t have any problems with this.

To save an Action file click on your Action Set folder, selected the fly-out menu and choose ‘Save Actions…’ You will be able to share this file with others. You can also Load in other Actions in the same way.

Where to find Photoshop Actions

There’s plenty of scope to by Photoshop Actions. Sites such as Creative Market, Etsy or Luxe Lens are a good place to start. You can also keep your eye on the Creative Cloud site at https://creativecloud.adobe.com/discover/free-assets/.

The internet is awash with so many creative Actions, including ways to transform your images into illustrations, light leaks and frames.

That said, you’ll probably get the best use in Actions for more practical purposes. Now you know how to create a basic Action here are some other ideas for everyday tasks you might want to automate.

  • Adding a border to images
  • Creating Double Exposures
  • Converting colour images to black and white
  • Adding image info i.e Copyright information not created in-camera
  • Adding Watermarks to images (try using Conditional Actions as we did above to change the watermark position according to your image orientation)

Featured image credit: Szabo Viktor via Unsplash.

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