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 Photographer's Mail - - Tutorial - Hans We­ich­sel­baum

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.

Con­di­tional ac­tions

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

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