I’ve been playing with Adobe products for something like ten years now. I went to school to study design, but it’s just one of those things that you NEVER stop learning. The more you learn, study, research, and look at what other people have done, the more you realize you don’t know. I don’t really find the Adobe products to be all that intuitive. Sometimes you have to sit down with someone who knows their stuff, or read a couple of online tutorials, before some of their more hidden features become apparent. Once they do though, it’s like having a whole world of possibilities opened up to you.
I already vaguely knew about Photoshop actions, but I thought of them as being more like filters. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, a filter is a one step change that you apply to your image to create an effect. An action creates an effect too, but it does so by “playing through” a series of steps. Still confused? I was too, until I spent a bit of time online doing a little research about them.
Let’s say you want to apply a vintage effect to one of your photos. If you download (or create yourself) an action to do this, Photoshop will breeze through the entire series of steps it takes to create that effect within a matter of seconds. Achieving that vintage look might involve playing with your contrast, color balance, expose, borders, filters, etc. With an action saved to do this, you simply hit “play” and within a few seconds you watch your photo transform. If you have a series of steps you use all the time (like if you always want your blog photos to have a vintage look, or be watermarked), saving those steps as actions can be a HUGE time saver. It’s also a great way to create an effect without enduring hours of trial and error, making minor adjustments as you go (although it you have the time, I personally think trial and error is one of the BEST ways to learn. It’s frustrating at times, but once you get it right that knowledge sticks!)
So here goes, a mini tutorial on how to use Photoshop actions. For simplicity’s sake, this one is going to focus on using actions that you’ve downloaded, rather than creating them yourself.
Go online, and find an action that will apply the effect you’re looking for. What effect do you want? There are actions available to do everything from whitening teeth, to giving your photos a “grunge” look, so applying watermarks over your images. Smashing Magazine also put together a great list of them here. Spend a minute or two with your friend Google, and you’ll find lots of resources.
Download the File
Many of the files will come zipped, so you’ll need to a decompression program if you don’t have one already. Don’t worry, Stuffit Expander is free and easy to install. (Please note the free version only lets you UNZIP large files. If you need to compress them you’ll need to get the paid version). Once unzipped, you’ll be looking at a file with a .atn extension and a blue Photoshop-esque icon.
You’ll want to save the files to
Open the File
In Photoshop, open the file that you’ll apply the action to.
Selecting Your Action
Go to Windows->Actions and your actions pallette will pop up. Your actions should be loaded up in the menu. If not, simply right click on your Actions pallette, go to “load actions” and select your action from the location you saved it to.
Click the action you want to use. Some downloads will have multiple actions saved within the same folder so you’ll want to pay attention to which one you’re applying. Also, you want to make sure you’re selecting the root folder for the action (the main folder that contains all of the sub-folders).
At the bottom right corner of the Actions pallette, you’ll see a button that looks like the play button on a dvd player or stereo. Hit that. Photoshop will fly though the series of step and your picture will be transformed.
Undo or Save
Hate the effect? Go to your history window, and go back in the series of steps until you get to a step before the action was applied. In the case of actions Command/Z (undo) won’t work, because it will only take you back ONE step.
Like the action? Then save it. My advice is to do “Save As” and save it under a different name. That way, you still have your original untouched image if you should ever need to go back to it.
Easy, right? Just for a taste of what can be done, here’s the same photo with nine different Photoshop action sequences applied to it. Now, go play. It’s fun, I promise.