Photoshop Top 40, Feature #30: Actions

Actions are Photoshop’s oldest and most essential form of automation. Simply put, an action is a recorded sequence of events. Which is pretty wild when you think about it. You click the record button, work your way through a series of oft-repeated steps, and then click stop. From that point on, the Actions palette can play back exactly what you did at breakneck speed, several times faster than you could ever hope to repeat the steps yourself. Test the action to make sure it works and it may serve you well for years to come, from one version of Photoshop to the next. As I’m fond of saying, invest an hour or two in actions now and your future self--lying on a beach while Photoshop works away as your obedient digital slave--will thank you.

In this video, we'll build up a complex visual effect, one that you can easily share with others. And honestly, I think you'll be blown away. This action generates a synthetic water effect that works against any background. And it's available to you right here for free:

  • Just right-click on this link: the action set Water_droplets.atn. And choose Save or Download.
  • Inside Photoshop, choose Load Actions from the Actions palette flyout menu.
  • (new step!) Rename the action set "Water droplets," with a space instead of an underscore.

This set includes the action I record in the video, Basic Droplet Steps, as well as a more elaborate action called Water on Image, which integrates a third action called Subroutine. Enjoy.

The base photograph comes to us from Glue Stock of image vendor Fotolia. Click this link for a special deal.

(For a list of all Photoshop Top 40 videos thus far, click this link.)

Incidentally, Photoshop Top 40 is now available as a downloadable podcast from iTunes. Click here to subscribe. dekePod subscribers will get the videos automatically.

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An Automation Question For Deke

I don't know how actively this site is maintained these days (the last few comments have had a distinct odour of spammishness and real comments are few and far between, with responses even more sparse) but I'll ask this anyway on the off chance.

Javascript vs Actions. Here's the thing; I had been vaguely aware of Javascript in relation to Photoshop for a while but had never really followed up on it. I first encountered St Dekester on the Total Training CS2 course (hence the screen handle). You moved to Lynda, I was still subscribed to TT. I followed you to Lynda once my TT subscription expired (you being the reason I moved) but by that time I was on CS3 so the course CS2 Actions and Automation ( ) slipped through the gaps for me. By the time I merged onto the Lynda Highway that one was in my rear vision mirror.

I got screwed over by an action last week that cost me about half an hour's work. (That stupid, stupid "feature" that brings a "save as" action to a screaming halt if an image has alpha channels, prompting you to "save as copy" instead of doing what I told it to do which is just save it as a jpg. Thus, instead of Filename.jpg you still have Filename.psd open, and you had better remember to say "NO don't save it!!!" before it closes. I missed that one, hit [Enter] one too many times, and the .psd re-saved having been stripped of all layers and shrunk down to web posting size. Thanks for that Adobe.)

So I wondered if JavaScript might be a way around actions' limitations and make it easier to do things like just type a font name when creating a new text layer and assign that font name to a property, just like sane object models allow you to do.

No such luck; as the scriptlistener code shows these values are apparently set by arcane and cryptic, ill documented codes. Even doing something as simple as saving can be a problem as you have to escape (double) the backslashes between directories, which makes it harder to just do a simple, straightforward script to "save as". At that point I started to have doubts about the value of Javascript.

The question: That CS2 course, 12 years old now, is still out there. There doesn't seem to have been a follow up to it despite a lot of things having changed (like the three ring circus you now have to go through just to get the Scriptlistener). As far as I can see you've never mentioned Javascript as an option in any of your CC courses and doing a search on this site, it seems that Javascript hasn't been mentioned since 2010, 7 years ago.

So... are we to take this as a sign that you have come to the conclusion that Javascript is more trouble than it's worth as an automation tool for PS, or do you believe it's still a worthwhile pursuit? More to the point... do you yourself still use it?

So after 8 long years...

I agree with Deke's assessment that actions can, potentially, save you a heap of time. Just not as much as they should. And I try to like actions, I really do. But good lord Adobe makes it hard, having barely done any development work on the things in the last couple of decades. Yes, finally, oh finally we have some kinda-sorta facsimile of conditional branching. You can branch to two different other actions if, say, layers are present. You CANNOT branch if (say) a SPECIFIC, NAMED layer is present.

