Automating Photoshop

What if I told you that by the end of this article I could drastically boost your Photoshop productivity? Interested? That's actually not an exaggeration if you've never taken advantage of Photoshop's actions and batch processing tools. If you find yourself repeatedly performing the same (often mindless) tasks in Photoshop one step at a time, I'm going to show you a better way to work.

Actions are essentially a way to have Photoshop perform a series of predetermined steps on an image. You create them by first manually performing steps for Photoshop to record. But don't worry, Photoshop isn’t timing you when you record an action. No matter how long you take to perform the steps, once the action is created Photoshop will execute it as quickly as possible, which will always be faster than we mere humans could do it. Most Photoshop commands can be included as part of an action, and I'll show you how you can incorporate those that cannot.  

We'll explore how to:

In this article I'll be using Photoshop CS5. While Photoshop Elements cannot be used to create actions, it can import and run actions created in CS5.

Creating a basic action

Actions live in the Actions panel, available if you go to Window>Actions. Without creating a single action of your own you’ll see the list of default actions that ship with Photoshop. It's important to note that an action must reside in a folder, called an action set. You can name both the Action Set as well as the individual actions. Because Action Sets are the primary means of sorting and finding your actions, I recommend giving them descriptive names that relate to the actions contained within them.

A collection of Photoshop's pre-built
actions can be found in the Default
Actions folder of the Actions panel.
More action sets are available
via the panel's fly-out menu. Click
on one to add its contents to the
Actions panel.

Let's begin by creating a new action set to store our custom actions. Click the folder icon at the bottom of the Actions panel (shown below). A dialog then appears in which you name this new set. In the examples below I typed 'Ellen’s Actions'. This set is where I will store the actions I'll be demonstrating in this article. As you start to create additional actions on your own, however, I recommend that you create several distinct sets that are geared towards specific techniques such as resizing, editing or prepping for output and name them accordingly.

The most common action tasks can be performed by clicking on icons along the bottom of the Actions panel. When you click the New Set icon...'re prompted to name the set. I recommend a descriptive name that gives a hint as to the actions contained within it.

In this action we're going to add a copyright watermark to an image. Open an image in Photoshop (the simplest, though not the only way to begin) and then click the New Action icon (shown above). Because we're going to create a white watermark to use on images that are 1280 pixels wide, I name the action accordingly (shown below). 

I've given the action a descriptive name and chosen to house it inside the 'Ellen's Actions' set.

Notice that you can also assign a Fn key to invoke the action, as well as give it a color label.

Press the Record button. To create the watermark perform these steps:

1. Select the Text tool (T) and choose a font, size and color from the Options bar. 2. Create the © symbol by pressing Opt+G on a Mac or hold the Alt key and press 0169 on a PC. Then type your name.
3. Select the Move tool (V) and position the text. 4. Reduce the opacity of the text layer in the Layers Panel as desired.

5. Go to Layer>Flatten Image. 
6. Press the Stop recording icon.
7. Close your image (without saving it).

That's it. You’ve created a watermark action. To test it, open the same image you began with, select your newly created action from the Actions panel and click the Play button.

Before we go any further, you should know that by default the actions sets you create are stored in Photoshop's preferences. Should those get reset or corrupted, you've lost your actions. Fortunately you can save action sets to a more easily accesible location on your hard drive, which I strongly recommend.

With an action set highlighted, clicking on
the panel's fly-out menu lets you save the
it and all of the actions it contains.
Action sets are saved with the '.atn'
extention and can be stored on any shared
drive within your network.

Doing so allows you to export them to another computer, share them with others (including Elements users) and easily bring them into a newer version of Photoshop should you upgrade.

Click here to continue reading our Automating Photoshop article...

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 33
Jan Privat
By Jan Privat (Jan 4, 2013)

The Image Processors Resize To Fit option is indeed very useful. Especially for a photographer who converts images for the web. But then again, it would be cool if I could team it up with the "Save for web..." command, which is not possible. The Image Processor seems only to use its own Save as JPEG settings. Also Photoshops Image Resize via the menu is better, because you can specify how he should downscale the image (e.g. bicubic sharper).

Or am I wrong?

Regards, Jan

1 upvote
By keenone (Apr 5, 2012)

Does this work with Elements 9 too?

By arihant2301 (Mar 2, 2012)

Is there a way we can close photoshop after an action completes?

