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What Are Photoshop Actions and How to Create Them?


Want to create cool photo and design effects in only a matter of seconds? In this article, you'll learn about one of Photoshop's incredibly handy features, the Photoshop Action.

Photoshop Effects Made Easy

Let's say you really love this photo.

Working with Photoshop Actions in Photoshop
Image credit: Venice Stock from PhotoDune.

But to make this photo a little more interesting, you'd like to apply a watercolor effect to it. Now you could spend lots of time going through watercolor tutorials, but if you're new to Photoshop, you might get lost in the intimidation factor we all experience as newbies.

So is that it? Are your dreams of painterly magic out the window simply because you're in unfamiliar territory? Of course not!

To get an awesome watercolor effect for this photo, all you have to do is apply a Photoshop Action. Research online and download the watercolor set of your choice. Then, load the action into Photoshop. When you're ready, hit play. 

Creating Watercolor Effects with Photoshop Actions
Download this Watercolor Action on GraphicRiver to apply this effect.

Boom. Watercolor effect complete. 

Save Time With Photoshop Actions

We don't always have the time or the energy to make complicated edits in Photoshop. Between deadlines, lack of inspiration, and being limited by your skills, it's no wonder that designers and artists look for different ways to cheat the process.

With Photoshop Actions, you can record a series of steps to alter any image or graphic in a particular way. Once the recording is finished, the action is saved as an .ATN file which allows you to apply or "play" the same action to any future project.

For more on incorporating these actions into your routine, learn How to Speed Up Your Adobe Photoshop Workflow With Custom Built Actions.

So Let's Take a Look at the Actions Panel...

To get started with Photoshop Actions, first locate the panel by going to Window > Actions, or just hit Alt-F9 on your keyboard.

Here is a quick run-through of the buttons on the panel.

Photoshop Actions Panel
  1. Begin Recording
  2. Stop Playing/Recording 
  3. Play Selection
  4. Create New Set
  5. Create New Action
  6. Delete

Try to get familiar with the panel before applying an action. You'll need to know these buttons when dealing with any set you purchase and download.

Learn How to Install a Photoshop Action

If this is your first time hearing about the wonderful wizardry of Photoshop Actions, you've definitely come to the right place. But before downloading your first set, make sure you learn How to Install an Adobe Photoshop Action.

Different Types of Photoshop Actions

What kind of effect would you like to create today?  Here are some different types of Photoshop Actions that you may run into.

Default Actions

Photoshop already has a neat list of actions you can try out on your graphics.

The Default Photoshop Actions

From creating vignettes and cast shadows to saving a file as a PDF, explore the list and the different effects you can create. These default actions are the perfect way to dive into this feature.

Quadrant Colors Action in the Photoshop Actions Panel
Using the same image from earlier, here is a look at the Quadrant Colors effect located in the default actions.

Photo Effects

The art of photo effects will always reign supreme with Photoshop.

If you love the idea of turning your photo into a sketch, then quickly apply the action that fits your style.

Photoshop Sketch Effects Action

This Sketch Action Set is a good example of how some actions may need to be edited. You can even omit certain steps to experiment with the effect, and then play the action for a remarkably traditional feel.

Photo Retouching

You can also make all your photography look much more professional with Photoshop Actions dedicated to photo retouching. By automatically adjusting the contrast, colors, and overall intensity, your photos will shine with these super-effective actions.

Photoshop Photo Retouching Action
Credit: Download the Rocknas Adjust Action on GraphicRiver to apply this effect.

Cool Text Effects

Need a cool text effect for your logo or website? Photoshop Actions are not limited to just photos. You can also apply interesting effects to any text or shape with the ease of just one click. 

Cool Text Effect Photoshop Actions
Credit: Download this action, Chromatic Text Styles, on Graphic River.

3D Text Effects

If 3D software is not your forte, let these Photoshop Actions handle all the hard work for you.

With this simple 3D Text Effect, you can integrate the final effect into any print or graphic design. So even if you're unfamiliar with 3D, you can still churn out high-quality design.

3D Text Effect Actions from Envato Marketplace on Graphic River

Print & Graphic Design Actions

Add style to your portfolio while impressing your clients. Actions for print and graphic design allow you to create professional mockups, print material, and more. 

Poster Print Mockup Photoshop Action
Credit: Download the Universal Closeup Mockup Action Pack

Miscellaneous Actions

Actions are all about shortcuts, so they're certainly not limited to graphics. Whether you need a quick way to save a PDF or want to optimize your general workflow, Photoshop Actions are there to help you out.

You can even use actions to create simple animations. In Create an Animated Work-In-Progress Action in Adobe Photoshop, I show you how to create a quick GIF action that shows off the step-by-step process of all your illustrative work.

GIF Work in Progress Photoshop Action tutorial by Melody Nieves

Some Quick Do's and Don'ts

Now of course I can't let you go without a few words of advice. So here are some quick do's and don'ts when working with Photoshop Actions.

The Do's

  • Do: Follow directions. The best sets you can download include a step-by-step walk-through of what to expect in order to successfully operate the action.
  • Do: Get familiar with Smart Objects. They will be integrated often to make non-destructive editing easier.
  • Do: Study the steps of your action. Not only might this help you learn how to achieve interesting effects on your own, but it'll also give you a hint as to where you should look whenever there's an error.
  • Do: Get all the right files. Make sure you have all the files needed to perform the action. If there are any extras that are missing, your action just won't work.

The Don'ts

  • Don't: Forget to clean up your layers. Many troubleshooting errors occur because the layer panel is a mess. When problems arise, merge or flatten all the layers together and try the action again to see if it works.
  • Don't: Forget the background layer. If you have a habit of changing the name then the action will not work properly because it'll consider the layer missing. So if the action is dependent on it, make sure to rename your work "Background Layer."
  • Don't: Forget to edit before pressing play. Not all action sets are created equal. Some will require that you make a quick edit before pressing the play button. These edits ensure that the action is applied correctly to a specific area of your image.
  • Don't: Limit Yourself. To get the style you want, you might have to play the action more than once or experiment with the different effects in one particular set. Keep experimenting until you're happy with the results. 


If you've ever struggled with creating interesting effects for your graphics, Photoshop Actions will come to the rescue.

Photoshop is already incredibly convenient in so many ways, but Photoshop Actions take it to a whole other level. I hope this article has helped you get to know a little more about this powerful feature. If you have a favorite action, let us know in the comments!

Looking for more Photoshop Action tutorials? Check out the ones below:

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