CREATING REUSABLE EFFECTS WITH ACTIONS IN PHOTOSHOP

In this post we’ll begin by running through the process of creating and editing Actions to apply the individual Adjustment Layers that form our retro effect. Then we’ll create Master Actions to trigger each Adjustment Layer Action in turn and organize the Layers into named Layer Groups. With these in place you’ll have the building blocks to create a suite of different effects that can easily be applied to individual images or batch processed on whole folders at a time.

Recording an Action is relatively straightforward. Let’s call up the Action Panel (Window>Actions…) and create a new a Action Set by clicking on the folder icon at the bottom of the Panel. Any Action needs to be part of a Set – the Action Panel will contain a Default set to begin with but I’ve deleted this for sake of clarity here.

creating a new action set in photoshop

Now let’s create a new Action, give it a name, and begin recording. Notice the New Action dialogue box allows you to specify which Action Set you are adding the new Action to.

creating a new action in photoshop

With the recording in progress I can create my Adjustment Layer and specify the settings – notice the steps beginning to populate the Action Panel.

saving an adjustment as an action

At this stage I could carry on editing, or I can hit the Stop button and verify the settings and check the Action is functioning as I want. The great thing about this process is that it doesn’t have to be linear – you can stop, start, edit and add to Actions as you go.

With certain functions it’s also possible to adjust settings without re-recording. With my Adjustment Layer selected if I double-click in the Action panel on the step for ‘Set current adjustment layer’ it will call up the Curves adjustment and I can refine my settings – click OK and the Action will be updated with the new settings.

redefine settings in a photoshop action

So, we now have our Adjustment recorded, and refined if needed. I want to make sure every Adjustment Layer is clearly label so I know what’s doing what later on. I’ll hit Record, name my adjustment layer and then hit Stop – we should now see some additional steps in our Action.

naming an adjustment layer in an action

At this stage it’s a good idea to test the Action before we move on and create another one. Delete the existing Adjustment Layer, press Play in the action panel and your action should recreate your adjustment layer and include any name you’ve allocated.

If it works, all good. If not, you can try switching off some of the steps to see if you can isolate the point at which it fails.

switching off action steps

Once you have the first Action working correctly you can repeat the steps above to create an Action for each Adjustment layer needed to build your vintage effect. At the end of the process you should have a set of actions that parallel the adjustments – it’s a good idea to use the same names for each as it’s easier to follow.

duplicating actions

If you want to, you can stop here and then add new Actions individually as and when needed. Or, we can take things a stage further and create Master Actions to trigger each Action in turn and create a Layer Group to help organise effects into distinct groups.

Let’s create a New Action and give it a name – remember this will be the Master Action that triggers all the current actions we’ve created so far.

creating a master action in photoshop

Hit Record and play each Action in turn the press Stop. When you get to the end you should see a “Play action..” command for each one – notice the order will be in reverse as each Adjustment layer is added on top of the currently selected layer as it’s created.

actions panel in photoshop

The layer order is very likely significant to your desired effect so you’ll want to record the process of ordering the layers to make it part of the Master Action when played back.

I could hit Record now and start to re-order the Layers, however the first step recorded will be “Move Current Layer”. I want to make sure the correct layer is selected and moved so that the Action will still function properly even if we start adding or removing steps later on.

Let’s deselect all Layers first, then we can hit Record and start to select and move layers. Notice that the first new step in our action actually specifies which layer is selected.

first step in action

Now let’s add a final step to collect the layers into a named Group. Again, as above deselect all layers first to make sure the layer selection is correctly specified in the Action.

Hit Record and select each Adjustment Layer in turn. Now, hold down Alt(PC) Opt(Mac) and click on the New Layer Group Icon – this will place the currently selected layers within the new group on-the-fly as it’s created.

layer group in action

Hit Stop and you should have a named Layer Group with each Adjustment Layer correctly organised within. Your Master Action should now included steps to trigger each Action, organise the Layers into the correct sequence and gather them within a named Layer Group.

organising layers and actions in ps

As a final check, delete the Layer Group and run the Master Action from the start to test everything is working correctly.

Whilst it might seem time consuming to set up at first, you’ll quickly become proficient at creating, editing and refining Actions, and can build a library of individual adjustments and effects. The possibilities then become infinite when allied with the ability to create Master Actions that combine any number of these individual components.

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