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The Basics

Before we run (or walk), we need to gather the basics. Working with Actions starts at the Actions palette (see Figure 1). The first thing you need to do is create a new Action. To do so, simply click the Create new action button at the bottom of the palette.

Figure 1Figure 1 The Actions palette.

Make a Set

All Actions have to live in a set—even if that set contains only the one Action. Think of it as a bit of enforced organization. If you don't create one of your own, Photoshop will make one called Set 1 (or 2 or 3...).

To create a set:

  1. Click the Create a New Set button on the Actions palette.

  2. Give the set a pithy, awarding-winning name such as Setopia or Seturerama. Better yet, use a descriptive name. Try something that helps you understand what the Actions in it are likely to do.

Create a New Action

To both create and start recording a new Action, Click the New Action button. The New Action dialog box appears to let you name it. In the New Action dialog box, you also do the following:

  • Assign it to a particular set.

  • Define a function key, which enables you to apply the Action with the push of a button.

  • Apply a color, which will be visible when using Button mode.

Record the Action.

Recording an Action

After you click Record to create a new Action, Photoshop starts to record the steps you take. So, just start doing stuff, and it will get recorded. Don't worry—if you make a mistake, you can fix the Action later.


It is really best to take a couple a practice stabs at the steps you want to record. Also, you may want to plan the Action by jotting down the steps on paper. It's OK to sit and wait while you think about the next step you want to take, but the Action will more likely turn out right the first time if you have a plan.

Almost all the things you do will be recorded along with the settings you apply. For example, if you apply the Unsharp Mask filter to an image, the filter and whatever settings you chose for the filter will be recorded as a Command in the Action. The only thing you can't record is a specific mouse action, so you can't capture the movement of a paintbrush. (Hey, come on. That would be silly. What if you tried to apply the action to a file that was much smaller? Poor old Photoshop would freak out.)

To complete the recording, click the Stop button at the bottom of the Actions palette.

Examine the Action

After you have created an Action, look it over. Some things to notice about the Action include the following (see Figure 2):

  • It lives in a Set (theoretically, the one you assigned it to in the Create new set dialog box).

  • It has at least one Command listed under its name. Each step you took after creating the action is listed here.

  • Each Command has settings associated with it. You'll need to click the little triangle next to the Command to see them.

  • Each Command has a checkmark next to it (to the left), and some have a little square. Never you mind about these. We'll get to them later.

Figure 2Figure 2 The parts of an Action.

Editing an Action

If you are like me, you'll lurch forward without any planning and create an Action that needs some fine-tuning. After you have stopped an Action, you can edit it a variety of ways:

  • Reorder Commands. If you want to change the order in which a recorded Command plays, grab it with the cursor in the Action palette and drag it up or down. If you can't see the Commands, click on the small triangle next to the Action's name (see Figure 2).

  • Delete a Command. Select it and hit the Delete key.

  • Reset a Command's settings. You may want to reset the values a step uses. To do so, double-click on the Command in the Action. Be sure to do this with an image opened that you can discard because it will apply the step to that image.

  • Add a Command in mid-stream. If you decide to add a Command somewhere in the Action, simply select the Command just before the place you want to add, click the record button on the Actions palette, and do whatever it is you want to do. The Action will record from there.

  • Insert a stop, which gives you a chance to apply settings to a step. For example, with a Levels Action, you may want the Levels to come up and give you a chance to determine the settings appropriate for the file on which you are working. Normally, a Levels Command in an Action will After for a Command. If you have a Command that needs tweaking, double-click it. It will act as if it is playing, and you can set the setting the way you need them.

  • Record Again. Let's say you have an Action that has a bunch of settings. You like the sequence of Commands, but the settings are No problem. Select Record Again from the side menu on the Actions palette. Photoshop will play the Action, but it will stop at each Command and allow you to reset the settings.

  • Troubleshoot it. The little checkmark I dissuaded you from examining earlier allows you to make an Action skip a Command (see Figure 3). This is a useful diagnostic tool to see whether that Command is causing trouble.

Figure 3Figure 3 The checkmark means that Command will play (without it, the Command doesn't play).

Playing an Action

After you create it, you will want to play your Action from time to time. You have some options:

  • Play it from the palette. To play the Action, set your file up and click the Play button on the bottom of the palette.

  • Use function keys. Your computer probably has a series of keys along the top of the keyboard called function keys (f-keys). Use them. When you create a new action, the dialog box allows you to set one. If you hit the f-key you have assigned to the action, it will start playing.

  • Use Button mode; select it from the Actions side menu. This mode makes the palette look like a button panel. The New Action dialog box allows you select a color for your button. Group Actions by coloring them (see Figure 4). Play an Action simply clicking it as a button.

Figure 4Figure 4 The Actions palette in Button mode.

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