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Writing Photoshop Actions
© Michael Furtman
One of the most useful features of Photoshop – any version – is the ability to write Actions.
Actions are a means of automating tasks that you routinely repeat. Think of it as a tape recorder. Anything you do to an image can be recorded for later playback.
I’m going to make the assumption that you know your way around Photoshop at least a little bit.
Let’s write a simple action to sharpen images.
First, open an image in Photoshop. You want to open the image first, because if you start recording before you open an image, the action will always open THAT image. You want to be able to apply your action to ANY image.
Next, find the Actions palette. If it isn’t displayed already, you can either use the shortcut to display it (Alt+F9 on a PC), or go to Window>Actions and click on it.
Once the Actions palette is visible, click on the little downward arrow on the top right. A menu will be displayed. Click “New Action.” If you want to create a group of actions, you could start out by clicking “New Set” and then naming that set something like “My Actions.” Then you would select that set in the Actions palette, before selecting “New Action.” It will then be placed in that set.
You’ll be asked to name your action. Let’s call it “Sharpen slightly.” Below the name you see a drop-down menu listing all the action sets (groups of actions). Select a place to save this action.
OK…your image is open, your action is named, you’ve selected the set into which it will be saved. Now click on Record.
From this point forward anything you do to the image will be recorded. Don’t panic if you screw up. If you Undo something, that too will be recorded. If you really screw up, you can always delete the action and start over.
Since we’re going to sharpen this image slightly, you need to now go to the top menu and select Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen (note, if you have an older version of Photoshop, use Unsharp Mask).
In the Smart Sharpen window, make sure that Preview and Basic are checked. Set the Amount at 30, the Radius at 1 pixel, and the Remove at Guassian Blur is showing in the drop down box. Also check the More Accurate box near the bottom. “Angle” should be grey-out, because that feature is only available if you select Motion Blur instead of Guassian. Click OK. (Note, you can see how much sharpening is applied in the preview window even if the Preview button isn't checked, but if you do check it, you can see the effects on the whole image. You don't have to use the numbers I specified. You can play with them until you get the results you like.)
You’ve recorded every setting and step to this point. Now you need to stop recording. If the Action palette is not displayed, find it and display it again. At the bottom of the palette you’ll see three buttons. From left to right they are a square, a circle, and a triangle. Click on the square button to stop recording.
There. You’re done! Now every time you want to sharpen an image slightly, you need only open the image in Photoshop, and click on that action. The program will now apply all the steps you’ve recorded.
Why didn’t we save the image before stopping recording? Because Photoshop would have recorded that too, and if you had given a new name to the saved image (as you should – you should never save over your original image, but use Save As and give it a new name so you have the original to return to in the future), the action would name every image the same, and save it to whatever destination you had saved to during the recording.
You can create an infinite number or Sets and Actions. For instance, if you routinely resize images so they are smaller and have few pixels per inch (for uploading to your website or sending via email), you can record actions for that. You can also record an action to apply a watermark to your images. Photoshop even records keywords, copyright info, etc., that you add in File>File Info. This allows you to quickly add that information to your image.
Writing actions is easy and can save you a lot of work once you’ve recorded those routines that you commonly apply to images.
What if you don’t like what an action does to an image? Photoshop allows you to do two things that will reverse or modify what the action just did to the image. First, you can remove the action’s effects simply by going up to File>Undo, or File>Step Backward. If you own Photoshop CS3 or later, you can also use File>Fade, as long as the action doesn’t have multiple procedures (i.e., you sharpened, resized, added a watermark, all in one action).
Using our “Sharpen Slightly” action we just wrote as an example, if you found that your image looks a little over-sharpened after running the action, you could go up to File>Fade Smart Sharpen and drag the slider to the left until you get the amount of sharpening you like. This is a really powerful feature.
So how do you apply an action to a whole group of photos at once? That’ll be in the next tutorial called “Applying Actions To Multiple Images – Photoshop’s Batch Command” on the main page.