Aug 05, 2014

How to Create Professional Photoshop Actions

Creating Actions in Photoshop

Photoshop Actions are created by manually performing a series of steps and recording them in an ATN file. You can replay those steps on any image by hitting the play button in the action dialog.

Actions can save a ton of time when you need to perform a task repeatedly in Photoshop. Actions also help you do things like resize, Color, Sharpen and save images.

The Keys to Creating Flawless Actions

Creating an action can be difficult if you have never done so before. There are specific rules and guidelines to creating a flawless action. Here is a list of tips for creating flawless Actions in Photoshop.

  • Make Each Step “Non-Specific” – One of the reasons Actions tend to come up with errors is because when they are created the steps refer to specific layers or commands. For instance if your Action includes the step “Select Layer 1” and your document has no “layer 1”, the action will return an error. The best way to get around this error is to create steps that are non-specific.
    • When switching layer use the Keyboard Shortcut (ALT/OPTN + [ ]). This will register as “Select Forward/Backward Layer”
    • When making layer changes such as blending mode or Opacity changes – double click on the layer, make your changes in the “Layer Style” dialog and then hit OK. This will register all your changes at once instead of making many different steps.
  • Use the “Stop” button when needed – If you are creating an action and make a mistake don’t worry about including it in the action or starting over. You can simply press the stop button in the action dialog and then delete unnecessary steps. When you are done making changes press the record button to continue.
  • Use “Insert Stop” and Dialog Options – If you are making an Action that requires entering a value that will change for each image these commands can make a huge Difference in the quality of the action. The “Insert Stop” command is found under the Actions Menu, it will allow you to write a message to the person using the action. The Dialog Option box can be checked if there is a step that has changeable values, examples include Gaussian Blur and High Pass. The Dialog Option will allow you to change the amount of blur or High Pass values during the Action.
  • Test Your Actions – After creating an action be sure to test it on multiple images that vary in Size and aspect ratio. An action that performs well on every image is what you want. If your action works great on a “Landscape” oriented image but not a “portrait” oriented image you may need to re-think how you create the action.

Download Sample Action

In today’s episode we show you how to create a Photoshop Action from scratch. If you would like to use the Action we make in the episode, simply Download the Sample Action.


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    Ryan Cooper

    Fantastic article! This is a rare topic that I think could be super helpful to many!

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    I’ve been using Photoshop for like 8 years now and never knew about this action tool. That was really helpful.

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    Daniel Millar

    Hi Aaron. Is there a way to capture the texture of an old, warn photograph so that the texture can be applied over an element of a newer image composited into the old? As an example, how would you composit an image off yourself into a photo of your grandparent’s wedding party?

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    Adrian Marshall

    Very informative and helpful. Could we please have a new episode that includes your Mum, thank you.

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    Awesome! Don’t really know why i’ve never paid much attention to actions before but this tutorial is definitely made me realize the usefulness of them… Going to help me save a ton of time! Thanks Phlearn!

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    Mauricio Vera

    Hey Aaron

    I was really frustrated when I created a Freq Sep action for my portraits… but it killed me that I coudn’t choose a “universal” blur value for the low freq because all my pictures were different…

    You just solved my problems, thanx!

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      Mauricio Vera

      one more thing please… how do you do

      (ALT/OPTN + [ ]) on a PC?
      Also always wanted to know how you change your brush size or flow so quikly… always hear bracket key, but that doesn’t work on a PC 🙁

      Please advise

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        On a PC the square brackets change the brush size [ makes it smaller and ] makes it bigger.

        To change brush size quickly like you see in the videos, hold down the ALT key then ores and hold your right mouse button. To increase the brush size move the mouse horizontally. Moving the mouse vertically controls the brush hardens. Hope this helps.

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    Thanks for the great article, PHLEARN! Is there any way for me to write an action that does different things for different image sizes? Like for images in landscape mode place watermark at the bottom right and for portrait mode place watermark along the right edge? That would be very useful.

