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Automating Photoshop and Speeding Up Your Workflow

by | 2 years ago

Automation in Photoshop is more than just actions. I think this needs to be said because that’s what a lot of people think of when it comes to automation: creating and using actions. But there’s a lot more to it. To help you better understand all of the different ways we can automate our work in Photoshop, perhaps it’s best to start with my definition of Photoshop automation: Automation is anything that helps you work faster, or is faster than the manual way of doing things, and gets to the end result more quickly. 

Some people may be reluctant to consider using automation because every image they work on is different. An artist or a fine-art photographer, for example, may feel that they can’t use presets because they won’t work for every image; however, if you think about the idea of doing things more quickly, you can certainly implement strategies that will speed up your workflow. An action, for example, is a way to record a series of steps that you can then play back at a speed that’s much faster than you or Photoshop typically run, and we’ll talk about actions later. But again, some people don’t use actions because they feel they can’t record a complete end-to-end process that will work for every image. For me, the solution is to create something I call a “starter action.” 

Let’s say, for instance, that for many of your photographs, you add a Curves adjustment layer to make things lighter, fill its mask with black to hide the effect, and then paint with white exactly where you want to lighten the image. And then you do the same thing with another Curves adjustment layer to darken areas of photographs. Well, rather than do that every time, why not create an action that adds a lighten Curves adjustment layer with its mask filled with black, and a darken Curves adjustment layer with its mask filled with black; all the action contains is just those two adjustment layers to get you started. You still manually paint with white wherever you want to reveal those adjustment layers, but at least the initial work is done for you. This is only one example (we’ll read how to record an action later). Let’s explore some other ways of automating our work. 

Shortcuts

I’m a big fan of using keyboard shortcuts, mostly because I’m lazy (some might say efficient). Some people have a hard time remembering keyboard shortcuts, so they don’t use them. A great place to start are the shortcuts for activating tools: Rather than clicking on a tool in the Toolbar, you can activate that tool by simply tapping one letter on your keyboard. You don’t have to remember any crazy combination of keys; it’s just a single letter. Many of them are very logical, such as M for marquee, C for crop, T for type, and B for the brush, while others are a bit more of a stretch, such as W for the Object Selection tool or V for the Move tool. 

Generally speaking, you can implement these fairly quickly because again, you’re not memorizing combinations of keys, just a single letter. When you think about how much time you could save by not having to move your mouse back-and-forth from the Toolbar to your image, you’ll soon realize that this is a great place to start when it comes to automating through keyboard shortcuts. 

  • Hint #1: Hover over a tool in the Toolbar to see its single-letter shortcut. 
  • Hint #2: Press Shift plus a tool’s shortcut letter to toggle through tools that share the same slot in the Toolbar. 

More Keyboard Shortcuts 

Although these aren’t for tools, here are more single-tap shortcuts that are great timesavers:

  1. Tap D to reset the Foreground and Background colors to their defaults of black and white, respectively. 
  2. Tap X to swap Foreground and Background colors. 
  3. Tap Q to enter Quick Mask mode (tap Q again to return to regular view). 
  4. With the Brush tool active, tap the Right Bracket key (]) to make the brush size bigger and the Left Bracket key ([) to make the brush smaller. 
  5. In Photoshop 2020, press the Left and Right Arrow keys to rotate the current brush. 
  6. With the Move tool active, tap a number to change the Opacity of the current layer; for example, 5 for 50%, 2 for 20%, etc. Tap 0 for 100%. 
  7. With a painting tool active, tap a number to change the Opacity of the current tool in the Options Bar. 

One reason people have a hard time remembering keyboard shortcuts is that sometimes they don’t make logical sense. Also, there may be functions in Photoshop that you wish had a shortcut but don’t. In both of these cases, you have the option to create your own custom keyboard shortcuts. It’s a lot easier to remember a keyboard shortcut if you (rather than some at Adobe) created it. 

For example, there’s no keyboard shortcut to add a layer mask, which is something many of us do often. If you think there should be a keyboard shortcut for that command, go to the Edit menu and choose Keyboard Shortcuts. Make sure the Shortcuts For drop-down menu is set to Application Menus, and then expand Layer in the Application Menu Command section. Scroll down until you find Add Layer Mask, click on Reveal All, and then press the shortcut you want to use. 

