I started off with a RAW file converted though Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) ( Lightroom or Bridge. ) and brought it into PhotoShop as a 16 bit Smart Object in ProPhoto RGB. This means it can be edited later if I spot anything wrong with the RAW conversion further down the line. It also embeds the Raw file in the master editing file for safety and means that it can be reconverted using improved software, X number of years from now, when ACR is improved yet again.
This is typical of the sort of non destructive editing that many Power Users adopt. A Novice User may of course be editing a JEPG file directly ( Please don’t do that, some bloke on the Web called Ken Rockwell may believe that shooting RAW is a waste of time, but he also believes in alien abduction conspiracies, so enough said I think. )
Looking down the list of 56 actions at the top of the list were the Exposure actions. Fair enough, like most landscape workers, I expose my Raw files to the Right of the histogram to retain the maximum tonal information. This means my images come out of the camera a little on the bright side so the “Darken” action sounded just the ticket.
What appeared next was a dialogue box telling me to increase the opacity of the adjustment layer to get the desired effect. Right ho, Cancel the box, click the opacity box and move the slider to 25% that works well enough but hang on a moment, that was three clicks and a slide of the mouse... If I click the create adjustment layer button then click exposure and make the adjustment that’s just two clicks and a slide... Aren’t actions supposed to save time?
OK, maybe our Novice user wouldn’t know that. Let’s try something else. Below the exposure actions are a set called Base and one reassuringly labelled “Good Place To Start For Landscape” Hit the button and up pops a dialogue box saying “ Warning! This action will remove all layers, if you want to save your progress, please do so before you continue.” A bit worrying given what I said earlier but at this stage I’ve only got one layer so ”Why not” I thought.
Well the reason why not soon became apparent. Not only did the action make the picture brighter and burn the clouds out for some reason, it also flattened the smart object losing all the advantages mentioned above, not good. No explanation, no adjustability and not even a particularly pleasing result.
Looking at the action I can see it makes a Curve Adjustment layer with an inverted S curve then makes a Camera Raw filter adjustment which decreases the contrast further before flattening the image. Why?? Why not leave the layers intact so they can be adjusted? If you want to be tidy, why not just group them?
It’s a good job I know how the history palette works... Lets try another.. Ahh, Dramatic Contrast.
This time it doesn’t flatten the image and it does what it says on the tin.
It’s close to burning out the clouds so I’ll add a mask to the group it has created and draw a gradient down over the clouds to remove the contrast there. That’s better.
I think the sky needs to be darker so looking down the list I can see a “Sky Enhancer”
A dialogue pops up telling me to make sure the background layer is selected so I stop the action select the layer and try again. ( That could have been included in the action.) then another dialogue pop up telling me to paint in the effect with white on the mask. I do that with the gradient tool again and... Well that wasn’t what I was expecting.
OK, lets bin that and just drop a gradient over the sky in overlay blend mode to darken that down a bit. Not too bad.
So how does that compare to how I would normally edit things? Well the result on the right was achieved with three gradient layers and a curves adjustment. With the actions I made to help it was just 6 clicks and 2 slides of the mouse. Doing it the long way without actions takes 13 clicks and 5 slides. I tend to be ruthlessly efficient with my editing so these actions have quite a job to compete with that.
Putting my “Novice User” hat on I would definitely like some better instructions that give me some idea of what the actions are supposed to actually achieve. The names alone are certainly not intuitive enough for me let alone a relative novice.
Let’s try something else then. Moving down the list we find Autumn Colours.
This one preserves the layers again which is good and shifts the greens hues towards reds, oranges and yellows as you would expect. It’s fast and effective but a bit strong at full power. Fortunately it groups the layers so you can reduce the opacity of the whole group. This was set to 70%
Below that is an action labelled “Retro”. This is more subtle, looking slightly more film like which I guess makes me “Retro” for remembering what that looks like.
Above those is one labelled “Clarity” which seems to add micro contrast but counter that by flattening the tonality a bit. Interesting.
This probably isn’t the type of picture that the “Dark and Stormy” action was designed for but it produces a cooler tone which could be useful.
My own edit was four gradient layers, three requiring masks so was quickly left behind by the speed of the actions this time.
Well what do I think?
Designing actions for other people to use must be something like shooting bats in the dark with a pop gun. ( Not that I would ever try that of course. ) Everyone uses PhotoShop differently, everyone takes pictures differently and everyone wants different results.
While many of the actions do preserve the existing layer structure of the image some do not, while others create new layers in odd places and then group the wrong layers together leaving utter confusion in their wake.
Others failed or stopped half way through when they met layer types, positions or modes they were not expecting.
Would I use all of these actions? Probably not but some are interesting and there are others that I might have a look at editing to make a bit more useful to my workflow.
What I look for in an action is something that will set up tools I use regularly. For example, I use gradient layers a lot for dodging and burning so I built a simple action that creates a layer, sets it to the right blend mode, prepares it for masking, gives it a name for reference and then selects the right tool and gradient for me to apply. It triggers from a hot key and saves me 24 key strokes or mouse actions every time I use it. Given that a typical image has three of four gradient layers in it, that sort of action saves me a lot of time on every image.
Who are these actions for? I’m still not really sure about that.
A Power user will probably want to stick with known solutions that produce predictable results. There is not enough information provided with these actions to satisfy such users and anything that actually disrupts their existing workflow or destroys layer and smart objects would be treated with extreme suspicion.
For the Novice user the same lack of information should be the first concern. It seems that the user is supposed to just try actions out and see whether they work or not. This suck it and see approach may suit some but it does not promote real learning. If something works then most people want to know how or why it works so they can get repeatable, predictable results in the future.
An intermediate user might perhaps decide to unpick the actions by using them step by step, with the history or actions palettes. This would allow them to determine how an effect was created. This might actually be a good way to learn about tools they have not tried before or even how to write or edit their own actions.
I had hoped these actions would turn out to be tools that would make my workflow faster or easier, instead they seem to be designed as one click filters that may or may not work for you, depending on your pictures, working methods and expectations.
There is an old saying; If you give a man a fish you will feed him for a day, if you give him a fishing net you will feed him for life. For some these actions may indeed be good fish but others may wish they had actually been fishing nets.