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How to Create a Basic Photoshop Action for Your Photography

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In Adobe Photoshop, actions are automations: a way to record a set of steps that will run on any picture when you play them. Actions let you to use a repeatable workflow on anything from basic photographic adjustments to more complicated looks, effects, and manipulations. They are tremendously handy.

Record Your Own Photography Workflows

Creating your own Photoshop actions is a great way to save time and get consistency across your editing. It might seem time-consuming to make your own, but it's quick and simple enough for anyone to do. I'm going to take you through how to create a Photoshop action to do some of the basic adjustments that most photographs need.

This is the image I'll be using to demonstrate. I've included step-by-step instructions below so that you can follow along and build the action with your own photographs.

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Example image by Marie Gardiner

Best Practices for Photography Actions

There are a few things to know before you get started on creating your action.

Make sure your actions are always non-destructive. By non-destructive, I mean your process works from adjustment layers or duplicate layers so that the original image is kept untouched.

It's best to keep your action processes streamlined: less is more. Work with adjustment layers where possible, rather than on image copies.

Another good reason to work in adjustment layers is to reduce number of steps in your actiob, compared to copying a layer and working directly on that. This keeps your action simple and also ensure it runs faster.


One problem that you might come across is an error in the recording that creates a problem on playback. If there's an mistake in the process that causes the workflow to not go as needed on run the action might stop midway through. Usually Photoshop will give a pop-up explaining the problem the software has encountered. 

Hiccups like this can happen be because the action creator has been a little too specific. For example, they may have created and worked on particular layers, which cause problems when the end user is running that same action on something where the layer has a different title or resolution than the action expects.

If you make a mistake while recording, it's no problem. You'll see your process in the Actions panel and you can simply stop the process, highlight and delete the steps that were a mistake, and then hit record again to pick up where you left off.

How to Create Your Own Photography Photoshop Action

In our example, we'll create a Photoshop action to help your streamline the final, fine-tuning stages of post-production. In this phase, you've completed your initial prep work of white balance and correcting exposure, be that in Lightroom or Photoshop. You've done any needed local adjustments; now you're getting ready to use the image.

We'll do a few handy things in this action:

  • Add a contrast adjustment layer
  • Add a tonal range adjustment layer
  • Add a saturation adjustment layer
  • Add a sharpening layer

Each of these layers will help you adjust the image for print, the web, or whatever your client needs.

Step 1: Create a New Action and Begin Recording

Open the Action window if you haven't already got it as part of your screen setup. You can do this by going to Window and ticking Actions.

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Make the actions panel visible

Create a new action within the Action window by clicking the icon circled in the bottom-right of the shot below.

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Create a new action

Call it something appropriate. I've called mine Envato Tuts+.

When you're ready to begin, you can hit record, but be aware that all your actions will be recorded from this point. If you need to take a break or do something else within the programme, you can hit stop (the square symbol next to record). Just remember to hit record again when you're ready to go.

Right-click on your Background Layer and hit Duplicate Layer. We'll use this later so that we're not working on our original image.

Step 2: Make a Curves Layer

Making an 'S' shape on the tone curve layer will help you create some subtle contrast. Click the adjustments layer icon circled below and choose Curves. As you create each adjustment layer, you'll find the results to adjust in the Properties panel.

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Make an S shape on your Curves layer

Step 3: Make a Levels Layer

Levels is a histogram tool that will let you adjust the brightness levels, contrast and tonal range within an image. We're going to use it to increase the brightness of the shadows a little, and also dip the highlights.

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Create a levels layer

Drag the pointer representing shadows on the output slider (the black pointer on the left) to the right (I've set mine at 12), and the white pointer representing highlights (on the right) to the left (set at 238). These small adjustments will brighten the very darkest shadows to be above pure-black, and take the brightest edges from highlights.

Step 4: Create a Vibrance Layer

It can be hard to create a general, all-purpose action and still change colours because you just don’t know how an image will look originally, or respond to your changes. 

What we can do is make some very subtle adjustments that can easily be hidden or increased once the action has run and you're able to see how they work with the photo.

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Increase the vibrance

It's wise to adjust the Vibrance over Saturation, as vibrance works to increase the saturation of more muted colours in your image, without over-saturating the already saturated parts. Saturation, on the other hand, bumps up the colour saturation of everything. I've set my vibrance to +15, but experiment with a few settings to find out what looks best for your tastes.

 Step 5: Sharpen

One of the simplest, most versatile, and most effective ways to sharpen an image in Photoshop is to use a High Pass filter. Sharpening works by increasing contrast along the edges of objects, and High Pass is a more accurate way to find those edges.

Click on the background copy (because we don’t want to touch the original) and go to Filter > Other > High Pass.

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Once you've clicked the filter, you'll be greeted with a flat, grey representation of your image. Don't panic.

high pass radiushigh pass radiushigh pass radius

Increase the radius until you can see the edges of your main subject. Avoid too much coming through or you'll over-sharpen everything and it'll look a bit odd.

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Once you've hit okay, your image will become that flat, grey representation. Now you can panic! Just kidding. Change the Blend Mode to Overlay and that'll fix it, and sharpen the underlying image.

Step 6: Neaten Everything Up

Now that you've made some basic adjustments and you have a line of layers, which is a little messy. To tidy it all into one folder, highlight all your layers except your background, and click the folder icon. Once you've named it, remember to hit 'stop' to stop your action from recording any further steps.

You're Done!

Ta-da! Well done, you've created your first, basic photo adjustments action.

This is how your action should look: the panel on the right shows the steps you made and the panel on the left shows how those are reflected in the layers. You now have curves, levels, vibrance, and sharpening adjustment layers.

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After the basic adjustments action

Here's the example image after the action has run. It should also work well on most any other type of image, as we only made modest adjustments.

Action Options

Remember, once the action has run, you can still go into each separate layer and increase or decrease the effect to suit the individual image. That's why it's important not to flatten your result, layers make the process much more flexible! We've kept these adjustments conservative because, while some images need a little something more, a heavy-handed set of adjustments applied to everything could ruin more delicate pictures.

Adding masks to your layers would let you quickly make specific, local adjustments. For our example, however, we're past the point of making local adjustments, and on to getting the final look perfect. No masks needed.

To quickly see the difference between the base image and the action, click the eye icon next to the folder. You can do the same with each layer.

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Before (left) and after (right) our created action

Here's another example of an image with only the action run on it; before on the left, after on the right.

Keep Learning About Photoshop Actions

Here are more resources to add Photoshop actions to your photography workflow:

More Photoshop Action Resources

If you want to try some professionally made actions that result in cool effects and styles for your photos, there are lots to try over at Envato Elements, where you get unlimited downloads for a monthly subscription.

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