Want to change the date in your watermark? You have to re-record part of the action. And hopefully the re-recording won't pick up a whole bunch of other values and settings that the recording hoovers up like a gigantic garbage compactor (and which you can't individually delete), along with the change of 4 characters. What I want to do? JUST EDIT THE TEXT. Just edit the font. Just edit the font size. Right there, in the properties, the way I can with pretty much any half decent scripting language, HTML, you name it. I thought it may be possible to just go in and hack the file, that maybe it was just XML or some such but no, binary. Thanks Adobe, love your work.

Yes, I can branch conditionally based on whether it's landscape or portrait now. But not on pixel size, what with panoramas needing to be handled in a somewhat different manner to your common or garden landscape.

I swear, the limitations of actions irritate the living pixels out of me.

So despite some improvements, I would agree that they STILL would not rate any higher than 30 even after this many years since this video was made.

Where does the action go?

Was it too much trouble to tell us this? I read comments from users until finding another iMac user who says to put it in our Pre-set Actions folder. But I don't have one, and there's no clue where it should be if I did have one. I continued my own sleuthing (like other users, none of whom PASSED ON all that they learned) and found that I have a Presets\Actions folder inside the Photoshop CS4 application. But that's a dumb place to put an action, since it will disappear when I upgrade Photoshop. (Won't it?) Photoshop help is also useless, so I went to Yahoo and searched for "Photoshop actions directory". I found a lot of useless links, and one that told me I could put actions anywhere I wanted. But that's dumb, too. I should put in somewhere I'll remember next time, and there really should be a standard place. But where? It seems I'm supposed to guess. One criteria I'll set for myself, if there's that much latitude, is NOT to put it in a system directory that Spotlight ignores. So I'll put it in a Documents\Photoshop/Actions directory. I fully expect that Photoshop will NOT find it there FOR me, but at least I'll know where it is. So I try doing it that way. The Actions palette is no help, since it shows me no way to load an action from wherever it lies. I also see, immediately, that there are already Custom actions on the palette.. but where are they on the disk? No clue. Not in the package directory already mentioned, and not in the Application Support folder mentioned 2 paragraphs on, either. Next I note (from the Yahoo search) that there's a "Load Action" button on the palette. It opens an Actions directory... which is EMPTY. There are, indisputably, actions on the disk. But not in that directory. That is SO helpful. The Mac, being the so-nice OS that it is, also refuses to tell me where this Actions directory is, no matter which view of it I choose. But the directory exists, and THIS is where I really should put actions... but that's impossible, since the folder can't be found. But I happen to have an app called FindAnyFile. When I search for Actions, it finds 17 files. One of them is Users\my user name\Library\Application Support\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop CS4\Presets\Actions. THAT, apparently, is where user actions should go. But the Custom actions are not there. So where are they? FindAnyFile finds one folder called "custom" (small c), but that can't be it. It's in an absurd location, and the action that should be there (Resize 600W) isn't. So... resigned to never knowing where Custom actions are stored... I'm back to plan A, using my Documents directory. And now, with Load Actions, I succeed in loading the action. Great. Did I really have to figure out all this myself? Bobby

You're making it too complicated

Hey, Bobby. Belie' you me, if you had to go to all that effort, I would have mentioned it.

Happily, you don't. Put the Water_Droplets.atn file anyplace you like.

In Photoshop, go to the Actions palette (Window > Actions). Choose Load Actions from the palette's flyout menu. Locate the Water_Droplets.atn file, wherever you put it. Click on it. Click the Load button.

As stonjie mentioned below (thanks!), you'll need to rename the set Water Droplets (with a space instead of an underscore) for the Subroutine to work.

