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Getting Started with Photoshop Plug-ins and Actions

A Guest Post by Rob Dweck.

It’s been said that there are no shortcuts to greatness. I’m inclined to believe that, but I also believe that there are shortcuts you can take when processing your photographs that yield great results. The shortcuts I’m referring to are actions and plug-ins. Both can save time and open up new creative avenues for you to explore.


The ethereal glow of the sunshine filter in Nik Color Efex Pro brings this image to life

In its most basic form, an action is a sequence of steps that can be played back at the click of a button or stroke of a key. Although they are essentially actions with a less utilitarian interface, plug-ins tend to be far more flexible and are generally separate programs that are launched from within Photoshop. True, anything that can be done with plug-ins and actions, can be done without them, so why pay for a piece of software that can do what can already be done in Photoshop?

The easiest answer to that might be another question: Why do ten, fifty or hundreds of mouse clicks when you can do one? Sensible enough, but the appeal of actions and plug-ins lies beyond mere time savings. As I will demonstrate in upcoming articles, you can bring new life to your images that would only be possible by a Photoshop Zen master.

So yes, part of the appeal of actions and plug-ins is they allow the user to be lazy. Not necessarily Homer Simpson lazy or click one button for an instant masterpiece lazy; more like I have a job, a family and a life and I can’t spend every waking hour devoted to learning every last function in Photoshop.


The Kodak Ektachrome 100GX preset in Alien Skin Exposure gives extra pop to the color in this HDR image

When I’m processing my photos, very often I have a clear picture of the finished result in my head. In this case it’s simply a matter of choosing the right actions or plug-ins for the job. In other cases, I may or may not have some ideas of where I want to go with a photo. By experimenting with different plug-ins, I often end up with something new and unexpected that I could not have done using Photoshop alone with my current Photoshop skills.

I first began using plug-ins and actions years ago and usually selected the preset that looked best, click OK and was done. While this made for some good images, I soon found out that the real power of plug-ins and actions came in to play when I learned to tweak a few parameters and use the effects selectively and not always globally on an entire photograph.

Despite the infinite number of ways they can enhance your photographs, plug-ins and actions are not miracle workers. They are not the visual equivalent of Auto-Tune that will take your photographic equivalent of William Hung and turn it into Marvin Gaye. There is no “unsuck” plug-in and even if you use an action in an attempt to polish a turd, well…it’s still a turd.

If you’ve been using plug-ins and want to get more from them, you may be able to pick up a tip or two in the coming posts. If you’re just getting your feet wet, here are a few resources to get you started.

Free actions:

Actions Central – http://www.atncentral.com
Adobe Photoshop Exchange – http://www.adobe.com/cfusion/exchange/index.cfm?s=5&from=1&o=desc&cat=190&l=-1&event=productHome&exc=16
Action FX – http://www.actionfx.com/pstools-photography.html
Deviant Art – http://browse.deviantart.com/?order=9&q=photoshop+actions

Free plug-ins:

OnOne – http://www.ononesoftware.com/free/ (Free versions of some of their popular plug-ins)
Auto FX – http://www.autofx.com/freeplugins/dreamyphoto.asp?id=4

Nik Software – http://www.niksoftware.com
Onone Software – http://www.ononesoftware.com
Topaz Labs – https://www.topazlabs.com
Alien Skin – Alien Skin
Red Giant – http://www.redgiantsoftware.com
Auto FX – http://www.autofx.com
Lucisart – http://www.lucisart.com

This is just a small list with some of the more popular titles. A quick search will turn up many more products.

Rob Dweck is a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer who specializes in landscape and nature photography. His work can be viewed at robdweck.com.

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