1 upvote
By angiecreates (Mar 1, 2012)

Hi! This is a great tutorial, but I am wondering if you can help me figure out how to use actions to do the following:

Make 4x6
Open my logo
Drag and drop logo onto image

I tried using the above method, and it isn't working out well.


By ebizjoey (Feb 11, 2012)

Actions are in the Gimp Fu feature using GIMP.

1 upvote
Alexander Belokurov
By Alexander Belokurov (Jan 27, 2012)

Could somebody help me please: I am having trouble with inserted Stop command in batch processing. Is there a way to pause script execution, do some manual controls and then continue the batch processing? I use Photoshop CS2. Thanks.

Ellen Anon
By Ellen Anon (Jan 27, 2012)

If you create an action that includes running a script, you'll see a step marked "script." You can insert a stop and then when batch processing using that action, you'd manually run the script for each file in order to individualize some settings and then proceed as usual. As far as I know there's not a way to display the steps within the script and then insert a stop just at that point. What you can do instead is when recording the action, rather than use the script, record each step yourself in the action Then you can use stops wherever it would be helpful.

Comment edited 26 seconds after posting
By mikepop (Jan 26, 2012)

Ive created an action to Resize,save and close in a web folder,how can I do this without re-writing over an exsiting (same) named file.
File 1234.jpg will erase a an older file 1234.jpg
I tried a droplet but that just renamed my Raw file.
Thanks in advance.

Ellen Anon
By Ellen Anon (Jan 26, 2012)

Mikepop, in order not to rewrite over an existing file, you need to record a Save As step in the action, not a save step. : Photoshop gives you three destination options. Be aware that the second destination option, 'Save and Close', commands Photoshop to overwite the original file. Also the Override Action Save As Commands box is crucial to the success of your batch process. If you have a Save As command within the action, check this box if want your new files saved to the folder you specify in the Batch dialog rather than the one you used when you recorded the action.
The screenshots showing this clearly are on page 4 of the article.

By pkwok (Jan 26, 2012)

Thanks for the article. It is helpful for those of us who don't even know that something is existing inside Photoshop, like mode, stop, droplet.

1 upvote
By NOVCJ (Jan 25, 2012)

Anyone used either or - both seem to add a few extra features to the Image Processor.

By JBA (Jan 25, 2012)

Well I appreciated this excellent article and learned a lot. Shame some people find a need to criticize someone who works hard to teach these subjects. DPREVIEW has expanded their site to be more informative and it is excellent articles such as this that drives me to click on this site daily. THANK YOU to Dpreview and its staff of writers.

white tea
By white tea (Jan 24, 2012)

Is it true, that Adobe doesn't attach help file to the PS distribution any more?
Otherwise, what is the sense of this article? It gives very basic knowledge about actions that can be easy found just by pressing F1 button.
What about some camera tests?

Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Jan 25, 2012)

white tea,
Based on the comments below, it appears we have readers who found this article helpful, to say the least ;-)

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
By graybalanced (Jan 25, 2012)

Several problems there. Have you ever read the help file, it isn't exactly reader-friendly and there aren't many pictures. Second, just because it's in the manual doesn't mean most users read every page just out of curiosity. I like articles like this because they highlight features you might not know about even if you do look in the help file. Third, not everyone learns the same way, so if you don't like the dry, picture-free writing style of the manual why not read an article you might enjoy more?

By edfo4 (Jan 24, 2012)

Super article..thank so much!!!!!

Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Jan 24, 2012)

Thanks !!

Peet Venter
By Peet Venter (Jan 24, 2012)

Thank you very much. Great work.

Please do not laugh; I seem to have a total mental block regarding LAYERS. Maybe someone can write a step-by-step Noddy language basic guideline not assuming any knowledge. Believe me I have read books, got it right some times but could not repeat my 'success'.... Any one out there hearing my cry for help. Yes, I am BC.

Ellen Anon
By Ellen Anon (Jan 24, 2012)

Peet, I'll try to give you a quick overview here. There are two type of layers - those with pixels (think of them as pictures) and those with instructions (adjustments - like make it lighter, darker, saturate the reds more, etc.) With the pixel layers, whatever layer is on top is what you see. You can cut a virtual hole in a layer so that you can see through it to a lower layer by using a layer mask. Adjustment layers apply instructions to alter the appearance of the pixels and can have layer masks as well. Those masks basically say "apply the effect here but not there." All of the above assumes the layers are using the "Normal" blending mode. It gets more complicated when you change the blending mode which is a way of changing how the layers combine with one another. I go into this more fully in my Photoshop book, but perhaps if there's sufficient interest the editors will let me do a more in depth article here as well.

