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Lights, Camera, ... Photoshop Actions!

Photoshop is a great tool, but it can often take a fair amount of steps to do the really cool stuff. Thankfully, Adobe makes it possible to automate things in Photoshop, and you can often make your life a lot easier by creating a simple Action.

You can think of a Photoshop action as being akin to VCR tape or audio recording, if anyone remembers those. You can record something, and later play it back. More importantly, you can play it back time and time again. Even if that recording is made up of multiple pieces, the entire thing can be played back simply pressing "Play." But rather than the pieces being TV shows, songs and such, the individual pieces in a Photoshop action can be menu commands, panel settings and such. Photoshop actions are so much like this that the controls used to record them and play them back look uncannily like those on a VCR or audio tape recorder. Back when such things were common, I'm sure Adobe intentionally modeled the controls for actions on them. These days, such controls are a common paradigm even if they now get used on iPods and TiVo instead of VCR's. But at any rate, I digress.

Actions panel in Photoshop CS4If you haven't found the action controls in Photoshop yet, you can reveal them by going to Window >> Actions. Actions live in a panel (known as a "palette" in older versions of Photoshop) much as do Levels, Channels and History. There are a number of actions that come with Photoshop which you should see listed in the Actions panel with a couple columns of symbols to their left. Below them is a row of the by now familiar tape recorder symbols for "stop," "record" and "play," along with a few other common Photoshop icons.

The easiest way to see what actions are capable of is to take a look at some of the default actions that come with Photoshop. If you click on the small triangle icon immediately to the left of an icon name in the list, the action will expand to show you its individual steps. In the resulting list, you may find that some of the steps themselves have similar triangle icons next to them. If you click on one, it too will expand to show you the details of that step. Some steps can multiple detail settings since some actions take more than one parameter. For example, if a step consists of running the Unsharp Mask filter which has settings for Radius, Amount and Threshold, that step will have detail settings for all three.

A step of an action can include almost anything you can do in Photoshop with your keyboard. Or it can contain at least some typically mouse-based actions including most selection tools, the Eyedropper and Color Sampler tools, Move, Crop, Paint Bucket, Gradient, Type tools, most common panels including Layers, Channels, History and so on. There's a full list in the Photoshop help documentation. It can't record paintbrush strokes and other similar actions, but it can include selecting the brush tool. It can also be made to wait for you make use of the brush tool if you want it to.

After you spend a bit of time looking at the default actions Adobe provides with Photoshop, you probably want to try your hand at creating one of your own. The ones Adobe provides may be useful in the right situation, but I personally would rather create an action specific to my needs rather than fit my needs to one of the available actions already in Photoshop. And creating your own couldn't be easier.

Before you do though, you need to give a bit of thought to where you want to keep your action. Adobe provides a "Default Actions" folder that contains the actions they provide with the product, but there's no reason you need to keep your actions in this folder. To create your own, click on the icon that looks like a file folder ("Create a new set")at the bottom of the Actions panel. Give it some appropriate name and click on "OK." Your new set should show up in the Action panel.

To actually create an action, first, open a document that needs to have done to it whatever it is you want to create an action for. Now simply go to the Actions panel and click on the icon that looks like a piece of paper ("Create a new action") beneath the list of existing actions. A dialog box will open asking you to give your new action a name and where you want to keep it. If the folder for your new action set was selected in the Actions panel when you clicked on the New Action icon, the "Set" dropdown box should default to the right place, but not you can easily pick the right location here. When you click on "OK" the filled-in circle icon ("Begin recording") the bottom of the Actions panel should turn red to indicate that recording is active. Now just perform the sequence of necessary steps while keeping an eye on the steps as each new one gets listed in the Actions panel. When you're done, click on the square icon to the left of the red recording icon.

If you need to add more to your now recorded action, just select the step before where you want to insert your new steps and click on the "Begin recording" circle again. As before, it will turn red. When you're finished adding steps, click on "Stop recording" square again. To delete an existing action step, simply drag it to the trashcan at the bottom right of the Actions panel. You can delete an entire action or a whole set just as easily.

It should be noted that all pixel measurements and the like that get recorded with an action stay as they are even if you later use your new action on a document with a different size or resolution than the one with which you created it. This might mean your new action is rather limited in purpose, but it's quite easy to create another new icon if another document has needs that are similar but differ in scale. As an alternative, you can also make steps of your original action pause and ask you to set sliders and settings as you see fit for each document you run it on. To do so, click on the blank square immediately to the left of the step in question. Adobe calls this the "Modal control" which in layman's terms means whether or not it waits for user input. There are two columns down the left-hand side of the step list. You want the second one. The first column includes check marks for each step to allow you to toggle each on or off. By default, each step is checked/enabled, but to disable one just click on its checkmark.

To play back an action, just highlight it in the list and click on the traditional triangular icon ("Play selection") at the bottom of the Actions panel. If your action has any modal steps in it, Photoshop will pause the action at that point for you to set things appropriately. When you click on "OK" in the modal dialog, the action will continue.

More on the Actions panel next week.

Date posted: May 16, 2010


Copyright © 2010 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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More on Photoshop Actions
Intro to Photoshop Scripting

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