Chances are that the shortcut you choose is already in use by some other function, so you’ll have to decide if you want to reassign this shortcut. So, in this example, I want the keyboard shortcut for Add Layer Mask to be Command-Shift-M (PC: Ctrl-Shift-M); but, Photoshop warns me that this shortcut is already in use by something called Record Measurements. Now, I know I’m never going to use this command, so I’m perfectly fine with reallocating this shortcut for Add Layer Mask. From now on, if I want to add a layer mask, all I need to do is press this shortcut, and I’m off to the races. And, like many things in Photoshop, once you create a shortcut, it will stay active until you reset to the default shortcuts. As a bonus, look under Layer>Layer Mask in the menus and you’ll see your new shortcut now appears next to Reveal All. 

Shortcut Suggestions 

Much like the example of the Record Measurements shortcut above, there are a bunch of other shortcuts that could easily be reassigned, because they’re currently attached to functions that the average Photoshop user probably never uses, for example: 

  1. Auto Tone: Shift-Command-L (PC: Shift-Ctrl-L) 
  2. Auto Contrast: Option-Shift-Command-L (PC: Alt-Shift-Ctrl-L) 
  3. Auto Color: Shift-Command-B (PC: Shift-Ctrl-B) 
  4. Print One Copy: Option-Shift-Command-P (PC: Alt-Shift-Ctrl-P) 

Here’s a secondary list of commands that I rarely use, so I’d consider reassigning these shortcuts, as well: 

  1. Liquify: Shift-Command-X (PC: Shift-Ctrl-X) 
  2. Save for Web (Legacy): Option-Shift-Command-S (PC: Alt-Shift-Ctrl-S)
  3. File Info: Option-Shift-Command-I (PC: Alt-Shift-Ctrl-I) 
  4. Color Balance: Command-B (PC: Ctrl-B) 
  5. Vanishing Point: Option-Command-V (PC: Alt-Ctrl-V) 
  6. Close and Go to Bridge: Shift-Command-W (PC: Shift-Ctrl-W) 

Disclaimer: Of course you need to evaluate which commands you do or don’t use; the above are just suggestions. 

CC Libraries 

Whether you only work in Photoshop or use other Creative Cloud apps as well, CC Libraries can be a great timesaver. A library can store colors (individual and color themes), layer styles, brushes, gradients, character and paragraph styles, graphics (including shapes and smart objects), Adobe Stock downloads, and more. You can create multiple libraries, the contents of which are accessible not only within Photoshop but also any Creative Cloud app, such as: After Effects, Animate, Bridge, Dreamweaver, Adobe Fresco, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere Pro, and Adobe XD. 

Using a library is simple: To add content to a library, you can either drag from a document into the Libraries panel (Window>Libraries) or click the Add Content (plus) icon at the bottom of the Libraries panel. Clicking on this icon will reveal options that vary depending on the content of a layer, but typically will offer the option to add the Foreground color, Graphic, Layer Style, Fill and Strike Colors, and more. 

Consider dragging in your logo, commonly used text, your corporate colors (or your clients’ colors), your favorite drop shadow; anything you use often and don’t want to have to go looking for or re-create. To use content from a library in a document, drag-and-drop graphics from the Libraries panel into the document; or, in the case of colors, gradients, layer styles etc., single-click on the library content to update your current layer or Foreground color. 

Presets 

There are lots of opportunities to create and take advantage of presets, including brushes, gradients, patterns, shapes, tools, layer styles, swatches, adjustment layers, new documents, and some filters. (Although technically they’re not considered presets, you could easily add character and paragraph styles into the mix.) Creating and using presets can be a valuable timesaver, because they do the work for you. 

It’s also important to remember that, in many cases, a preset is just a starting point. In other words, you don’t have to click on a preset and live with the results; you can always tweak the settings. Remember the starter action discussed earlier that added two adjustment layers? The same principle applies to adjustment layer presets: Create presets that are good starting points and you can tweak the settings on an image-by-image basis. It’s still faster compared to the alternative of starting from scratch. 

In this example, after I adjusted the Curves adjustment layer, I clicked on the flyout menu at the top right of the panel, and selected Save Curves Preset. I gave it a name and clicked Save. The preset now appears in the Preset drop-down menu in the Properties panel. For creating other types of presets, look for options to save presets in drop-down menus, flyout menus, and buttons in panels and dialogs. 

Built-in Automation 

Photoshop has some automated commands that are available from the File menu under Automate and Scripts. The advantage of these commands is that they’re already built and can be run as is. The options under Automate include the following: 

Crop and Straighten Photos: After scanning in or photographing multiple photos in one document, use this command to automatically straighten and separate the photos into individual documents. 

