When You Use Actions Are You Cheating?

Free Photoshop Actions and Lightroom Presets by MCP™

When You Use Actions Are You Cheating?

My daughter Jenna (age 7) was just watching me edit some pictures in Photoshop. She looked up at me and asked, Are using actions in photoshop kind of like… cheating?” I said, “no – they are just a shortcut.”

That got me thinking as I so often do when my kids ask me these deep questions about what I see simply as life.  So I posed her question on facebook to get others thinking.  Dozens of responses came in minutes.  So I decided I would post this here on my blog for discussion too.

What are you thoughts? When you use actions do you feel you are saving time? Cheating? Do they make it so you do not need to learn Photoshop? Or do Photoshop actions help you learn Photoshop?

Here is a sampling of just some of the comments people expressed on Facebook:

  • Exactly . . . actions just save us time in recreating the steps we’d normally take to complete an image . . . First there was the abacus, then the slide rule, then the calculator . .
  • It’s like using a remote control to change channels.. why get up every time? Some things were designed to make life easier.
  • Depends. Could you do what the action is doing without it? (Meaning you know PS well enough to go “long hand”) Does the action results improve the image? Too many people rely on actions without a basic understanding of PS–or photography for that matter–and use them to cover up other mistakes. I use actions liberally–both those I have purchased, and those I have written myself. But I know what the action is doing and why. And it’s just doing it faster than I could.
  • I use actions (MCP) to save time in my post processing workflow! Not cheating, working smart!
  • When I was first starting out, my mentor drilled in my head that time is money. He always told me that anything you’re going to do more than 5 times you should build an action for. I think it is more about efficiency than “cheating” if used correctly.
  • It’s not cheating…makes work faster.
  • It’s only cheating as much as using auto-focus, automatic cars, a nail gun instead of a hammer, etc. Although I personally think Actions do a huge disservice to anyone who doesn’t know how to do the same effect manually. 🙂 Tell her it’s the reason you can spend as much time with her you do, and without them, she’d never see you.
  • no way is it cheating! I get to give my clients an image that has a super cool look and I wouldn’t do that if it took more than a press of a button…
  • Ya gotta do what ya gotta do & ya gotta do it fast!
  • I don’t think that is cheating as long as you are the one that created the action and know why it makes your workflow efficient. Buying actions because you do not know how to create the action or the end result is kind of cheating.
  • Is using an antibiotic cheating the body out of truly developing an immunity? What about vaccines? If actions are cheating, then so is shooting digital. And shooting in Raw. Or using a zoom lens. Or using Photoshop at all. Should the determination of cheating be that we have to be able to recreate the same images using a pinhole camera? I believe that using actions is a reflection of developments in technology. As we learn more, the tools become more refined.
  • Explain film photography to them. See if digital is cheating.
  • It’s important to understand each step/layer of the action…but they are sooo important to a photographer’s workflow…without them I’d be twice as expensive–ha!!
  • work smarter, not harder.
  • Not cheating. Its enhancing that’s all. You can’t make a poor photo good with actions.
    Its like saying getting an epidural in childbirth is cheating.
  • I am going to say shortcut… I don’t run a lot of actions but I the ones I do run save me a lot of time!
  • I think it is much easier to achieve consistency of look to your photos with actions. I wish more people did not use the actions “straight outta the box” and went for more unique customized look…but I think consistency in your look is extremely important and can be difficult to achieve without the use of actions (when post-producing large #s of images).
  • They shorten my time in front if the computer.
  • I also think Actions have gotten to be a creative crutch for many and are too often used to fix things that should have been taken care of in the camera.
  • I myself don’t care to use others actions. I have never purchased them. I DO think it is totally cheating for people that don’t have the PS skills. It’s a short cut for people that have the ability to do it long hand.
    I think they should be your own though. The analogies people are bringing up are pretty funny.
  • If you have to know why things work in photoshop…I mean, do you know the inner workings of any other program you use? It is good to know the basics of contrast and color and to get it right in the camera first, but if I see a cool look, and I can buy the action, I’m not going to spend the time learning why the action does what it does, I’m going to buy the action, get the cool look and save myself some time.
  • Isn’t that what being an “artist” is all about? Creating your own look and taking the time to do so. In a way that just makes people dependent on actions fashion models rather than the actual designer/artist. Great topic Jodi. 🙂 and rich…i totally agree with you on the analogies.
  • No cheating here! Actions are a blessing that make editing easier…
  • I don’t think it matters if you know how Photoshop works or not–besides I think what is really meant by that is whether or not you actually know how to use PS, not how it works (that’s knowing code and I don’t find that necessary to my life). I am amazed at the number of pro photographers who don’t know the basics–like how to crop an image in PS. Lots of people who use it know only how to open an image, apply an action or two and save it.
  • What matters is if you understand what you’re doing and why you want to do it and if you understand the underlying principles of image and design. A bad image is still a bad image, no matter how much time you spend on it. Rather like trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
  • Kids always ask those simple but thought provoking questions. I love it!
  • It’s not cheating… It’s all good. Come on, we purchase and enjoy off the rack clothing yet, most cannot sew a stitch. We eat ready made bakery treats yet, many have never made a cake from scratch… They serve a function. If one wants to learn the nitty gritty of Photoshop to have a full understanding and appreciation then that’s good too!
  • And in a way they force photographers to learn Photoshop. They may not understand why they do what they do but they need to understand the “what” and “how to control” them for best results.” The problem is that some do not do that and just run the action as is or batch them.
  • no more cheating than using an oven cook dinner.
  • Definitely not cheating in my opinion. I agree that they allow you to create a consistent look for a session without having to keep doing the same thing to a similar image over and over again. And I also think it takes an artistic eye and is part of the creative process to choose which action to use, how much of it to use, how to make it really work with that image. It’s all artistry to me. Just like sometimes we have to swap a head or fix a few wrinkles on a face – anything that can make your image look better for your client is a good thing. And faster workflow equals a more reasonable investment for your clients! I’ll use the analogy of a recipe… just because I use a cookbook and follow a recipe doesn’t mean that I didn’t make that yummy meal.
  • I’ve been told the same thing. Someone told me that I could never be a real photographer because I used actions that were created by someone else. Kind of hurt my feelings…*sniff* *sniff*.