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    Marschland Media & Arts

    What we find helpful when creating actions is giving each layer we create during action recording a specific name right away after creating it. This will be recorded as well and we can select layers as we please and PS will always find the exact layer we want it to use. Works also great for groups and helps a lot when you create mid-process actions like frequency separation stuff in a portrait for example. We do always have the same names for our layers and groups so our subconsciousness gets used to those names and saves us a ton of time finding the correct layers and groups later in the editing process. Same goes for coloring actions in your action panel – huge timesaver when you just click “green” to run the frequency separation action 🙂

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    Perfect! I know about actions and how to record but didn’t really look into getting around that “specific” layer… This is going to be a game changer… (y)

    Special hi to Kat F… <3

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    I would like a tutorial on how to get that “painted” effect like Dave Hill and others use. There is a lot of tutorials on the net but I don´t think they totally get the right look. Can you Aaron? Of course you can!

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      @Mathias – the “Problem” with the Dave Hill Style (most oversharpen Layers) is not only a Softwarething. He use a Middleformat Camera like Hasselblad, and thats the Key. Look at Images they shoot with a MF Camera, u will see the Difference to normal DSLRs 😉 (sry for my bad english)…

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    Love the beautiful female dancing around getting picked up by the UFO!

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    Natasha Heredia

    Invluable for when I’m creating a series or editorial!! Thanks!!!

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    This was great! I’ve always been curious about how people put together actions. Especially the ones with layers called “sharpen eyes” or something similar. Does that apply the sharpening to the whole image and then you are responsible for creating a mask and making it visible only on the eyes? :]

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    I love you PHlearn! I always learn something new each time I watch your videos despite using photoshop for what feels like forever.

    However I feel that you have given some misleading info in your video. I don’t believe that actions have to be non specific as you can always name the layers when you create them. That way when you write the actions you can select specific layers and it will work each time when you use them as you’re always creating the same layers again and again. You can also add in stops for different filters so you can adjust the settings and use colour fill layers to allow you to change the colours after the action has been run.

    I use my own personal actions in my retouching work, not only to automate and speed up the process, but also to create comp cards, photo montages and to watermark and save my work.

    Great tutorial regardless for people starting out 🙂

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    Awesome tutorial on actions!

    I have a question that goes into a bit more detail, and I’m not sure if its even possible.

    Lets say I have a a picture that I want to save at multiple different resolutions for various desktop resolutions. So I’ll have them saved as 1920×1200, 1680×1050, 1280×800, etc. in a jpg format.

    Is there a way to have it query the user one time for an image name and then use it as the first part of the file name?

    So the action would run, prompt user for the image name, eg: “birds,” and then resize the image to 1920, and save it as “birds_1920.jpg,” then automatically resize to 1680, and save it as “birds_1680.jpg.” etc.

    I currently have an action built that will resize and then prompt the user for a file directory, file name, and file format (save as dialogue), which saves a ton of time, but is not really a one button solution.

    Is it even possible?
    If it is, you’re my hero, you’re awesome, and you’re beautiful!

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    Am like the way your showing them tuitorials it`s help me to do retouchment

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    Jim Isaac

    WOW. What an informative lesson. Didn’t know you could start and stop recording while making an action. WOW, again. Thanks for lesson.

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    Dan Grant

    Hi Aaron, I have a question about adding a mask layer when creating a action. When I’ve added in a mask onto a layer & I’m happy with the final result on how I’ve masked the layer & playback the action it doesn’t apply the masked layer.

    I was wondering why & if there is a way to achieve on getting a masked layer into an action


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    Thanks, very helpful.

    I´m having a problem with the select all the layers shortcut. I have to use alt + “. ” and “, ” to move from one layer to another but i can´t select all the layer for making a group without selecting the background. My shift + , or . isn´t working. And alt + [] isn´t working at all.

    What can I do to resolve this?

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    Thanks for a great video. I was hoping you could show me how to open groups when making actions? The actions I am trying to make requires groups then needing to go into these different groups. But being that PS does not record opening groups ( or should I say I can’t get it to) my actions won’t work. Thanks.

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    Wonderful as usual. I wonder if you would have time to create a dispersion effect action?