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Photoshop actions

So what's a Photoshop action and what's so great about them? An action is basically a sequence of commands that Photoshop is able to recognize and run. And it does so pretty quickly, quicker than you would do it manually for sure. Because of that, actions are usually used to save time on things that can be done automatically. In most typical mundane retouching situations actions are not that wonderful, as there's only so much you can do automatically when you're retouching a portrait. So if you google Photoshop actions you'll mostly find actions that create flaming letters or weird visual effects.

But actions are not just for fun. For us their mere existence is salvation. As we're working with the online stores, we're mostly producing similar images. And what we do to each image is usually very basic. This is exactly when actions come in handy! This whole product image retouching system that I'm teaching relies on actions and scripts rather heavily. Rob me of my actions and scripts, and I'll be powerless. The only problem is that there are so many actions and not so many keyboard shortcuts that you can assign them to.

So whatever you do in catalogue retouching, be it model images, objects, flat lays or anything else – make sure you don't waste time doing things that can be automated manually. There are not just actions to help you, there are also scripts that make this whole automation thing even more exciting. Let's start with learning how to load actions and where Photoshop hides them.

Loading and running actions

You can recognize a Photoshop action (or better a set of actions) by its extension. A set of actions (that can contain one or more actions), is a file with the *.atn extension. If you have Photoshop installed, it will recognize the aforementioned kind of files and load them if you double-click the file in the file manager. Or you can just drag the action file and drop it in the Photoshop window. When an action is loaded in Photoshop, it will appear in the Actions panel.

You can also load an action by clicking on the Actions Palette menu button (located in the top-right of the Actions Palette) – there's a Load Actions command there. In the same menu, Photoshop will reveal all the actions contained in the two folders.

Folder number 1 is hidden in the users folder, on Windows it's located at:

C:\Users\***your username***\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop (version)\Presets\Actions

The AppData folder is hidden, and you can only see it if you make hidden folders visible first. It can be done via the Folder options. In File Explorer, go to the View menu and click on the Options button. There, go to the View tab, find Hiden Files and Folders and check the "Show Hidden files, folders and drives" option. Then press OK. Now you'll be able to find the AppData folder in your User folder.

If you're a Mac user, you should go to /Users/*** your usermane***/Library/Preferences/Adobe Photoshop (version)/Presets/Actions

The Library folder might be hidden, but you can make it appear by using the "Show View Options".

Folder number 2 is in C:\Program Files\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop CC (version)\Presets\Actions, or /Library/Application Support/Adobe/Adobe Photoshop CC/Presets/Actions

Whatever actions you put into these two folders will appear in the Actions Palette menu and you'll be able to load them by clicking on the respective names. See, there's a ton of ways how you can load an action, but the easiest way would be just clicking twice on the *.atn file.

Let's proceed to running and recording simple actions and see what we can do with just them.

Simple actions

Despite the fact that simple actions may contain just a couple of commands, you shouldn't underestimate their importance in catalogue retouching. If they let you do in 1 second things that usually take 3 seconds, it's a win. Simple things like resizing, saving, and sharpening should all be performed from within actions, not manually. It's not just about time, it's about consistency and stability as well. Scripts can also be simple, but let's deal with actions first.

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Let’s talk about actions first. To start working with this feature, we have to use the Actions panel, which can be found in the Window menu. In product image retouching, this panel is one of the most commonly used one way or another. But now it’s completely empty. Let’s record a simple action to see how it works. In order to do so, we have to create and name a set of actions – it’s like a folder to keep your actions in. Then we need to create and name an action in this folder. Then press the record button, and Photoshop will record all your further actions step by step.

After you’ve finished, don’t forget to press stop, otherwise, the recording will just keep going and going. Now you can run the action and see how Photoshop repeats everything you’ve just done. Easy, right? Some of the steps can be modified in a certain way. If you want to change something you’ve recorded, like, for example, the amount of blurring with this Gaussian blur filter, just double-click this step and enter a new number in the window that appeared. If you want to be able to choose this amount manually every time you run the action, then tick this checkbox here, to the left of the command name. If you do so, this window will appear every time you run the action and you can put any number in and press OK. If you use some of your actions often, it’s reasonable to make a shortcut to call for them with a combination of keyboard keys instead of clicking it in the Actions panel.

Not everything can be recorded that easily though. For example, if I use the brush to draw something, only the brush selection will be recorded, not the drawing itself. So if you really want to record something like that, go to the menu right here on the panel and click “Allow Tool Recording”. When I said “if you really want to do it”, I meant that this feature is not actually very useful. All the things you might want to do freehand are coordinate-based when recorded. So if you want to record something like a Magic Wand clicking around the image to select the background, it will only work if all your images are exactly the same size. Every command will be tied to the coordinates, so if you really need to do something like this with the Magic Wand, your best bet is the upper left corner. The coordinate system that Photoshop uses is upside down compared to the standard Cartesian coordinate system. It means that the 0 point is located in the upper left corner, and values increase as you move down and right. So if you click in the upper left corner, the same can be applied to any picture, no matter how big or small. The only disadvantage is that I doubt you'll ever need to record something as trivial as a single click.

You can also insert an item from the menu into your action – with the “Insert Menu Item” command. After you click on it, go to the menu and click on the desired item with your mouse. If you wonder which menu items might be useful, I have one good example. Before sharpening your image, it might be good to zoom it to 100% to be able to what you're doing. There's no point in sharpening if you're not at 100%, as you see an interpolated preview of the image, not the real image. So adding the Select 100% menu item in the sharpening action is a good idea. That is, if you need to see images when you sharpen them, because in catalogue retouching it's not such a big deal.

You can also insert a stop which will show a message and you’ll also be able to stop right there or continue if you wish. I can’t say I really use this feature though. There’s also the Insert Conditional command in the same menu, but we’ll talk about it later when it gets complicated. And for now, I think we’re finished with the simple features of Photoshop actions.


Complex Actions

Photoshop actions are very useful in catalogue retouching, because, as I said, you will often be repeating the same sequences of commands on similar images, and if you record these sequences, you’ll be able to run them all by hitting just one or two buttons. Sometimes we use actions to speed up simple processes, like, for example, saving, when you want to save your images to a particular folder with some specific settings, like image quality etc. In this case, your action might contain just one or two commands like “Save” and then “Close” if you want the image to be immediately closed after saving it. But in case you want to save your images manually, you can do it without losing too much time. It's hard to speed up the process significantly by using actions like that one.

But in some cases actions might be very long and complex. So complex, in fact, that there is absolutely no reason to do things they do manually. In general, if something requires more than three commands that can be recorded, it’s worth recording them. Especially if you need to create and group layers, input numbers, change blending modes and so on.

Complex actions can save you quite some time, so it's very reasonable to use them as a helping hand.

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Like in this case, when I am in the process of retouching a mannequin, and I need to insert a piece from another image and darken it to make the whole thing look natural. When I have the front part of the garment isolated and selected, as well as the backside piece, I can run the action that will do all the work for me. After it's finished running, all I have to do is put this piece in the right place and press Enter. It will then become darker automatically. If I open the action to see what’s inside, what commands it uses when it’s run, you can see that there are a lot of things. So if I want to try and do it all manually, step by step, it will take me much longer. But in fact, I have no intention to waste time, so I’ll just stick with the actions.


For now, I will not go into further detail on how to write actions like this one and what can be achieved by that, but it will be explained in the respective section of the course after we learn everything about retouching catalogue images. Now let’s move onto the next feature of Photoshop automation which is scripting.

Next: Photoshop scripts


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