Before you start recording any actions, think about which processes you repeat the most. These are the settings that you will want to record for applying to most images. If it comes to a setting that you vary the amount on, record the action several times, each with different settings, and label them low, medium, and high, or 1-5. This way you can still have the action to save time, but will have flexibility. If you only do an adjustment on the occasional image, it may not be worth recording.
Actions panel, with actions button highlighted in red.
The actions panel should be located on the button that looks like a DVD player "play" button in the top right panel. Click it to pop it open. If you don't see the button, choose window up top, and click actions. You can then add it to any side panel by clicking and dragging it over the panel.
The first step is to record your new action, think of this as a VCR that's tracking all the adjustments you make. You can also create a new folder, say "sharpening" or whatever the actions will be, and record all the actions for that folder. This will help you access them quicker by providing a bit more structure.
Press the record button on the bottom of the panel, and perform all of your adjustments without saving. Then press stop, that's all it takes! You can now open any image you have, click the play button on the bottom of the action panel after selecting the action, and all of your adjustments are instantly applied! Even the most complex adjustments can be turned into a fast action.
If you want to have more control and make the action selective, record a new layer being created, perform the adjustments (sharpening, shadows/highlights,lab,etc...) then create a mask, and press stop. Now when you perform the action the image will be ready for you to paint in/out the areas you don't want the adjustment applied to. Very cool!
Action's are incredible to use, but they still require a strong knowledge of photoshop. If you don't want to learn photoshop, or simply want a pre-made quick solution, Nik Software makes a great program called Viveza 2, and several other filters that will make your workflow fast, efficient, and easy. These are not simply just actions, but instead have an entire panel that allows for selective adjustments on the image.
There are ton's of great and affordable plug-ins out there that will pay back their cost again and again with time-saving actions that you may not be able to perform on your own. Recording your own is a simple and easy solution for your most frequent basic adjustments that cost's nothing. I prefer a mix of both in my workflow.
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