From the early days of computing, saving keystrokes, and being able to repeat certain tasks with ease have been very popular. In those days, software programs would offer simple “macro” capabilities, which later became almost a programming language in their own right. Look at Excel, which now uses a derivative of Visual Basic. There was even a popular general-purpose TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) software that would work even with software that did not offer macro capabilities. I still have a copy of SuperKey by Borland and its sister software, SideKick. Of course, they are no good on today’s computers.
Based on this general idea, Photoshop and Lightroom offer similar capabilities to precisely repeat a process with minimum effort with actions and presets. That is actually a very handy tool. However, they have both become the modern-day carbon paper equivalents with the idea to transfer what I do with my sensibilities to your images. That is not a great idea in my opinion. I have seen presets and actions that are so convoluted in their execution it is almost impossible to remove parts of them.
What are Actions and Presets Good For
I create and use actions in Photoshop and presets in Lightroom to maintain consistency in a collection or something that applies to all the images equally well. Here are some ideas, where Lightroom presets are good:
- Adding your watermark or signature at a fixed location
- Adding white or colored borders around your photograph
- Applying standard processing steps to all the image like I find myself doing in Lightroom
- Setting all saturation channels to zero in preparation for B&W conversion
- Lowering the luminance in highlights at a fixed percentage to add ink density
- Process infrared images coming from different cameras
- Apply toning to B&W images like selenium, sepia, platinum, etc.
- and the like
And here are a few ideas where Photoshop actions are a good idea:
- Set Blend If sliders to protect highlights or shadows
- Create a dodge or burn layer
- Create split sharpening layers ready for sharpening
- Mid-tone contrast with High Pass filter
- Multi-stage sharpening
- Create an edge mask
- Add soft-focus or soft-glow effect
- Prepare to even the skin color
- B&W conversion preparatory steps for various methods
- Toning B&W photographs
- and so on
What are Actions and Presets are Not Good For
Buying actions that have artistic, aesthetic judgments and apply a combination of adjustments is not a good idea in my opinion. It is akin to asking someone else to do your photo editing with no idea what your vision may be. I agree, there is a huge seductive call to make your photograph just like Joe Schmo’s because you liked one of his photographs. But, think about it, do you know how that photograph was shot, what it looked like when it was opened in Photoshop or imported to Lightroom? Chances are 99.9% you don’t! Then, why do you expect that his preset or action will do the same for your photograph? The colors Mr. Schmo liked enhanced may or may not go with your vision; the “nice warm sunlight preset” may or may not suit the image you have.
What to Look For In Actions and Presets
Well developed actions and presets will:
- Do discrete steps rather than all 56 steps
- Provide a learning opportunity
- Will not make artistic judgments, at least allow you to change them
- Will be nondestructive in Photoshop, will leave all your work intact
With this approach, it may take three actions to arrive at your destination, but each step will be adjustable and changeable along the way. Additionally, you will see what is happening and learn the thought process that goes along with the action or the preset.
Develop Your Own Actions and Presets
In addition to finding well-constructed actions and presets that you may use in your work, there is no reason you cannot develop your own. This is particularly true if you are working on a project and you would like them to have some sort of unified look. This may be applying color toning to B&W photographs, cropping all to the same ratio (Lightroom does not support crop ratios as far as I can tell,) adding the same border stroke if you want, etc. Lightroom presets are a little easier to construct than Photoshop actions, so start with that. You may actually like the idea. Maybe in a future post, I will take you step-by-step to create a few presets, after that, you should experiment on your own.
PS For those who are wondering, those are 5.25″ floppy disks on the user manuals. Yes, $35 software came with those printed manuals, those were the days …