Photoshop CC's Action Panel

In Photoshop, an Action is simply a recorded series of steps that you can play back on another image to replicate an effect or technique. To choose a wild example, say that every image in your new book about Photoshop needs to be submitted at a size of exactly 1,024 x 768 pixels at 300 ppi, regardless of content.

Record an Action that uses the Image Size command to change resolution and then use the Canvas Size command to expand the image to 1,024 x 768 pixels. Use that Action (play the Action) on each image before submitting it. Better yet, wait until all the images for a chapter are ready and then use the Batch command to play the Action automatically on each of them!

Actions and the Batch command not only streamline repetitive tasks; they also ensure precision — that every one of those images will be exactly 1,024 x 768 pixels, each and every time. But Actions also have a creative side to them.

The lower part of the Actions panel’s menu (see the image, which contains sets of Actions that you can load into the panel to produce frame and border effects, text effects, and more. (The content of your Actions panel menu will differ from what’s shown.) You can also purchase collections of Actions from commercial sources.

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To work with an Action, open an image, select the Action in the Actions panel, and then click the Play button at the bottom of the panel. (As you can see, the three buttons to the left use the near-universal symbols for Stop, Record, and Play; the three to the right use the standard Adobe symbols indicating New Set, New Action, and Trash.)

Any step in the Actions panel that doesn’t have a check mark in the left column is skipped when you play the Action. Any step that has a symbol visible in the second column (the Modal Control column) pauses when you play the Action. Click in the second column when you want the Action to wait for you to do something.

Perhaps you’ll click in that column next to a Crop step so that you can adjust the Crop tool’s bounding box. You might click in the second column next to an Image Size step so that you can input a specific size or choose a resampling algorithm. After you make a change or input a value for that step, press Return/Enter to continue playing the Action.

Notice the Save Actions command in the panel’s menu. Remember that you have to select a set of Actions in the panel, not an individual Action, to use the Save Actions command. If you want to save only one Action, create a new set and Option/Alt+drag the Action to that set to copy it.

You can also create a printable text file (.txt) of your Actions set by holding down the Cmd+Option/Ctrl+Alt keys when selecting Save Actions. Text versions of your Actions provide an easy reference for what each Action (and step) does to an image.

If you get hooked on Actions, you’ll also want to try Button Mode in the Actions panel menu. Each Action appears in the panel as a color-coded button. You don’t see the steps of the Action, so you don’t know whether an individual step is being skipped and you can’t change the Modal Control column, but you might like the color-coding to sort your Actions.

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