Basic Actions
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Photoshop Actions

This page contains a basic 'toolkit' of downloadable Photoshop (photographic) Actions which you will 
find useful to 
improve your pictures and fix most of those annoying problems.

You can either run them 'blind' or try and understand how they work.  They are aimed at improving snapshots as well as more serious images.

You will find that by just running the right Action (at the tight time!) you can improve most of your pictures almost without having to do anything else.  The exception is the initial adjustment to set the full tonal range of the image - so you need to do Image>Adjustments>Auto Levels (I'll show all Photoshop menu selections, and specific features, in italics) at a minimum, but really you should adjust them yourself, with Levels or Curves, to get better results.

However as well as fixing things it is equally important how you go about it.  I therefore describe a method to ensure that you get the best possible results regardless of which Photoshop facility or Actions you use.

An image is made up of two attributes, ignoring the subject and composition etc.:-


Unless, tongue in cheek, you are a woman who can do two things at once, it should be fairly obvious that we have more chance of success if we do one thing at a time, especially if we are not experts, rather than try and adjust everything at the same time.  Thus we should tackle the tones of an image independently of the colour.  Back in my early days of photography we used various filters to enhance the B&W pictures we took to increase the contrast (tones) of the image in the areas that were important.  So for important images, try and correct Tones first and then adjust for Colour - doesn't matter too much for snapshots, but getting into the habit of a structured order of doing adjustments is not a bad thing.

I find PhotoShop Actions extremely useful - not only to repeat tasks, but also as a way of doing things that I might forget.  There is an additional benefit that trying to work out how an action works will help one learn post-processing techniques.  For instance the Improve Weak Sky action (which works without selecting the sky!)  becomes obvious when you start looking at the Red channel of landscape images - but that is a little more advanced and we will tackle that later.

The Actions are grouped into a simple but effective order, or Work Flow, preceded by some general useful ones that could be used at anytime and other specialised ones at the end.  The real intention of publishing these Actions is for our local PhotoGroup and we will add more advanced Actions in the future.  These Actions do not address the problem of colour casts, which is a difficult area, we'll deal with later.

  1 Inspect and Analyse
  2 Colour Cast + Levels
  3 Contrast
  4 Colour
  5 Sharpening
  6 Look, Look and LOOK

Let me say again - You have more chance of getting the best out of your image if you do the changes in a pre-defined order; for instance sharpening should always be the last step and paying attention to contrast should be done before enhancing the colours.  So try and follow this order, even if you do not have to use any of the Actions!

Most of these Actions will "over-do" the effect, so that you can/will alter the Opacity of the Blend to suit.  Some may require Masks or BlendIF changes when there are side effects on bits of the image you don't want altered.

Here is an outline of what they do, and sometimes there is a "[more]" link, which will popup a window giving further details, examples and sometimes a little help on using them...


50% Grey [more] This is just a quickie to create a Dodge and Burn layer in Soft Light mode - painting Blacks darkens and Whites lightens.  50% grey does nought.  You can change the Blend mode to Overlay for more effect.
CurrentImage Another quickie to create a new layer, into which is placed the current visible image (i.e. merging all visible layers, but not flattening them) - useful before making your own changes. [equivalent to Ctrl-Alt Layer>Merge Visible on a new empty layer].



Grid lines for 1/3 Rule [more] Creates a transparent grid to help CROP an image, if you consider the rule of 3rds to be important.  Use Edit>Tranform>Scale to move and re-size the grid.  The very first step should consider the final composition of your picture - so this action is here to remind one to do just that!
See RGB channels [more] Shows the 3 RGB channels side by side, which you can do equally well with the Channel Palette - but this is a reminder to ANALYSE before starting the Work Flow.
See LAB channels [ditto! more] Ditto as above, but for the 3 Lab channels



Easy Curves [more] This is a short cut to the Windows SmartCurve plugin (a free download here) which combines dynamic histograms with Curves and also allows one to curve in any Colour Mode from RGB - it's great for learning and has some excellent features (not in PS), which are explained in its help.  The only downside of using this is that the result is not an adjustment layer, but I've placed it on a normal layer instead.  SmartCurve gives one the option of remembering the curve, so you can come back and reload it before making further adjustments. 
Extract the files and put them into the plugin directory of Photoshop [something like C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop 7.0\Plug-Ins].

If you are getting into different colour modes and want to understand channels and the effects of adjustments, then can I recommend (!) ColourWatcher - I find it invaluable as I learn more and more (run it one or two magnitudes larger than the start-up size [Cntrl + "+" key] to exactly see the channels).

