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What Are Photoshop Actions?

Free Photoshop Actions and Lightroom Presets by MCP™

What Are Photoshop Actions?

how photoshop actions can help photographers

One frequently asked question I get is “what are Photoshop actions and how can they help me as a photographer?” At MCP Actions, we have been designing professional Photoshop actions since 2006. Our actions will help you improve your digital photography and save you time while editing!

While there isn’t a universal definition, at MCP, I define them in a few ways. Photoshop actions:

  • Are a series of recorded steps by the designer to help a photographer achieve a look without having to manually apply each process.
  • Allow photographers, at the click of a button, to enhance and enrich their photos in a fast and efficient way.
  • Are shortcuts for photographers.  They speed up editing by automating processes.

Adobe identifies actions by using the extension “.atn.”  Once the .atn file is loaded in the actions palette, as shown in this video on installing and using actions, the user selects and expands the “folder.”  Then after highlighting the desired action from that folder, the user clicks play and the photo runs through the series of recorded steps.

How can actions can help photographers? What are the advantages of using them?

  • Speeds up workflow
  • Saves time
  • Provides the user with expertise of the action maker
  • Achieves more consistent results by using the same actions on images
  • Get a variety of looks by trying new actions
  • Makes editing more fun
  • They work cross platform, on both PC and Mac
  • Customizable – tweak-able
  • Easy to record your own steps once you have a good grasp on Photoshop
  • By looking inside the action, you can often learn how to do things yourself in Photoshop.

How can actions hurt a photographer?

  • If poorly made, results may not enhance images.
  • Photographers can use too large a variety and get inconsistent results.
  • Photographers may go on a buying spree.  If you own too many, it can waste time, not knowing which to use when.
  • A photographer may develop their style from a look created from actions. The look could be a fad or make their photos look like many other photographers.
  • Photographers can get in a rut where they rely too heavily on them and not enjoy on manual tweaks.
  • If not built with layers and masks, it is difficult to adjust and customize.
  • If a photographer does not learn to control and customize the results after the action runs, by using opacity and masking, results can be poor.
  • If a photographer does not take the time to understand what the action is doing to the photo, they will not have full control over their photos.

Filters, plug-ins and scripts are often confused with actions. Filters and plug-ins are actually programs that run inside of Photoshop.  The are capable of certain things Photoshop isn’t since they are “mini” programs.  You can record an action to run a filter or plug-in in many situations, but you cannot always make an action that accomplishes what a plug in does.  With actions you are limited to Photoshop’s capabilities and what is recordable as an action. Scripts are often a more powerful version of actions, but they can be more temperamental between versions of Photoshop, and require different creation skills.

Hopefully this overview helps you better understand the good and bad of actions and how they can help you as a photographer.

Here are links to some Photoshop actions to get you started:

Free Photoshop actions

Automate how you prepare and presents photos on the web

Enhance your photos, pop colors, convert to black and white and establish a workflow

Retouch your images by smoothing skin, making colors more pleasing and helping eyes sparkle

Present your photos in storyboards and collages

How do you feel Photoshop actions help or hurt you as a photographer?  Please add your comments below.

Free Photoshop Actions and Lightroom Presets by MCP™
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7 Comments

  1. March 1, 2010 at 9:14 am —

    Great post and oh-so-true on all fronts!

  2. March 1, 2010 at 9:15 am —

    What actions initially did for me was help me to understand what PS was doing to my photo and how I could control it. Eventually, I became more comfortable doing manual tweaks of my photo. i LOVE actions but certainly encourage people to “understand” the mechanics of the action.
    great post, Jodi!

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What Are Photoshop Actions?