By dgriff (Jan 25, 2012)

Thank you Ellen, yes a layers article would be welcome.

Khaled Soliman _ Egypt
By Khaled Soliman _ Egypt (Jan 24, 2012)

Thank You Very Much , Waiting For More . شكراً

By Superka (Jan 24, 2012)

Here is an example (in eyeon Fusion):
the photo is merged to itself by Soft Light, The red channel was aplied as a mask of this merge, and the blur is apllied to this mask. You have to copy layer and channel to do this in Photoshop, and this will increase your file size greatly. And can blur your mask only once, while in node system programs you can alwayschange what you need.

Compositing programs are great for editing photos, and those who have deal with them - use mostly themm and not photoshop.
But they have 2 disadvantages:
1. No .crw .nef or any other raw, made by a photo camera support. Thou raw, made by digital movie camera (red one, for example) are supported.
2 Not good for retouching.

So, why did I wrote this?
To let you know, that if you need Automating and Color Corection (which is much better in Compositing soft) - there are fantastic alternative, and how the real automating looks.

By Superka (Jan 24, 2012)

Those, who work in post-production studios know well about compositing programs. Thou this compositing software is created for movie-makers, they are great for photo editing, too. Those programs have great advantages over photoshop: parametric node system interface. This has several effects:

1. non-destructivity

2. Great convenience of work, because you work with 2-dimensional node interface, not 1-dimensional layers system.

3. No need in Actions, because the node system is actions itself. Any custom tool can be a set of nodes, which you can copy/paste from project to project.

4. Small file sizes - about 100Kb, while editing photos in photoshop can boost file sizes in 10 times.

5. You have 2 or more screens to compare

6. Nodes can be instances

Apple Shake
Eyeon Fusion
these programs are most good and famous

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
By LVPhoto1 (Jan 24, 2012)

Great article:
I’ll pass this onto my son Leon…. Photoshop editor @ desimonephotography ;)

By ms18 (Jan 24, 2012)

Thanks alot

1 upvote
Optimal Prime
By Optimal Prime (Jan 23, 2012)

"In addition it its powerful editing capabilities, Photoshop's actions and batch processing tools can help increase your productivity by performing tasks with little or no user intervention."

Shouldn't the first sentence read:

"In addition to its powerful editing capabilities"?

Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Jan 24, 2012)

Fixed. Thanks for pointing that out.

Ellen Anon
By Ellen Anon (Jan 24, 2012)

Good catch, and thanks for fixing it Amadou.

1 upvote
By Tootsall (Jan 23, 2012)

An often-overlooked source for information and tutorials on Photoshop is your local library. Many libraries are now incorporating electronic access, including e-books and licenced databases. It's pretty easy to check them out to see what Photoshop (or other) information is available. For example, ours has the Photoshop CS4 and CS5 Bibles, Photoshop Trickery and FX (for CS4 and CS5), Complete Photoshop for Digital Photographers, Smashing Photoshop, Photoshop Restoration and Retouching for Digital Photographers Only, and several on Photoshop Elements.

You sure can't touch the price for a wealth of information!

1 upvote
By Lights (Jan 23, 2012)

I remember at first when using Photoshop after having used some other editors, I thought "what's the big deal?" until I learned the power of actions (and I'm still learning). Good, interesting, and informative article.

By Barso (Jan 23, 2012)

Very informative, thanks

By papparazzi (Jan 23, 2012)


By Capture-my-Nikon (Mar 4, 2012)

Actions are great for pros and adv PS users,. However, they are a crutch for PS learners that limit their options.

'Not the next best thing---too many overlo ok the users manual, Unfortunately- Adobe and others -Topaz-especially NIK short changes these learning or ref tools. Any teaching methodology is agenda driven. Kelby Media is THE problem child
Kelby Media makes $ --via repeat customers who are learning only steps/ instructions 1-2-3-4 etc. How and WHY PS works is missing from their courses for the most part.
If you understand 4-5 concepts-how PS functions- "under the hood"--it unlocks the realy cool capibilities of PS./

Total comments: 33