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21 Comments

  1. October 18, 2013 at 7:08 am —

    I get that it saves time and helps the workflow and I make my own presets in L4 as I work through a specific shoot to help with consistency however, I don’t feel it’s cheating but I do think it’s unfair to lay claim if you are buying someone’s presets that EVERYONE is probably using and say it’s “Your editing style” when really it’s not. But that is just me. I prefer to spend that $30-$50 on classes or books than actions.

  2. Jessie
    April 19, 2011 at 11:54 am —

    It’s totally cheating. Unless you make the action yourself, it’s not really 100% your work.

  3. September 22, 2009 at 2:23 pm —

    I so need help in getting my work “Flo” to be smooth. I struggle with this and I have heard so many great things about Lightroom. Time is an issue with me and anything to save time is wonderful. That is why I LOVE your actions so much.

  4. September 22, 2009 at 2:11 pm —

    I take purchased actions and tweek them to fit my needs and style. It is a time saving device. I create my own actions and incorporate purchased actions into them to again fit my need and style. I do not feel it is cheating. However, if you purchase them to just make your work “better” without knowing what the action is doing or how it really works – then it is cheating – mostly cheating yourself.

  5. September 22, 2009 at 12:00 pm —
  6. Brandi
    September 22, 2009 at 11:08 am —

    I am not quite sure what I would use it for, BUT I have heard GREAT things lately about lightroom! Would love to win it!! 🙂

    I also tweeted……@bamhughes.

  7. Tera
    September 22, 2009 at 10:34 am —

    @mstera 2nd entry 🙂

  8. September 22, 2009 at 10:30 am —
  9. September 21, 2009 at 11:14 am —

    Interesting question. Back when I started my 365 in January, I thought any kind of post-processing was “cheating” — and now I’m both a PS and action junkie! I’m still not a fan of hyper-processed images, and think you should do your best work with the camera and not the computer — but it’s all a matter of taste and personal preference, really. Actions just speed up what you were going to to do anyway, so why not?

