Let Photoshop do the work
Why waste your precious time repeating yourself, when you can let an automatic process do it all for you? Hans Weichselbaum explores Photoshop’s action command
The digital revolution has made life so much easier for us photographers — except that we tend to arrive home with hundreds of images that all need to be renamed and assigned keywords. There are lots of other chores that come to mind as well — like making thumbnails, applying lens corrections, resizing, and watermarking. Acknowledging that computers are good at repetitive tasks, why not use your time for things more creative?
Adobe Photoshop gives you many options to speed up your work. Keyboard shortcuts can save you tons of time and come in handy for mundane jobs, such as duplicating a layer, selecting another tool, or changing the blending mode. You can download a PDF with all the keyboard shortcuts and print a hard copy. Another great way of saving time is to automatically attach metadata as you import your shots; for example, your copyright information and common keywords. One of the advantages of shooting JPEGs is that lens corrections are applied automatically by the camera. If your RAW converter can recognize the lens you are using, all you need is a simple tick in the right box and all the lens corrections are taken care of: geometric distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting — this saves you heaps of time, without compromising the quality.
Most people are familiar with actions, but not everybody uses them to their full potential. And there’s more: droplets, the Image Processor, and scripts. The latest Photoshop versions also offer you conditional actions.
In this article, I want to focus mainly on actions that you can run on a whole bunch of photos. We’ll deal with all the Batch settings in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom in another article.
An ‘action’ — other programs call it a ‘macro’ — is simply a series of steps that Photoshop performs automatically. Have a look at the Actions palette (Image 1). You will find some useful actions already installed: different workspaces and keyboard shortcuts, changing colour modes, image effects, textures, and frames. An internet search will find you thousands of actions, all ready to download. Of course, you can also design your own.
To record a new action, press the Create New Action button at the bottom of the action palette, or begin by making a new set. Starting a new action will prompt you to give it a name and store it under an existing set. You can assign a function key (or key combination) to any action, which is handy for often-used procedures; then, any time you press that key, Photoshop will get to work.
After naming the new action, simply press the red Record button and Photoshop will record all the steps as you perform them. Most procedures can be recorded; exceptions are steps that depend on a specific location in the image; selection; or brush tools in particular. If you intend to run the action on a whole folder of files, you need to include the Open, Save, and Close steps in the action.
Let’s have a go at creating a simple, short action. You will often have a whole lot of highresolution images that need to be made into smaller JPEG thumbnails for your website.
Press the New Action button, give the action a useful name — for example, something like ‘Resize 600 pixels wide, sRGB, JPEG 6’, then click the Record button. You’re live now, so try not to make any mistakes — everything is being recorded, including undo and stepping backwards. You can also design an action to run on a single file. If the action is designed to run on an entire folder, start with a File Open command. So, your first step is: File > Open This will open the file you have chosen as a sample file to work on. Next, you want to downsize the image to 600 pixels on the longest side. Normally, you would go to Image > Image Size and change the pixel dimension. But, to cater for both landscape and portrait shots, we use another command from the File menu: File > Automate > Fit Image Here, you enter ‘600’ in both fields, which will size your images to a maximum of 600 pixels, independent of the format (Image 2).
Later, we’ll learn about conditional actions, with which you can distinguish between landscape and portrait shots. But why complicate things if the Fit Image command does the job in one go?
The next step changes the colour space to sRGB: Edit > Convert to Profile sRGB The last two steps are for saving and closing the file: File > Save As > (JPEG format) File > Close After the last step, click the Stop button and you are ready to run your action. Don’t panic if you made any mistakes or repeated any steps — simply drag those steps to the Trash at the bottom right of the Actions palette.
When you save the file, you will go through the normal JPEG interface with all its options. All the settings will be saved into the action — for example, the file quality/compression setting. You can change these settings at a later stage simply by double-clicking the relevant step, or you can copy the whole action under a new name and then change the JPEG quality setting in the new saving step.