You really know your

You really know your stuff... Keep up the good work!
drum clamp

Some errors in the action

Deke, The action (downloaded 9/26/09 at 10:00am CST) has some errors running under CS3. 1. The set is named "Water_droplets" with an underscore, but the action plays "Subroutine" of set "Water droplets", no underscore. So it errors out trying to play the subroutine. 2. The step "Make new layer name 'Offset texture' using selection with copy" creates a blank transparent layer, which cannot be transformed in the next step. Maybe a CS3 vs CS4 thing? I can't find any layer command in CS3 that creates an action step like that. But if I replace it with a simple "Layer via copy" it works OK. 3. You rename the Background layer to "Original Image." Not a good idea. Subsequent actions, including your own, may depend on the Background layer being named "Background". If I run "Water on image", don't like the result, delete the layers and run it again, it fails because it can't find a layer named Background.

Error fix

Once you have downloaded the atn file, rename it and remove the underscore.
Then load it in photoshop.

I double clicked on it, and that launched pscs3 and loaded it. then save the action in the action palette drop down box, which will put it in the correct folder.

the underscore is necessary for distribution on the web.

Where to put .atn file.

On my Vista machine I had to put Deke's action file in an imbedded folder for it to show up and work. The file works when it is placed in: C:\Users\user name\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop CS4\Presets\Actions The AppData file is a hidden file so folder options must be set to show it: Control Panel> Folder Options> View tab> Show hidden files and folders (select radio button) The actions file doesn't have an installer and there may be a way to load it into Photoshop, but I know if placed in the folder (above) that it works. If you simply put the action in: C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop CS4\Presets\Actions, the action didn't show up for me following the instructions in the video. Perhaps this is information some folks need to get this to work. My final result came out really well. I was impressed with both Deke and myself!

Water Droplet Action

Hi Deke.....Thanks for all that you contribute to us Photoshoppers. I'm having a problem with playing this water droplet action on a selection. Can you help? Thanks, Jim

Water Droplets Action

I love everything you do and recommend you to everyone that would have any interest. Now that we have the good stuff over I don't seem to be able to get the action you have posted to download. What I do get is a file that says Water_droplets.atn.txt which is nothing more than a text file not the action. I have clicked on it, double clicked on it and right clicked on it. What's left? What am I doing wrong? Thank You, and next time the Martinis are on me. Rick P.S. I really do have your all of your One-on-One books on Photoshop and InDesign from CS through the present.

Downloading Water Droplets Action

pergifts: same thing happened to me, using CS4 & an iMac. I right-clicked the action hyperlink, went to "Save Linked File to the Desktop" & ended up with a file on the desktop that appears as a Mac TextEdit file and that says "Water_droplets.atn.txt". After doing this many times, I finally clicked on the title of that file, deleted the last four characters (".txt"), then clicked somewhere on the desktop. You will then get a dialogue box that says "Are you sure you want to change the extension from ".txt" to ".atn"?"; press the button that says "Use .atn". The downloaded file then changes into a Pshop Water_droplets.atn file, which you load into your Pre-set Actions folder. Restart Pshop (if it is on), go to actions and load the action. It works fine. Thanks, Deke, and keep up the great tutorials and manuals.

I changed the directions slightly

If you click you get text. You have to right-click and download to get the fully functioning ATN file. (Oiks, that was a late post.)

Again.... amazing!

Dude.... again..... amazing work in such little. The part I love is that you get to play with this little action file and still learn some more!!!! LOVE IT! Thanks Deke.


Hello Deke! Thanks as Always for the Magical Videos As you said in a previous martini hour , Those selected episodes are based on your personal experience... My Question is are they also ranked based on the way you think they are useful? or in another word .. Does feature #1 is the most important feature inside photoshop? and #2 is less ? and #3 ? is less? like this? Or they are just randomly arranged? Thanks Boss for your effort Black Seals ... White Reveals...!

The rankings are very much on purpose

Feature #1 will be the most important feature inside Photoshop. And, yes, there is such a thing and I already have it mapped out. Can't tell you anymore or I'd have to kill you. I'd give a little ;-) but I'm serious, I'd have to kill you. ;-)

Very nice.

can't wait to start make'n actions of my own.

Cool water action!

Thanks so much Deke! You make my life so easy......