  10. meagan
    September 21, 2009 at 8:46 am —

    I definitely do not think it’s cheating. The only down side is I have found that it is easy to use actions as a crutch and stop learning photoshop. However, just because you don’t know how to do what the action is doing doesn’t make it cheating! And the people who say you have to know how to do what the action is doing need to get off their high horse! I do agree that its helpful to know the “long hand” but these things take time to learn and you can’t learn and know everything photoshop can do overnight.

  11. September 21, 2009 at 5:45 am —

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  12. September 20, 2009 at 10:58 pm —

    Thanks for bringing up this debate. It’s always an interesting one. Me, I’m on the side of creativity and artistic vision, and believe in using whatever methods will help to achieve that. I create actions for Photoshop, and presets for Lightroom, and I use those of others. I came from film and darkrooms, long before digital was invented. When digital and Photoshop arrived, I embraced it. I use both film and digital, but now mainly work with Lightroom & Photoshop. I’m going to be selling actions and presets [mine and those of others too] soon on a new site. I positively encourage experimentation of this kind! Everyone should learn how to make actions. I plan to assist that!

    My favourite Facebook comment you posted was the one suggesting defamers of Photoshop and actions should look more closely at the history and practice of darkroom processing, and would find just as much ‘cheating’ going on there. Cheating and fakery is a human action, a state of mind, not defined by a process. I had an interesting debate on this with @edwinland and @PolarPremiumUSA on Twitter only yesterday about this.

  13. September 20, 2009 at 10:34 pm —

    Thank you Stephanie. Photography seems to have so many arbitrary rules and politics like no other art form. I have friends who are other types of artists (cooks, chefs, writers) and they never speak of these tireless debates that seem to occur in photography. This is not “homework,” this is art. It is no more “cheating” to use an action than it is to use the custom functions in your camera and save them (i.e C1, C2, C3) to save time and spend more time creating when working with a client. If a chef uses a gas grill instead of cooking over the fire in the woods or using a charcoal grill, no one seems to have the tantrums that occur when film vs. digital etc. is discussed. No one questions if a chef is “cheating”, or if the chef is a “real” chef simply by choosing to use a newer method. I do not feel that using an action created by another photographer is any more like cheating that a younger chef using a recipe created by Emeril is. Photographers need to leave politics in Washington and simply create beautiful work. This is not to say that discourse should not exist at all; I just find it ironic that this is the only or one of the few art forms that seems to take a beating like this, by its own members.

  14. Jason
    September 20, 2009 at 12:13 pm —

    Not cheating at all. I feel a little funny using someone else’s action, but I make it a point to try to understand what’s going on and that makes me feel less funny.

  15. September 20, 2009 at 2:29 am —

    Photography is art…art has no rules! you have to be breaking a rule inorder for something to be considered cheating…many people may think digitial photography is a form of “cheating” compared to actually spending hours in a dark room developing your own film. but its just a new way, new technology…photoshop actions are just a new tool/short cut…

  16. September 20, 2009 at 1:37 am —

    i am still trying to learn elements and try to shoot straight out of camera, have never used an action.

  17. Laura
    September 20, 2009 at 12:58 am —

    Ha Ha! I learned photoshop because of actions! I know how actions work, and I’ve created a few of my own, but I don’t mind buying them either – they’re FABULOUS! FYI I can’t wait for your new actions to come out this FAll 😉

  18. September 19, 2009 at 10:05 pm —

    Yanno, I can’t bring myself to use someone else’s actions. I only use those which I’ve made myself. Because I can’t get over the feeling that I’m cheating. I don’t think actions are cheating, but I dunno, it just doesn’t feel like my own work if it’s someone else’s action…but I’m just weird that way.

    • July 8, 2013 at 4:09 am —

      I agree, I think creating your own set of actions and using them is fine, but I have issues with the increasing trend in pro photographers purchasing someone else’s actions, it just seems wrong to me 🙂

      • July 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm —

        Adele, being able to make your own is awesome. And also being able to customize those you buy works great too. Thank you for commenting. Jodi

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When You Use Actions Are You Cheating?