You will find all your steps listed in the Actions palette with a short description. If the first box to the left of an action step is unchecked, this particular step will be skipped when running the action. If you click on the second box, a small rectangle appears. This will pause the action at that particular step, which comes in handy for displaying and changing the settings in a dialogue box — for example, it allows you to adjust Levels or Curves, or change the parameters in the Resize interface. Without the pause, the step will be performed with the settings used at the time of recording. Make sure that you have no pauses if you run the action on a whole lot of files, otherwise you won’t be able to have your lunch break.
A good idea is to test your action under various conditions: does it work with high-bit, greyscale, and CMYK images? Are there any problems with layered files and active selections? Sometimes, the action will need to be edited by overwriting certain steps, or you will need to insert new steps and delete others. With longer and more complex actions, it is also advisable to start off with a new snapshot in the history palette, then if things don’t turn out as expected, you can always revert to the snapshot.
Actions really become useful when you can run them on a whole folder full of images. Changing colour modes, resizing and compressing, making frames, and many other applications come to mind. Go to File > Automate > Batch to get the Batch interface (Image 3).
Choose an action then, from the Source dropdown, select the particular folder with images you want to run the action on. The Destination can be either Save and Close or another folder. Then you need to have a careful look at the little boxes. If File Open and Save As have been included in the recorded steps, we need to check those boxes. It is a good idea to tick Suppress Colour Profile Warnings too, otherwise you won’t be able to walk away from your computer. The Batch command is also available directly from Bridge: Tools > Photoshop > Batch.
Often-used actions can be turned into droplets (File > Automate > Create Droplet). This will save any action as a file. Whenever there is a need to process an image (or a folder full of images) using that particular action, simply drag the image file (or folder) on top of the droplet. Droplets can also be copied between Mac and PC platforms, if you work on both.
Returning to the Actions palette, if you click on the little triangle at the top right, you will get a submenu (in later Photoshop versions you’ll get a rectangle with four parallel lines). Here you will find the Button Mode — an option to display the Actions palette as coloured buttons without listing the steps. In the submenu, you also get the interface for loading and saving actions.
One of the peculiarities of Photoshop is that every time you upgrade to a new version, it gets installed in parallel to the previous version, not on top of it. You’ll have to set it up from scratch again, and all your home-made actions will be gone. You will need to save them in the old version and load them again in the new version. There is also a way of saving an action as a text file: hold down the Ctrl and Alt keys while selecting Save Action from the submenu. However, this is not so much a problem anymore, as, if you work on Photoshop CC, Adobe does all the upgrading in the background.
Once you get the hang of actions, sooner or later you’ll hit a wall. It’s the limitation of processing various kinds of images in only one way. You might find you want to distinguish between landscape and portrait shots, differentiate on the basis of colour mode, or separate background and pixel layers. For those situations, Adobe introduced conditional actions in 2012 with Photoshop CS 6.1.
Keep in mind that you don’t always need a conditional step even if you have a mix of images. For example, in our action, we prepared 600-pixel images for the internet, and we inserted a step changing the colour space to sRGB. The command doesn’t do any harm if the file is already in sRGB — no conditional action is necessary here. Similarly, if you have a mix of layered and flattened files, you can always include a Flatten Image step. If you have a mix of eight-bit and 16-bit images, again, no harm is done if you include an Image > Mode > 8-bit step.
Let’s take a look at Adobe’s solution, which is to insert a conditional step into your action (Image 4). The action then branches into one of two other actions, depending on the properties of the image. For instance, a different route is taken depending on whether the image has an alpha channel. Image 5 shows you a conditional branch that selects a High Pass sharpening action for images in black-and-white; colour images are processed through a Smart Sharpening action.
In conclusion, you are missing out on a lot if you don’t use the action command in your imageediting program. Looking at other people’s actions and analysing them step by step is also a great way of learning about Photoshop and how to achieve a certain effect. But there is more — scripting takes automation to the next level. We’ll look at further ways of automation in upcoming issues.
Image 1 — Photoshop’s Actions palette Individual steps in an action can be switched on/ off with this check mark Actions for resizing, convert to sRGB, and save as JPEG Here we can call for a prompt; e.g. for resizing or to adjust Curves Stop Play New action Start recording New set
Image 2 — the Fit Image command
Image 4 — inserting a conditional step
Image 3 — the Batch command from the File menu
Image 5 — branching into two actions