Contact Sheet II: Generate contact sheets from individual files, a folder, or selected files using settings such as how many columns and rows of thumbnails you want. (Note: Bridge has an Output module that offers even more control with the option to drag-and-drop images into a layout, and a full preview.) 

Conditional Mode Change: Designed to be part of an action, this dialog lets you add an if/then approach; for example, if the file is in RGB then change it to CMYK; otherwise, don’t change it. 

Fit Image: Again, often used in an action to constrain the longest measurement of an image to a specific size. 

Lens Correction: A Batch process to apply lens correction to multiple images. 

Merge to HDR Pro: Use this to choose two or more images from a set of exposures to merge and create a high dynamic range image. (Camera Raw offers this option with RAW files.) 

Photomerge: Select multiple images to merge and create a panoramic image. (Camera Raw offers this option with RAW files.) 

The Scripts menu offers these choices: 

Image Processor: A batch command to convert file formats, for example, PSD files into JPEG or TIFF files. (Bridge also offers access to the same automation with the advantage of visually choosing your images.) 

Delete All Empty Layers: As the name says, this script will delete all layers that are empty, which is useful to make a more compact Layers panel. 

Flatten All Layer Effects: This script will make all layer effects (Drop Shadow, Stroke, etc.) permanent (and no longer editable). As a proponent of working nondestructively, I’d suggest using this with great caution (or as a last resort). 

Flatten All Masks: Same story here as the previous command: this will apply (and remove) all the masks in your document. Do you really want to do that?

Script Events Manager: An interesting idea that lets you add a script that in effect says, “Every time you do X, make Y happen.” For example, you could add a script that says every time you open a document, convert it to a smart object. Sounds like it could be a good idea, but in reality it may not be. Think of this as, “Every single time, without exception,” and you can start to see how this could become more trouble than help. In some circumstances this could be useful, as long as you remember to turn it off when you’re done! 

Load Files into Stack: Used to combine two or more images into something called an image stack, where each image is on its own layer in the same document. Typically, this is used when you have several images taken at the same location and you want to use stack-based commands to remove information. 

Load Multiple DICOM Files: Designed for the medical industry, this converts frames from DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine) files into layers and loads them into Photoshop. 

Statistics: Automatically load images into a stack and apply a Stack Mode (mathematically based functions that can be used for things such as noise reduction or removal of unwanted content). 

Browse: Use this option to look for scripts you’ve downloaded onto your computer. 

Bridge Automation 

As mentioned, several of the options found under either File>Automate or File>Scripts can also be accessed from within Bridge. One of the advantages of accessing these commands in Bridge is that you can visually choose the documents with which you want to work, as opposed to deciding based on just filenames. And in some automations, accessing them from Photoshop would mean they’d apply to every document in a folder, so if you wanted to only work with select documents, Bridge offers more control. 

Let’s say, for example, you’ve saved a series of layered PSD files into the same folder as the original JPEG files, and wanted to create flattened TIFF copies from just the PSDs. In Bridge, you could select just the PSD files (made even easier using the Filter panel) and then run Image Processor (Tools>Photoshop>Image Processor). In the resulting dialog, choose a destination (you can choose Save in Same Location because a new folder will be created to contain the resulting images), and the File Type (JPEG, PSD, or TIFF). If you want to resize the files, enter the max dimension that you want for the longest side; for example, entering 900 px for both width and height would result in landscape-orientation photos being 900-px wide and portrait-orientation photos being 900-px high. There’s also an option to run an action and add copyright information. 

Actions 

The concept of an action is simple: Record one or more operations in Photoshop that you can then play anytime you need those operations performed on an image—automatically. Many people get “scared off” from using actions because they assume an action is only meant for multi-step, complicated operations. And while actions can perform some pretty complex operations, they can also save you time and effort in some pretty simple ways. 

We saw one example earlier with the “starter actions.” Think of something you do all the time in Photoshop that takes more than one click. Wouldn’t it be nice to achieve that end result with only one click? Here’s an example: horizontally and vertically centering a layer in a document. 

Say we have a simple document with one type layer, and we want to center the type horizontally and vertically relative to the page. To do that manually, we’d have to click on the Select menu and choose All, switch to the Move tool (V), and then go to the Options Bar and click on the Align Vertical Centers and Align Horizontal Centers icons: a total of five clicks. Instead, let’s record this as an automated Action.

