Understanding Actions in Photoshop: Complete Guide

A detailed tutorial to show how to use Photoshop Actions and the options available under Actions panel. It covers everything you need to know about Actions.

Photoshop’s Actions panel is certainly one of it’s most useful functions. There are lots of important options in Actions Panel that many Photoshop users don’t know. This tutorial will take you through each option of the Actions panel with a detailed explanation of its working and how can we take advantage of it while working in Photoshop, so, let’s get started.

What is an Action in Photoshop?


An Action is a series of prerecorded commands that performs a certain task on playback.
Most of the time we have to go through a long process while creating some advance design or effect. Advantage of using actions is that we don’t need to go through the same process again and again, once we have it recorded as an Action.

The Actions Panel / Palette.

The Action panel or palette can be accessed through Window > Actions or simply by pressing the Alt + F9 (or just F9) hotkey. In Actions panel, we already have some actions available under Default Actions set.

What is a Set in Photoshop Actions?


A Set is to an action is what a folder to a file. We can organize our actions by making use of sets.
You can create a separate set by clicking on Create new set button. It will pop up a New Set dialog asking for the name. Enter the name that you want for your set and click OK to close the dialog.

Tip: Alt + Click the Create new set button to avoid pop up. It will create the Set with default name Set 1 without giving any pop up.

Creating an Action in Photoshop.


Select the set and click on the Create new action button. This will bring up the New Action pop up dialog.

  • Under Name field, you can give a name to your action.
  • In Set dropdown list, you can choose the set for your action.
  • Function key lets you assign a hotkey for the action so that you can run your action just by pressing a hotkey assigned to it.
  • Color drop down allows you to assign different colors to your actions. The colors will appear in the Button mode.

Recording the Action in Photoshop


Here, I have an image and I want to adjust its saturation to some lower value. Our recorded action should be:
Hue / Saturation dialog (Ctrl + U) » Saturation value: -50; I am using very short and simple action so that it would be easy to understand.

Click on the Record button (New Action dialog) to start the recording. Now, whatever you do will be recorded. You can stop the recording by pressing Esc key or clicking the Stop button (present at the bottom of Actions Panel) when you are done. Now, you can check your action by pressing the Play button.

Toggling Dialogs in an Action


We can toggle the dialogs on / off within the action by making use of modal controls. (See image)
If you run any action with modal control enabled then it pops up the dialog based commands (such as Hue / Saturation, Color Balance etc.) on playback and lets you enter new values other than the recorded ones.

Skipping or Excluding the steps from an Action.


You can easily exclude any recorded step from an action by clicking the tick icon. The red check mark indicates that one or more steps have been excluded within the set or an action.

Actions panel: Button Mode


Button mode displays all the actions in the form of button with their respective colors.

  • New Action… creates allows you to record a new action.
  • New Set… creates a new set.
  • Duplicate option creates a duplicate copy of an action.
  • You can delete the selected Set, Action or any step in between the action using Delete option.
  • Play option executes the selected Action on the active Photoshop document.
  • Start / Stop Recording option starts / stops the recording for the selected action.

Action Panel: Record Again…


Record Again… option allows you to re-record any step so that you can override the previous value with the new one in case you have entered a wrong input of values during recording.
To override the recorded value with new one, just select the step that you want to record again. Now, select the Record Again… option from the flyout menu or just double click on the selected step. It will pop up the dialog where you can enter the new values.

In the given image, I override the new Hue / Saturation adjustment values with the old ones.

Action Panel: Insert Menu Item…


There are many menu items or commands that do not record during the recording of the action such as Snap or Grid toggle. Insert Menu Item… lets you include these menu items in our Action.

To insert a menu item into the action, start recording an action first then, click on top-right corner of the Actions panel and select Insert Menu Item… option from the flyout menu. It will pop up the Insert Menu Item dialog saying, None Selected. Now, go to any menu and select an option that is not normally recordable. In this case I am using View > Snap. The selected menu item will display on the Insert Menu Item dialog. Click OK to close the dialog and notice we have Snap option included in our action.

Action Panel: Insert Stop


The Stop function is used to make an action stop at certain point or step. The action will automatically stop playing after reaching the stop and we have to play it again by pressing Play button.
You can use Stop function if you want the user to perform a manual task that can’t be done automatically by the actions. You can insert the stop anywhere within the action.

To insert a Stop, first select the step after which you want your action to stop then select the Insert Stop… option from the fly out menu. It will pop up the Insert Stop dialog where you can put your message or instructions for user to follow.

Stop with Allow Continue option enabled lets users bypass the stop step and continue the action playback.

How to use “Insert Stop” option in Photoshop?


Here, I have some text on the canvas and I have an action recorded that blurs the selection. I need to blur the text, highlighted in red. Now, in this case I need to insert a stop in between the action so that we can select the pixels that we want to blur. (See image)

Actions Panel: Insert Path

How to record Paths in Photoshop Actions?


Paths are one of those elements that can’t be recorded normally like other options and commands. Insert Path option lets you to record the paths while recording an action.

To record a path, start recording an action first, then create a path using Pen tool. After that, click on the Top-Right corner of the Actions panel and select Insert Path option from the flyout menu. Now, stop the recording and play the action to check the result.

Actions Panel: Playback options


  • Accelerated (Default): It quickly plays the action over a file without updating the screen.
  • Step by Step: It plays the action step by step and updates the screen before going to the next step. It’s not as fast as the Accelerated option as it has to redraw the screen after every step.
  • Pause For: This option allows you to specify the time (in seconds) that your action will take before going to the next step.

Actions Panel: Allow Tool Recording

How to record Brush tool in Photoshop Actions?


This is one of the most common questions asked by many Photoshop Users as Photoshop actions do not record many tools like Brush, Eraser etc. Allow Tool Recording option is a new feature in Photoshop CS6 that allows you to record tools. All you need to do is just enable the “Allow Tool Recording” option from the flyout menu. Now, you can record Brush or any tool that has similar parameters as the Brush tool (Erase, Pencil, Healing Brush tool etc.)

How to record Brush tool in Photoshop earlier versions?

Unfortunately, this option is not available for earlier versions of Photoshop but still there is a way that can be used to record Brush tool in other previous versions.


You have to follow these simple steps in recording mode of your action. I am using Photoshop CS3 version to demonstrate the trick:

  1. Create a path using Pen tool (P). Click on top-right corner of the Actions panel and select Insert Path option from the flyout menu to register the path in the action.
  2. Right click anywhere on the canvas and select Stroke Path… option from the pop up menu. Inside the Stroke Path dialog, select the Brush tool from the dropdown list. Click OK button when you are done.
  3. Now, we have the Brush stroke applied to the path with its current settings. Right click once again and select Delete Path from the pop up menu to delete the path. Press Esc button to stop the recording. Test the action by playing it on a new document.

Actions Panel: Saving, Loading and Replacing actions.

There are few more options available inside flyout menu that can be used to perform different tasks.

  • Clear All Actions clears all the actions (including default actions) from the Actions panel.
  • Reset Actions resets / restores the Actions panel to its default state.
  • Load Actions lets you load the saved action files in the Actions panel.
  • Save Actions… allows you to save the whole set of actions.

I hope you find this information useful and learned something new from it. Feel free to share your queries and confusions through comment section or via email.