5 Genuinely Useful Photoshop Actions

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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.

Create photoshop actions

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.

Make Buttons for your Actions

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.

Photoshop actions button mode

Observe and Adapt

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.

Channels selections, Alpha channel, Photoshop CC

These Actions make heavy use of channels, selections, and layer masks.

Action #1 Saturation Boost

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.

HSB/HSL filter

The HSB/HSL filter has a psychedelic effect on the image.

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.

Method

  1. Create a duplicate layer (Cmd/Ctrl + J).
  2. Apply an HSB/HSL filter (RGB & HSB settings) to the duplicate layer – it will turn a weird color.
  3. Invert the colors of the layer (Ctrl/Cmd + I).
  4. Select the green channel under “channels”, right-click and create a duplicate channel (label it “Sat Mask”).
  5. Go back to layers and delete the duplicate layer.
  6. Back in channels, Ctrl/Cmd + click on the “Sat Mask” channel you just created (you should see marching ants on your open photo at this point).
  7. In layers, create a hue/saturation adjustment layer.
  8. Add +25 of saturation in the hue/saturation dialogue box (or any value that might be useful).
  9. Go to Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options.
  10. Under Blend If > This Layer, move the sliders inwards to 245 and 10 (or in that vicinity).
  11. Hold down the Alt key to split these sliders into two, moving the inner halves to values of 70 and 160. This feathers the selection to avoid harsh transitions in tone. Click “OK”.
  12. Delete the “Sat Mask” channel.
  13. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge all layers.

50-50 view of HSB/HSL filter and regular photo.

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.

Action #2 Mid-Tone Contrast +50

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.

Photoshop contrast

Although it’s hard to appreciate in a side-by-side comparison, perhaps you can see the snappier highlights and slightly increased mid-tone saturation to the left side of this image. Shadows remain untouched.

Method

  1. Go to the channels palette and click on the RGB channel while holding down the Ctrl/Cmd key. This creates a selection on your background layer.
  2. Switch to your layers palette and hit Ctrl/Cmd + J keys, which will paste your masked selection onto a new layer.
  3. Go to blending modes (top left of the layers palette), and select Soft Light. Contrast is added to the mid-tone/highlight portions of your picture.
  4. Adjust the layer opacity to taste (set at 50% in the supplied Action).
  5. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge down the layers.

Action #3 Refined Clarity

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.

Clarity slider, clarity settings

The image on the left has some Clarity applied to it, but the shadows are protected to avoid the kind of crunchy look that occurs with a similar amount is applied in a raw converter (right).

(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.

Method

  1. Create a duplicate layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J).
  2. Label the layer “Clarity”.
  3. Open ACR by clicking on Filter > Camera Raw Filter.
  4. Drag the Clarity slider to 100% (ignore the harsh result).
  5. Click OK and be returned to Photoshop.
  6. Open the blending options (Layer Style > Blending Options or double-click to the right of the layer name).
  7. Go to Blend If > Underlying Layer. Hold down the Alt key and drag the right-hand side of the shadow triangle on the left all the way to the far right.
  8. Click OK.
  9. Adjust the layer opacity to taste (the supplied Action is set to 60%).
  10. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge layers.

Action #4 Shadow Noise

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.

In an image such as this one, I might hit Auto in the raw converter to unblock some of the shadows (as is the case in the top section of the picture: notice the railings, man’s coat, and architectural details).

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.

On the right side of this image, you’ll note that the brighter areas are masked off (redder areas) and thus excluded from noise reduction.

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.

Method

  1. Create a duplicate layer and name it “Reduce Noise”.
  2. Apply noise reduction to the duplicate layer.
  3. Go to channels and Ctrl/Cmd + Click on the RGB channel, creating a selection.
  4. Hit Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + I to invert the selection.
  5. Click on “Save Selection as a Channel”.
  6. With the selection visible (marching ants) go back to layers and add a mask to your duplicate “Reduce Noise” layer.
  7. Delete the remaining extra channel (“Alpha 1” if you didn’t rename it).
  8. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge the layers.

Action #5 Web Sharpen

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.

channels mask, luminosity mask, Photoshop

By applying a luminosity mask, sharpening is proportionately reduced in the darker parts of the image (shown as deep red). This ensures that less attention is given to any noisy shadow areas, which we don’t want to sharpen. The Action also shields bright highlights from sharpening using a Blend If setting.

I find that this Action at 10% opacity works well on web images of between 800 and 1200 pixels wide.

Method

  1. Create a duplicate layer and name it “Sharpen”.
  2. Open channels, hold down the  Ctrl/Cmd key and click on the RGB channel, creating a selection.
  3. Click on the “Save selection as channel” icon at the bottom of the channels palette. A new channel will appear called “Alpha 1”.
  4. Deselect it by hitting Ctrl/Cmd + D or by clicking Select > Deselect.
  5. Click on your “Sharpen” layer to make it live.
  6. Go to Filter > Unsharp Mask and select a high value of 400-500, a radius of around 0.8 to 1.2, and a value of 0.
  7. Ctrl/Cmd + click on the “Alpha 1” channel in the channels palette (the selection will reappear as marching ants).
  8. Go back to the layers palette and with your “Sharpen” layer selected, click on the “Add layer mask” icon. This modifies the sharpening effect.
  9. Click on Layer> Layer Style > Blending Options.
  10. Move the right-hand slider under “This Layer” to 245.
  11. Holding down the Alt key, split the left-hand side of this slider and move it to around 220.
  12. Click OK.
  13. Adjust the layer opacity to taste (the download action is set at 10%).
  14. Delete Alpha 1 channel.
  15. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge layers.

Photoshop Action Crashes

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 the Set

Download these actions here for free. To install: open the download directly into Photoshop or load from within Actions.

Finally

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!

Read more from our Post Production category

Glenn Harper is a writer, photographer, and all-around good guy. For almost 20 years, his photos have been licensed and syndicated through European photo libraries, resulting in publication all over the world. In the early 2000s he dabbled in writing for UK photo magazines, but then lost track of time. He’s okay with a camera, knows a fair bit about stuff and is here to help. Check out Glenn’s website here.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Thanks Glenn, some very useful info here and the Actions are a treat! Thanks for sharing!

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