RGB Luminosity/Colour curves

This is a VERY important idea - so read a little  [more]


Gives you 2 adjustment Curve layers, so you can isolate the changes you make instead of altering RGB colour as you change Levels/Curves.
Remember that moving the top end of the curve (assuming it is the white end) to the left and bottom end of the curve to the right, is the same as moving the 2 end sliders of Levels.  Moving the mid-point diagonally (to top left/bottom right) is equivalent (well almost) to the mid-point Level slider.


3/-- CONTRAST --------

Green ch Contrast/Sharpening 'Standard' Dan Margulis action from this new '07 workflow - probably something you wont want to use until you get into inspecting channels.  It is a subtle effect and works most of the time, but some images should use the Red or Blue channel instead.
Local Contrast 4px Slow
Local Contrast 13px Very SLOW  [more]
Local Contrast 50px Very SLOW
A fantastic idea and very effective on dull images - equivalent to doing AutoLevels over differently sized areas of the image rather than the whole of it.  You need a maths degree to understand it - watch for halos.  This explains all!  If you wish to add other ranges, then the Blur radius should be 0.7 * min/max radius and the HighPass filter radius is the same as min/max radius.  Make a cup of tea for sizes over 13pixels (well certainly on my old slow PC), but well worth the wait for the right image.


      -- Light and Shadow -----

Lighten Shadows (BlendIf)  [more] Simple Screen layer with BlendIF settings of 0 , 0/255.
Darken HighLights (BlendIf) Simple Multiply layer with BlendIF settings of 0/255, 255.
Harsh Sunlight/Shadows  [ditto more] 'Standard' Dan Margulis action using Luminosity.  But, for example, in flesh tone images, making a selection based on the red channel will probably work better.  Watch for halos and you may need to apply a curve to restore the full range.
Severe Shadow/HiLight  [ditto more] This is quite crude, but does not produce halos.


4/-- COLOUR -----------------

LabColourSaturation - new window  [more] - or see the Lab page A must for colour - 'Standard' a and b channel steepening.
Lab > RGB (flatten - same Window) Quickie to help apply the result of the above back to the RGB image (to place the result in a new layer on the original image, hold the shift key as you move it  - you can then delete the copy image!).
Improve Weak Sky  [more] Should always improve a weak sky.  Watch for noise in the sky and adverse effects on other areas of the image, which may need Masking.
Enhance Dull Vegetation  [more] A Dan Margulis suggestion, which normally works, but may alter other colours, so inspect carefully and follow the instructions!
Colouring A Color Dodge layer for painting in some colour.

Regretfully we can not automate the "Man from Mars" technique, but if you follow the link it may give you some clue how to do it.

5/-- SHARPEN ------------------

Sharpening is a very subjective adjustment and is very dependent on the picture content - so just experiment with these...

Midtone Contrast (20-40%) An excellent Action, giving just that special bit of 'lift' to an image - some people always do it as the last step.  Opacity should be in the range 20-40% - and watch for halos.
rgbSuperSharp 500-1+50-20 Two applications of Unsharp Masks of 500%,1px and 50%,20px both with a Threshold of 2, applied as a Luminosity Layer - effect will need reducing.
LabSuperSharp 500-1+50-20 As above but only on the L channel - this is cleaner than rgb.


6/--*** LOOK, LOOK & LOOK ***--

See Changes  [more] A 'fun' idea to remind one to check to see what has changed - shows the difference (in a new window) between the initial Background layer and the CurrentImage.  Adjust the Levels slider if necessary.


-- SKIN ---------------------

Blown HiLight (skin)  [more] A Dan Margulis suggestion to ease blown highlights, will work on any blown highlight surface - don't pick a skin tone too near the blown area.  Subtle and much better than pure white, probably the best that can be easily done with this problem.
Smooth Skin Really just for portrait shots.  Lower Opacity to reduce the effect and may need subsequent masking of light areas in the image.
Skin Enhance > new win  [more] A Dan Margulis suggestion - absolutely beautiful for faces, reduce Opacity of the 2 layers a lot, as they are left way too high.


-- OTHERS ---------------------

Mist Blur  [more] Two effects in one - either a Gothic type blur, or at a much reduce Opacity a glow-warming effect.  One to play with.



Click here to download them.

To have read so far, I reckon you must be moderately serious about improving your images and learning new techniques - well for starters did you know that you can get a text copy of the Action steps by selecting an Action set (when not in button mode) and holding down the Alt and Cntl keys before, and while, you select Save Actions - I find reading these steps helps understand what is going on.

All things being equal, I plan to add some more advanced actions and techniques in the summer of 2008 that should improve and speed up ones workflow in adjusting your photos - why?  Well apart from the fun of sharing knowledge and helping people, the act of having to explain what and how something works helps me learn (and remember) - so we both gain, it's a win win situation! - here is the link to easy colour correction.

If you are fairly serious about post-processing, then these tools may interest you.

Have fun! If you have any questions about these action then just send an email to chris