Step One: Make sure you have a separate layer in a document that contains some type of content and that the layer is active. For this kind of action, it’s important to have the layer already active before you start recording. 

Step Two: If the Actions panel isn’t visible, go to the Window menu and show the Actions panel. At the bottom of the panel, click the folder icon to create a set that will contain your actions. Give the set a name, and click OK. 

Step Three: Create a new action using either the flyout menu in the Actions panel or by clicking on the Create New Action icon at the bottom of the panel. Name it appropriately, make sure the Set you just created is selected, and if you want to assign a keyboard shortcut, choose a Function Key (F-key) shortcut. Then click the Record button to start recording (the record icon at the bottom of the panel will turn red to indicate that you’re recording). 

Every operation you do from now on will be recorded, but it’s important to note that it’s not recording how long you take to do things, so take your time and make sure you’re only choosing menu items and clicking on tools that you want recorded. 

Step Four: Press Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to Select All. Press V to activate the Move tool. In the Options Bar, click on the Align Vertical Centers and Align Horizontal Centers icons. Press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to Deselect. To stop recording, click on the small square to the left of the record button. 

You should now have an Action that looks like this. 

In any document from now on, if you want to center a layer, make sure the layer is active and then press the F-key you associated with the action. If you didn’t assign an F-key, click on the name of the action in the Actions panel, and then click the Play Selection icon at the bottom of the panel. 

An important note about working with actions: Actions record exactly what you tell them to, so if you click on a layer called Layer 1, then the Action will record “click on the layer called Layer 1.” If you try to run this action on a different document, it won’t work unless there’s a layer called Layer 1. (That’s why, in Step One above, we made sure the layer was active before we started recording.) If you do need to select a layer, use these keyboard shortcuts to activate a layer: Press Option-] (PC: Alt-]) to select the next layer above in the stack and press Option-[ (PC: Alt-[) to select the next layer down in the stack. 

Interrupting an Action 

Although, for the most part, actions are intended to run automatically, it’s possible (and often useful) to run an action that requires interaction. For example, when you record a filter as part of an action, the filter settings are recorded, meaning that each time you run the action, the filter will be applied with those exact settings. But what if you want to tweak the filter settings? 

This time, we recorded a simple action that converts a layer to a smart object, applies a Gaussian Blur, lowers the Opacity of the Gaussian Blur filter, and adds a Drop Shadow layer style. Each time we run that action, it will blur the same amount. Since it’s a smart filter, we can always go back and edit the settings, but it’s also possible to interact with the action and choose the filter settings “on the fly.” 

After you’ve finished recording the action, take a look in the Actions panel and you’ll see empty boxes to the left of each step. If you click on a box next to a step that has a dialog associated with it, a small icon appears. This will “pause” the action, open the dialog for that step, and wait for you to enter settings. Once you determine the settings and click OK, the rest of the action will play. You can easily toggle this pause on and off, choosing between running automatically with the recorded settings, or interrupting to enter your own settings. 

Batch Process 

Another advantage of creating an action is the ability to apply it to multiple files, either to the entire contents of a folder, or files you select. You can access the Batch command either from File>Automate>Batch, or in Bridge: Tools>Photoshop>Batch. In the resulting dialog, you choose the action you want to run, the source of the images, and the destination of the resulting files. I recommend that for safety, you always consider saving into a different after folder, to avoid the risk of overwriting the original files by mistake. There are additional settings to consider depending on the images with which you’re working and your action: 

Override Action “Open” Commands: Ignores any Open command in the action since you’re selecting files in the Batch command. 

Include All Subfolders: Do you want to include any folders inside your chosen folder? 

Suppress File Open Options Dialogs: Useful when batching actions on Camera Raw image files. 

Suppress Color Profile Warnings: Turns off display of color policy messages that would interrupt the action. 

Tip: Try running a batch process on one or two images before you attempt to run it with 100 images. 

Droplet 

Another form of batch processing is known as a Droplet, which creates an icon onto which you can drag a file or a folder, and the action will run automatically. To create a Droplet from an action, go to File>Automate>Create Droplet. The choices in the Droplet dialog mirror those of the Batch dialog, with the addition of the location in which you want to save your Droplet. 

Whether you dip your toe into the world of Photoshop automation by tapping a single key to select a tool, or go full force into batching actions, there are plenty of ways to save yourself time in Photoshop.