Photoshop 101: How to use Photoshop Actions

Jürgen Heiss

In this tutorial, I’ll teach you how to speed up your workflow and make your life much easier by using Photoshop Actions. An “action” is similar to a programming macro or a script for an image, but is easier to create. You don’t have to learn any programming skills to produce one!

So, what can you use Photoshop Actions for? Here’s an example: let’s say you have a batch of photographs that you want to resize and sharpen. Instead of opening each image and applying these effects individually, you can create a simple Photoshop action to process each of your images automatically.

There are many ways in which Photoshop Actions are useful, and once you start using them you’ll love them! Let’s dive in.

1. Turning on Photoshop Actions

Be sure your action palette is visible. If it’s not, go to Menu > Window > Actions (ALT or Option + F9)

how to turn on photoshop actions

2. Explore the Photoshop Actions panel

With the actions turned on, we are ready to explore 12 important things found within this panel.

photoshop actions panel

In the action panel you can create, play, stop, save, load, delete and organize your actions. Here’s how:

  1. Stop: Stop recording or playback
  2. Record: Start recording a new action or adding new commands to any existing action
  3. Play: Play a selected action back
  4. New set: Create a new action set
  5. New action: Adds a new action to a set
  6. Delete: As you might expect, this button deletes a selected set, action or command
  7. Action set: A folder which contains and organizes your actions, for example in different groups (Ex: color corrections, mockups, templates, etc.)
  8. Action: The action itself. Imagine an action as a collection of many commands (Ex: open image, resize image, transform image, etc.)
  9. Steps/Command: A single Photoshop command. One or more commands together build an action.
  10. Checkbox: Commands which are checked will be executed, while unchecked commands will not.
  11. Menu dialog: With this icon you can control user input into an action. For example, say you record an action to apply a Gaussian Blur filter and by default, you set a radius of 2px. Making the menu icon visible allows you to modify certain settings (such as the radius) for each image you apply it to. If the icon’s turned off, the action will always use the default setting (in this case a 2px radius. It allows you to determine the flexibility of each action when it’s applied to an image.
  12. Action panel menu: …See below for details

3. Take a closer look at the Photoshop Actions menu

photoshop actions panel

This menu contains a lot of buttons we discussed already, but there are a few more entries inside this menu that are very useful.

Button Mode

photoshop actions button mode

By default, actions appears in a list view mode as you can see in the image above. By activating the button mode each action will be display as buttons. To switch back to just click again on button mode to uncheck it.

Above, you can see how the button mode looks. The big different between this and the list mode, is that in button mode you can see only the action name and not the commands themselves.

Playback Options

photoshop actions playback options

In this dialog you can set the playback speed for your actions. You can choose from the following 3 options.

  1. Accelerated: Plays back actions as fast as possible — normally this will be the best choice.
  2. Step by Step: Refreshes the screen after each command
  3. Pause for x Seconds: Pauses for the defined number of seconds before moving on to the next command from your action.

Clear All Actions

Removes all sets and actions from your action panel.

Reset Actions

Does the same as clear all action, but adds the default set to the action panel.

Load Actions

Allows the user to load actions or action sets into your action panel.

Replace Actions

All actions/sets will be replaced with those that you select. This combines clearing all actions plus loading actions, in one step.

Save Actions

You can save your action send it to your friends. The file extension will be .atn

4. Create our first Photoshop Action

As example I am creating an action which you can use later on for your own projects. This action creates a business card template, applying a specific bleed size to a business card.

how to use photoshop actions

Start by creating a new set. I called my set “99designs”. Next, create a new action and call it “BusinessCard Template”. Press the record key.

how to use photoshop actions

The first thing our action must do is to create a new document. To do this choose File > New (CTRL or Command + N). Change the width to 3.5 inches and the height to 2 inches. The resolution should be set to 300 pixel/inch. Finally, make sure that the color mode is set to CMYK. When done hit the OK button.

how to use photoshop actions

Now let’s add guidelines to each side of our document. To do this choose View > New Guide (CTRL or Command + N). Use the settings above in the new guide dialog to set a guideline on each side of our document. You must apply 4 guidelines in total. The order in which you apply the guidelines doesn’t matter:

  • Vertical at 0%
  • Vertical at 100%
  • Horizontal at 0%
  • Horizontal at 100%
how to use photoshop actions

The next step is to add a bleed around our business card. The normal bleed will 0.125 inch on each side, so 0.25 inch total for the height and 0.25 inch in total for the width. Choose Image > Canvas Size … (CTRL+ALT+C, or Command+Option+C) and insert the correct dimensions. Then use the setting as shown bellow to expand the document with the bleed.

how to use photoshop actions

I personally love working with guidelines, so I apply one more guideline to each side of my document. This is exactly the same step as in the beginning. Again choose View > New Guide (CTRL or Command + N). And apply the settings below. This step is optional, but I recommend it.

how to use photoshop actions

Our action is ready. Click the Stop button. You can close the file we have just created. Select the action “BusinessCard Template” the hit the Play Button. A brand new business card template will be created every time you do so.

5. Modify the bleed size values

Our action works great, but there are always going to be variations in bleed requirements. How can we apply different values for the bleed size? Lets take a closer look to our action in the action panel. And please note that you can view the commands only in listview mode not in button mode!

modify bleed with photoshop actions

We applied 0.25 inches in width and height for the bleed.

modify bleed with photoshop actions

But when you double-click on the canvas command, the canvas size dialog opens and you can change these values.

Conclusion

From here out you can create your own actions to help you speed up your workflow. So if in the process of working, you recognize that you’re doing one thing over and over again, then it’s definitely time for a Photoshop Action.

Loved this article. Don’t miss our article, “3 ways Photoshop actions can speed up your workflow“.

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