Once upon a time, once you had taken a photo, there was a very limited palette of tricks and customizations you had to work with after the fact. And those tricks all had to be done in the darkroom, under the baleful glow of the red light and with time always a major consideration. There simply wasn’t time to experiment, or to get fancy. Graphic designers, too, had to do everything physically: drawing, cutting, and pasting deep into the night to ply their trade. But in the 21st Century, things are, to say the least, different. Photography and graphic design are almost entirely digital now. Photography and graphic design are almost solely the domain of the computer user, most likely a computer that has Adobe’s groundbreaking Photoshop software loaded onto it.
Photoshop is a powerful tool, perhaps the most powerful tool known to the modern photographer. If you are just getting started, it’s a good idea to get your feet wet in an online course. Photoshop is ubiquitous, and rightfully so. Most aspiring photographers and graphic designers have learned to perform the basic functions before they graduate from high school. But there is much more to it than the basics. One can spend years learning to use different functions and filters, and still never get to the bottom of it all.
Perhaps the most important and game-changing aspect of Photoshop is the advent of actions. Actions are shortcuts; they are preset sequences of editing and processing functions that can be applied to an image as a batch instead of in individual steps. They save time and trouble, and the best of them are incredibly useful.
Confused? OK, for example, let’s say you have taken a series of photos of your friend’s band, and your friend’s been specific about wanting the photos to have ”that 1980s Helmut Newton look”: monochrome, high contrast, with a metallic, silvery glow. Instead of losing your mind applying the same set of filters and editing steps over and over to each of the photos of your friend’s band, you can use an Action designed for that very purpose. This blog by April Kazema is a good primer on what, exactly, Photoshop filters are, and how they work.
If you are a pro, you are no doubt already familiar with filters, and you wish to focus on using Photoshop as an essential part of your skillset to make a living. In that case, you might be well-advised to take a look at how to maximize your profits by using Photoshop in this online course.
Using Actions On Portraits
If you focus on portraits, you might find that you will benefit most from Actions designed for that very purpose. With many Actions now available for download, often for free, you can’t go wrong trying them. Many are little more than a Google search away, including Actions like “Toning Brushes,” designed to help even out skin tones, or high pass blurring Actions designed to minimize blemishes. There are Actions for “Teeth Whitening” and changing eye color, and especially for capturing reflected light in the subject’s eye. “Catch Light Enhance Action” is especially good for that.
Taking Action on Landscapes
If landscapes are your thing, there are many Actions that will be sure to help you. There are innumerable Actions that are designed to enhance the quality of light (“Reduce Haze” and “Restore Blown Out Skies” are two good ones), make leaves “pop” (“Enhance Foliage”) and enable you to get the most out of your most wide-angle vistas (“Maximize Dynamic Range”). Digital Camera World even has a set of 20 free downloads just for black and white landscapes.
Where to Find Free Actions
There are many sources, all over the Internet, where one can find a dizzying array of free Photoshop Actions. There are almost too many choices, in fact. Aside from the aforementioned Digital Camera World, you can find many user uploaded Actions at Deviant Art, and it goes without saying that if you download some Actions and find some of them useful, you should create and upload some of your own.
Photoshop Tutorials and Brusheezy are two more good sources, as is FinesseFX. In fact, there are so many good Actions available for download with no fee that many photographers find no need to ever pay for one.
The Most Useful Actions
Actions are, when you think about them, not just ways to create shortcuts in Photoshop—they are ways to customize Photoshop, hot-rodding your toolbox so that you can achieve the effects you want and need, quickly. You can learn more about other ways to customize Photoshop, and about a number of the Photoshop tricks that the pros swear by, but for now, let us concern ourselves with which Actions, in addition to the ones mentioned above, will be the most handy weapons in your photographic and design arsenal.
Every photographer and designer needs a good method to convert color images to black and white that is simple and effective, so that you can then get to the work of tweaking the now-monochrome image for your purposes. BW Noor is a good one, giving you an all-purpose set of steps that converts the image format to greyscale, boosts contrast, and in general enhances details that would be otherwise lost in the conversion.
Also very useful is the ability to enhance sharpness and detail overall, in any photograph, at any time, regardless of the situation. It is easy to remove detail, but significantly harder to add it if it is not there, and HDR Tools does the trick quite nicely, and is able to turn a seemingly flat picture into something astounding with a single click.
You will also most likely need a way to colorize photographs in a general way, aside from the “special effects” type of actions. A great Action for all-purpose colorizing is Freebie V, which brightens and intensifies colors in a way that looks like anything but a “special effect.”
Photoshop Actions are not a shortcut in the sense of “cheating,” no matter how many disgruntled old-school photographers may say otherwise. Actions are essential time-saving tools, created by designers and photographers and shared for the betterment of all. If you use them and like them, as you become more conversant with them and with Photoshop in general, try creating and sharing some of your own. Pay the Action forward, and generate some good karma while you generate awesome images.