How To Choose Photoshop Actions

A reader messaged me the other day, asking if I could recommend some photoshop actions. I gave a brief answer, but I thought it was a topic that deserved a bit more attention! 

Let's start by understanding what actions are.  Actions are simply a set of editing steps that have been recorded and saved as small files. You load these files onto Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, and then when you click play on those actions, they run through the recorded editing steps, and apply them to your photo.  These obviously help you edit your image more quickly, since you don't have to manually run through all the steps in an edit, and also help you be a little creative with your edits. 

You can make your own actions, or you can buy commercial pre-made ones. Commercial actions are widely available, and can be very useful if you are perhaps new to Photoshop and don’t quite understand how to get the most from it yet, but even if you are a seasoned editing pro they can be a great way of speeding up your workflow. 

The first thing I want to point out to anyone considering buying actions (or who already have) is that it's actually a good idea to have a basic understanding of Photoshop or Elements before you use them.  The reason is that most actions with come with several layers, each layer doing something different to your photo. As no two photos are the same,  you need to be able to go into these layers and adjust them to meet the needs of that individual photo - it is very, very rare to run the action and never have to do any "tweaking" to it.   For example, they may have a brightness layer added but you will need to adjust that using the opacity slider to suit the exposure of your particular image. Another example is they may also have a warming and a cooling layer. Obviously you would only need to use one of these since they have opposite affects, if you need to use any at all!  In some you might want to turn down the contrast, or perhaps it's making your image too red and you need figure out which one is causing the problem - having a basic understanding of layers and different types of adjustments makes this a lot easier.  If you understand what each one is doing, then you can go into the action, and tweak with confidence - no more running an action and hoping for the best :)

If you don't already know a bit about Photoshop, then I strongly suggest spending your money on learning the basics rather than actions. I do hate to self-promote (honestly!) but I have a Mastering Photoshop shop course which I think is very worthwhile to get a great understanding of the basics and more, but there is also this great one by Creative Live called Photoshop Crash Course.  Do this first and I promise that if you then go onto buy actions, you will get so much more out of them and your edits will look so much better. 

The second thing to point out is that actions aren't doing anything to your photos that you can't do yourself, although of course, they may use tools in a way you had never thought of before!  Although I can and do edit my hand, I still use commercial actions, just because it is quicker than manually having to edit each time, and there is a broader range of actions than I would create for myself.  This is, I believe, the way actions should be used, as a time saver, and for adding artistic touches you might not regularly do. 

So, onto choosing actions.  You will generally get three types of actions - ones that give you basic "clean" adjustments (for example, altering exposure, white balance, raising shadows and so on) and basic workflow actions like sharpening for print and so on. The second type is artistic actions, where you are expected to have a good clean base image (that has correct white balance and exposure etc) and that perhaps add a vintage feel, or a warm hazy feel or convert to black and white. The third is actions for portrait retouching, for example, adding a little sparkle to the eyes or smoothing skin.  Some actions will have all of these bundled together, and some are separate.   Before you buy your actions, decide which kind you need, and look for actions that have the type that you are looking for in them.  

Also make sure that the actions you purchase are relevant to the type of photography you take - a set of actions for landscape photographers is going to be a bit different from those mainly taking photos of people, and so on. 

Once you have decided what type to go for, it's time to go shopping!  There are several companies offering actions and some are terrible, and some are great - there really is no way to tell apart from to look at any reviews on the site, and on Facebook ( all the before and afters will look great, and will make you want to buy them. Always.)  I  usually check out the Facebook page and look at the "posts to page" - many people leave comments and so on there.   Make sure that any company offering actions includes documentation on how to install the actions, tips for troubleshooting and ideally how to use them, in addition to a support desk so you have somewhere to turn if you run into problems. I personally always like to make sure that there is also a easy way for me to re-download the actions should I lose them. 

I am also going to give you my personal recommendations - however, please bear in mind there are many, many companies offering actions that I haven't tried, these are just two that I bought and love, and I know fit the above criteria.  However, if you have seen some that you like and they have good reviews, go for it! 

RADLAB by Totally Rad

I don't use this as much now, but when I was starting out and didn't really understand Photoshop, this was a complete lifesaver.  Although technically this is still actions, it works differently from most (and is pretty unique in this aspect actually) in that you can see a thumbnail preview of your image with each action applied. (see screenshot below for what this looks like) It is seriously simple to use, and this is the only set of actions where I don't think you need to understand Photoshop or Elements first, as even with no prior knowledge you will be off and running in a minute or two, and you can see the edits in from of you plain as day.You can read more about it here on the blog, or over here at Totally Rad.  This is suitable for both Photoshop Elements and Photoshop. 

Paint the Moon Actions

This woman seriously knows her stuff, and her actions are impeccable.  Each set comes with detailed instructions, and guides on how to use the actions (including which action does what, along with some example of images and what actions she used to achieve them) Before you use these, I do recommend having a bit of prior knowledge of the inner workings of Photoshop, as you get lots of "option" layers in each action, and they really work best when you know what each layer does, otherwise your edits are going to look overdone. They are pricey, but they are also very good, and you can tell a lot of time when into making these.  You get sets for both Photoshop Elements and Photoshop, and you can find them here


I hope if you are just starting out and considering whether to purchase actions, this has been helpful to you! As usual, if you have any questions, please leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer.