Photoshop Actions: Work Smarter, Not Harder with Kristina Sherk


Photoshop Actions: Work Smarter, Not Harder with Kristina Sherk

Working in Photoshop can easily lead you down the rabbit hole. It’s often a time-sucking vortex. “I’m just going to fix this one last thing, and then I’ll move on to retouching the next headshot.” Uh-huh. Then you look at the clock, and somehow 45 minutes has just disappeared into thin air. Poof.

We want to make our clients happy by giving them an image in which they look their absolute best. This can be a slippery slope since it’s so hard to know when you’re truly done retouching a shot. The longer it takes you to retouch images, the more your hourly rate plummets.

That’s why learning to use Photoshop efficiently is so important. The software’s automation features are extremely powerful, and can save you tons of time. This translates into a higher hourly rate and less time in front of your computer. That’s a win-win.

Actions are a series of steps that you record to an image, and once you’ve captured all of the steps on one image, you can apply (or run) the same steps to any other image. Kind of like running your image through a Photoshop assembly line, where it gets prepped with all the different layers that you might need during your retouch. Instead of doing all of the steps yourself (like creating adjustment layers or adding masks), you allow Photoshop to do it for you. Then, when you sit down to actually edit your image, you’re not wasting time creating all of those layers on every image.

There are a few things that actions won’t record, like freehand brush strokes and some drag and drop commands. A good rule of thumb is to make sure every step you add to your action has a menu command that coincides with it. One way I protect myself from this is to have my History window open while creating actions. Each command that you add to your action (when recording it for the first time) should have a coinciding item that shows up in your History list.

Let’s create a short action step by step. Here’s an image I recently shot of a good friend.

If you can’t find your Actions palette, go to your Window dropdown menu and make sure Actions has a checkmark next to it.

I want to create an action that will tone down the highlights on her face, so the first thing I do is press the “new action” icon in the bottom of my Actions palette.

Let’s name it “Tone Down Highlights.” Then hit the record button. From this moment on, anything you do in Photoshop will be recorded by the action, so be concise about your clicks.

Now I create an empty Hue/Saturation layer by clicking the Hue/Saturation icon in my Adjustments palette. I double-click the name of the layer and change it to “Hotspot Removal.” Then I change the blend mode of my Hotspot Removal layer from normal to multiply in the upper left corner of my Layers palette.

This should make your entire image turn slightly dark. Next, we need to tell Photoshop (and the action we’re creating) which areas of the image we want this effect to shine through on (and thus darken those parts). Click on the white mask on your Hotspot Removal adjustment layer, and then click on your Select top menu and choose Color Range.

Inside the Color Range Dialog box, use the Select fly-out menu to choose Highlights.

Make sure Detect Faces is unchecked, and set your fuzziness to 20%. Slide the Range arrow almost all the way to the right so it previews only the brightest highlights in her skin. For this image, my Range slider was set at 191. Press “Ok.”

(A note on skin tone: It may make sense to make two or three of these actions for different skin shades. The highlights on darker skin tones may not fall into the same value range as Theresa’s. So if you created your action on a person with light skin and then ran the action on a person with dark skin, you may see no difference after the action is done running.)

You’ll notice that the mask on your Hotspot Removal layer has gone from all white to almost all black.

The last steps are to decrease the opacity of this Adjustment layer to about 30% in the top of your layer’s window, and then feather the mask using the Feather slider in your Properties window. I gave my mask a 5-pixel feather.

(A note on file size: Unfortunately, the feather command is not a “smart” command, meaning it is not relative to the size of your file. This means Photoshop will still feather the selection the same amount, 5 pixels, whether you’re feathering a selection on a 5-inch by 7-inch web image at 72 dpi, or a 20-inch by 30-inch Nikon D800 Raw file at 300 dpi. As you can probably guess, the feather amount on these two files would look completely different because of their different sizes.)

You can now stop recording your action. In the bottom of your Actions window, click the gray square to the left of your red record button.

In this shot, you can see the left side of the face has far fewer bright highlights than the original (the right side of the face).

To make sure your action works, delete the Hotspot Removal layer and run the action again. You should get the same result.

As you can see, we consolidated 10 steps into one button click that you can now use on any image in the future.

If you’re looking to find an action you can use as a retouching “outline” to help keep you on task and not get distracted while retouching portraits, I’ve created a mega-action that does just that. You can download it free at my website ( My Portrait in a Pinch Action gives you everything you could possibly need to retouch a portrait without lifting a finger. There are over 250 commands in this one action. The only thing you have to do is brush in the effects wherever you like.

Now that these folders have helped me retouch in hyper-speed, I can actually be productive and fly through my retouching. This edit took me four minutes and 30 seconds. Here’s the before and after.

Here’s a split view of the final retouched headshot. Not too bad.

There are a million applications for speeding up your retouching using actions. I guarantee they’ll help you become much more proficient and productive in your everyday retouching work.

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