Everyday Actions for Photoshop, Part 2

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The first part of Everyday Actions in Photoshop showed how to create a very simple action to add a Drop Shadow style to a subject, and then separate the shadow and move it to its own layer so you can modify the shadow in ways a Layer Style won’t let you. In Part 2, you’ll continue building on the action, and test it before you start using it in your normal workflow.

Make the Shadow Layer Active

Using Create Layer to place a drop shadow on its own layer was easy, but it didn’t make that the active layer (which it has to be before you can modify it). To modify an action after you’ve stopped recording, set up your file so you’re ready to perform the next step, in the Actions panel click on the step that immediately precedes the one you want to add, then click on the Begin recording icon.

For this action, press Alt/Option plus the left bracket  [  key to highlight the shadow layer below the currently active layer.  (You can highlight a layer immediately above a currently active layer by using the right bracket  ]  key.) Using keyboard navigation gets around recording the name of the layer in the action, which clicking on the layer does. If you include the name of a layer, actions expect to find that precise name before performing the step, and if you named a layer “shadow” or let Photoshop name it, the name might not always work with your active document.

After right-clicking on the layer’s fx icon and choosing Create Layer from the Layer Effects pop-up menu, the drop shadow is on its own layer, but the original image layer is still targeted.

The action and Layers panel after adding a generic drop shadow, running the Create Layer command, and using Alt/Option + [ to step backwards and target the shadow layer

Adding a Layer Mask

You’ve saved a few steps now, but you’ll also often want to add a layer mask so you can non-destructively modify the shadow—for example, to use a gradient mask to fade it realistically. So click the Add layer mask icon; if you don’t need it with every file, don't worry since having it there won’t do any harm.

You’ll also frequently want to distort the shadow—perhaps to make it fall across the ground. Not everything with a shadow stands directly in front of a wall. However, you can’t choose Edit > Free Transform in an action and then not commit the transformation—Photoshop stops until you dismiss the Transform bounding box. So unless you now want to change the layer’s name and/or add a color label, your action has gone as far as you need and is ready for testing. Click the Stop playing/recording icon.

The Layers panel after adding a layer mask to the shadow layer 

Testing and Tweaking the Action

You might say this is so simple, why bother with testing? Most simple actions do work as expected, but sometimes they’ll surprise you. Better to test when you’re creating the action than when you’re trying to meet a deadline.  Return your file to its original state (or step back in History), then click on the first step in your action. You’re now going to manually run the action one step at a time by holding down the Ctrl/Cmd key and clicking on the Play button. If the results are correct, hold down the Ctrl/Cmd key and click on Play again. Keep doing this until you find a step that doesn’t work the way you want, or you reach the end. Also make sure that any step you’re going to manually perform next—whether painting, masking, filtering, or transforming—will still work as you expect it to.

After putting the file in a state ready to test, Ctrl/Cmd-click on each step to play it—optionally, set Playback Options (in the Actions panel menu) to pause between steps and be ready to hit the Stop playback button. The Step by Step option pauses for only one second. 

With this action, believe it or not, you’ll get a pop-up warning that you can’t use Free Transform (not that the warning will necessarily make any sense to most of us). You can certainly hand paint a shadow on its own layer, add a layer mask to it, then use Free Transform (try this yourself if you doubt it), so this is one of those troubleshooting moments that gives one pause. The best way to proceed is to find out, by stepping through the action again, just when the action you want to take becomes impossible—in this case, you could use Free Transform after Make Layer and Select Backward Layer had run, but not after adding the layer mask.

This cryptic message pops up when you attempt to invoke Free Transform with the layer mask or the image thumbnail is targeted

If you compare a file you make by hand with the file you ran the action on, you’ll notice there’s an icon on the shadow layer in the action file that isn’t in the manually created file. This icon informs you that there are Advanced Blending options in play. You won’t see the icon, either, on a layer to which you’ve added a Drop Shadow style. By comparing Drop Shadow effects settings (add the effect to an image, then double-click on the layer’s fx icon) to the Advanced Blending settings you have in your action file (double-click on the layer’s advanced blending icon), you’ll see that Transparency Shapes Layer has been turned off after running Create Layer. Turn it back on and you’ll be able to use Free Transform. Step back in History to record the steps where you brought up the Blending Options and enabled Transparency Shapes Layer, then click on Stop recording.

Advanced Blending options for a layer with a layer style applied to it can be different from the Advanced Blending options on a layer created from that style with the Create Layer command.

The last steps of the action add a layer mask and re-enable Transparency Shapes Layer so you can transform the shadow.

Adding Finishing Touches

To finish this example, use Transform with Perspective, Distort and Warp to shape the shadow. Change the shadow layer’s Fill opacity and Blending mode to taste, and create a gradient mask to make the shadow more transparent the further away it gets from the subject. Finally, you can paint on both the mask and shadow, and use other Photoshop features, such as Liquify and Lighting Effects, to bring elements together.

After running the action in a second, it doesn’t take much more time to use Free Transform to set the shadow on the ground and add a gradient layer mask to create the illusion of distance. 

The Power of Actions

You might say after all this that by the time you got your “simple” action written and working, you could have performed all the steps ten times in a row without thinking! True, but remember, we’re talking about basic actions you’ll use more than ten times in your career, and you can even add a shortcut for playback (click on the action’s name and choose Action Options from the panel menu). Once you start harnessing the power of everyday actions, you’ll never want to do everything one step at a time, no matter how easy the steps are.

A simple action can provide a quick and fuss-free start to compositing an image. 

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