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I use Lightroom for basic editing and raw conversions, but I still like to tweak my photos in Photoshop. Mostly, that’s just about familiarity. I’m a Photoshop addict. Technically, it makes sense to do as much editing in the raw convertor as possible—perhaps all of it—but I like the blank canvas that is Photoshop more than the frog-marched workflow of raw convertors. Besides, there are still things you can see and do in Photoshop that aren’t possible in Lightroom.
Although I might spend a fair while in Photoshop doing labor-intensive things, for the most part, I’m looking to edit photos quickly and naturally so they might be broadly acceptable for publication. I want my pictures to look good without going down the path of fancy effects, which would often narrow their salability.
One way I can quickly tweak photos in Photoshop CC is to have a collection of Actions available. This article will show you five useful Photoshop Actions (available for download at the end of the article) curated and/or adapted by me that have nothing to do with 1970s summery film effects, light leak effects, or anything like that. Those are for another day.
Before we get down to the Actions, consider putting your Actions window into “Button Mode” once you’ve recorded or downloaded them. This makes actions more usable since it avoids you having to scroll down to find them. Nothing is faster than single clicks to get your images looking good, even if you have to back up sometimes.
You can customize the colors of your Action buttons if you want, perhaps assigning a different color to each type of edit.
One of the purposes of this article is to show you some neat tricks in Photoshop that you can incorporate into Actions. You’ll be able to see what’s happening and use the same tools to achieve different or better things. These Actions also make use of channel masks, which enable precise, flawlessly nuanced selections of color and tone for different types of edits.
Ever since “vibrancy” was introduced, the use of saturation masks has diminished. The purpose of a saturation mask is to gradually mask the most or least saturated areas of an image, depending on whether you invert the selection or not. We can still use such a mask to create a saturation boost Action. It is made using Photoshop’s HSB/HSL filter.
An inverse saturation mask addresses the least saturated areas of the image more strongly, but there’s still an outside chance of clipping the RGB channels with it (i.e. overexposing or underexposing them and losing detail). In this Action, a “blend if” blending option has been added to give extra protection to shadows and highlights.
If the effect of the Action is too strong or weak for your liking, you can hit Ctrl/Cmd + Z to unblend the layers and alter the saturation value. Then simply blend again. This action is much the same as using the vibrancy slider only in fast button form.
This relatively simple action injects contrast into the mid-tone to highlight areas of an image and leaves shadow areas untouched. Adding contrast in this way also intensifies the color. It’s akin to a curves adjustment, leaving the lower part of the curve untouched.
This Photoshop Action is similar to the previous one in that it’s a type of contrast adjustment which protects the shadows. The main difference is that this one uses Clarity, which it borrows from ACR.
In terms of appearance, this Action reveals more textural detail than a straight contrast adjustment by emphasizing edges and small changes in tone. It affects the saturation less.
(The Clarity slider gives much the same effect as “high radius, low amount” Unsharp Mask sharpening, which was a thing about 10 years ago.)
If you want to give flat images extra pop with a greater impression of depth and detail, this Photoshop Action works well. Once again, it uses a Blend If modifications to refine the result, avoiding the grunge that often makes excessive Clarity unsightly. By tapering the result from shadows to highlights, it does most of its work in the mid to high tones.
In recent years, the Auto button in Lightroom and ACR has improved to such an extent that I sometimes click on it as an alternative starting point. The result is akin to a mild HDR effect. In particular, it tends to cut out the high contrast in images.
Photos that are intended for sale (however optimistically) don’t generally benefit from being loaded with hard-to-see, blocky detail.
Of course, the problem with bringing out shadow detail is that it invites noise. Depending on your camera and its settings, it might invite a lot of noise. If we create a Noise Reduction Action using a channel mask, we can target the darkest areas of an image. What’s more, the mask is perfectly feathered, so it will seamlessly apply more or less noise reduction according to the tones of the image.
The downside of creating a Photoshop Action for noise reduction is that normally you’d adjust the settings according to the properties of each photo. However, there’s nothing to stop you creating several noise reduction actions for different picture profiles. As well, you could integrate a noise reduction plugin that assesses each picture individually.
Sharpening is a contrast adjustment, where adjacent edges are made brighter and darker according to their tone to create the illusion of sharpness. The aim is to emphasize these edges without overdoing it and creating haloes.
One way you can control sharpening is with a luminosity mask, which automatically modifies the amount of edge contrast applied depending on how bright or dark it is. The beauty of this is that it’s subjective. Like other channel masks, it fades the effect of your edit based purely on the content of the image. The only control you have to think about is opacity, which might be greater or smaller depending on the size of the image.
I find that this Action at 10% opacity works well on web images of between 800 and 1200 pixels wide.
Occasionally, for reasons unclear to me, Photoshop Actions seem to crash and will not thereafter work without a Photoshop restart. A sure sign that this has happened, aside from inaction and error messages, is that the button in “button mode” changes color.
Download these actions here for free. To install: open the download directly into Photoshop or load from within Actions.
If an Action doesn’t improve the photo as you’d hoped, you can delete or add elements as you wish, perhaps with different settings or to refine the result. I hope this article inspires you to experiment with some of Photoshop’s more powerful tools. Good luck!