I frequently hear photographers talk about maximizing their time behind a camera and minimizing their time at the computer. It’s not the creative postproduction that these photographers want to avoid—it’s the digital drudgery that can consume so much of a one’s time. Tasks like file management and basic processing aren’t nearly as fun and interesting as creative retouching and image processing. Thankfully, Photoshop has customizable actions and batch-processing tools that allow photographers to execute a change once, record it and play it back later, ad nauseam.
The great thing about recording actions is their versatility. They can be as simple as a one- or two-step change (like resizing a file to a particular dimension) or as complex as a multipart procedure requiring input along the way. They even can incorporate other previously recorded actions.
Whatever action you want to create, the process is simple: Create and name the new action, press record, do what you want to do and then stop recording. Here’s how it works with some common procedures that surely will free you up to spend more time as a photographer and less time as a button pusher.
Photoshop actions are created by recording every keystroke and click you make, whether that’s a crop or a color correction. The key to remember is that you want the changes to be generic enough to be applicable to multiple images—whether they’re for a single body of work or a general “look” that you’ll want to apply to multiple pictures forever. As an example, let’s record a multistep action that boosts contrast, saturation and sharpness, and resizes a file for e-mailing or publishing online.
Begin by choosing a sample image to work on as a template and open it in Photoshop. Open the Actions palette and click the set in which you’d like your new action to appear (or click the Folder icon to create a new set). Click Create New Action and give it a descriptive name, like “Saturation, Contrast, Sharpen, Resize for Web.” (Fig. 1) You also can assign a function key, creating a keyboard shortcut to execute the action with a single keystroke.
Now, click Record. From this point on, Photoshop is keeping tabs on every move you make, and you’ll see evidence of this in the Actions palette. (You always can stop recording to go back or undo errant steps if necessary.)
Open the Hue/Saturation controls under the Image > Adjustments menu and make your change to the saturation-say, +12. At this point, you could click the Stop icon at the bottom of the palette to stop recording, and the action is saved. When played on another image, the action carries out the same steps in the same order, producing the same effects. It’s like cooking with a recipe that adds all the right ingredients automatically. We still have more ingredients to add though, so keep going with adjustments to contrast, sharpness and image size. When you’ve finished all the adjustments you want to record, click Stop.
Use actions to apply corrections to entire groups of photos with ease. For example, every image from a shoot may need the same color or exposure adjustment. With actions and batch processing, do it once, then apply it to all.
Actions can be additionally customized with the check boxes adjacent to each step in the Actions palette. The left box (Check Mark icon) toggles steps on and off to skip individual steps when playing back an action—for example, if you want to skip the resize portion of the action, uncheck it in the list. The right box (Dialog Box icon) tells Photoshop to pause to allow input during that step-if you want to change the amount of saturation, contrast or sharpness, for example. These adjustments make actions highly customizable, but they’re not ideal if you’re batch-processing your image files—and that’s where actions really save time.
“Many photographers also use actions to record experiments because they’re easier to repeat. After building a large database of techniques, organize them in the Actions palette according to the effects they achieve. You even can create new actions that incorporate previously saved actions by name, as well as find actions that other generous photographers have recorded and shared online.”
Batch processing applies a prerecorded action to a group of files, whether they’re images currently open in Photoshop or saved in a folder. It’s a good idea to save batch-processed files to a new folder to protect your originals. Create a new folder on your desktop during the batch setup so you can maintain untouched originals, as well as the modified files.
To run this action on a group of files, open the Batch dialog box found under File > Automate. Select the folder of image files to process and choose where to save the files. (You also can choose to include subfolders, change names and override warnings, depending on how your computer and your files are arranged.) Click OK, and watch the program go. Depending on the complexity of the action and the quantity of images, the process can be done quickly or it can provide you the perfect opportunity to take five.
Even if you only dabble with actions, every keystroke and click you save provides that much more opportunity for you to spend your precious time doing creative things with your camera and computer.
Once you have an action ready to go, you can apply it to a group of images with Photoshop’s batch-processing feature. Select the action, then choose a folder of images on which to apply the action and a destination folder for the completed files. Photoshop does the rest automatically—saving you a lot of time.