The Keys to Great Photo Adjustments in Photoshop

These days, it seems like everyone and their grandmothers are taking pictures everywhere they go. A large percentage of those people are then posting them online or sharing them via email or multimedia messages. With all this image swapping going on, there’s an increasing interest in using software to edit photos so they look their “best” before being revealed to the world. I put “best” in quotes because I see mostly in-your-face, digital-looking effects thrown onto shots by amateurs. Now, you’re no amateur, and you also have Photoshop at your disposal. So I’m here to give you a few pointers and quick tutorials on how to quickly and effectively edit your photographs, while preserving your own creativity on a shot by shot basis in Photoshop.

Here's what we're looking to do.

Take Action(s)!

Ok, first things first. I want to go over how to create and call upon “Actions” within Photoshop. Actions are functions that PS records you as you’re performing them so that they can be called upon with a simple click or keystroke in the future. Why is it so important to utilize these? The way I see it, you can do a batch edit which runs the same processes upon opening a group of photos, but that can be limiting, as it’s the same edits for every photo. Creating a simple action will give you more flexibility, as you can choose to run it on particular photos within a set. Actions also show each function of the saved action being run in the History window, so you have the choice to leave certain processes out (and only use a section of an action). If this sounds confusing, know that it’s much simpler to understand in practice. And that’s just what we’re going to do now.

Basic Fixes

Follow along to create your first, simple action that auto-corrects the color, contrast, and tone of a photograph:

Step 1: Open a photograph that you’d like to edit. This will work best if you take something directly from a camera, in order to ensure that it hasn’t already had adjustments applied to it.

Step 2: Before we start creating our action, we need to make sure that the Action panel is displayed on our Photoshop interface. On your menu bar, go to Window–>Actions to have it appear on the right-hand side of your screen.

Step 3: You’ll see a bunch of default Actions in the panel that come with Photoshop. In order to separate ours from the rest, we’ll create a folder (or set, as Photoshop calls it) to hold all of our photo editing actions. At the bottom of the Actions panel, click the little folder icon. A window will display asking you to name your set. Let’s call it “Photo Edits.” Type that in and click OK.

This folder icon creates your sets.

Step 4: As long as you have your folder selected, any Actions you create will be placed within it. Click the “New Action” icon at the bottom of the panel (this looks the same as the “New Layer” icon in the Layer Panel). A window will ask you to name the Action. Title it “Basic Edits,” but don’t close the window yet. You can choose which set (folder) the Action will be placed into but as long as you had the folder selected before you created the action, that set will be selected by default. We’re more interested in the “Function Key” section. You can choose a function key on your keyboard to use as a hotkey to call upon your Action with this menu. I used F2 and Command (Alt for Windows users) by selecting the key from the drop-down box and then clicking the Command selection box. Choose what makes sense to you, then click “Record.”

Setting up my Action linked to a function key.

Step 5: Your Action is now being recorded. On your menu bar, go to Image–>Auto Contrast, then Image–>Auto Tone, and finally Image–>Auto Color. At the bottom of your Actions Panel, click the square icon to stop recording. You now have your own Action! Time to test it out.

Step 6: Open another image you want to edit within Photoshop. You can now select your Action, which we called “Basic Edits,” and click the triangle icon in the panel to “play” your Action and perform the same tasks you recorded on the previous image. You can also use the Function Key you chose when creating your Action to quickly call upon it and have it do its thing on your current document in Photoshop.

Here's how your list of actions should look when you're done following these steps.

Now, remember: You can do anything while recording an Action, and Photoshop will record it. After you’ve stopped the recording of an Action, you can start it again where you’ve left off by clicking the circle icon in the Action Panel (the controls work like a VCR). Perhaps you want to make a bunch of images very high contrast. You can do this by starting to record an Action, making your adjustments via the Image drop-down on the menu bar, and hitting stop when you’re finished. You can then call upon this action with a hot key you’ve set or by click the triangle on the Panel while the Action is selected.

Taking It Further with Adjustment Layers

So how do you go about making Actions even more powerful to do some very cool things? Well, Photoshop presents you with thousands of variables that can be applied to a photo. To simplify this and to come up with my own editing style, I use Actions that cut those decisions down greatly and get me much closer to the end result I’m looking for. We’re now going to create a more advanced Action that closely resembles my own. This is just an example of how to simplify your editing process, so feel free to come up with your own Actions that better suit your style.

Step 1: Again, open an unedited photo that you want to edit.

Step 2: Run your “Basic Edits” Action to automatically fix some potential problems of the image.

Step 3: Create a new Action called “Custom Photo Look” within your “Photo Edits” set, and add a function key to call upon the Action for later use. Remember not to use the same function key you used for your previous Action(s).

Step 4: At the bottom of your Layer Panel, click the “Create New Adjustment Layer” button and select “Brightness/Contrast” from the drop-down list. You can now make general, editable contrast adjustments with the Panel that appears, or chose to leave it alone for now.

Step 5: Create another Adjustment Layer but this time make a Curves Adjustment. From the drop-down on the Panel that appears, select each color individually and mimic my settings with the curves that appear. Now close the Panel.

My curve adjustments. Follow along for a modern-retro feel.

Step 6: We’ll now create a bloom lighting effect. Right-click on the main image layer (if you’re working with a jpeg, it’ll be locked and will also be called “Background) and choose “Duplicate Layer.” In the dialog box that appears, title your new layer “bloom adjustment” and click OK.

Step 7: In the top menu, go to Filter–>Distort–>Diffuse Glow. In the window that appears, bring the Graininess to about 2, the Glow to about 5, and the Clear Amount to about 17. Click OK.

Setting the Diffuse Glow effect for our own handmade adjustment layer.

Step 8: With the “bloom adjustment” layer selected, change your blending mode (located at the top of the Layer Panel) to Screen from the drop-down and change the Opacity to about 55%.

Step 9: Click the square icon on the Actions Panel to stop recorder the “Custom Photo Look” Action.

My Layers Panel after recording this Action. Yours should look the same!

You now have a look that is very different from the original photo, whether you love it or not. So does this mean that all your images that use this Action will look just like this? Absolutely not. This Action serves only to give you a much simpler set of variables to work with to edit your photos on a case by case basis. I’ll now show you how flexible this system is.

Using Your Adjustments As Basic Variables

The point of making your own Action like that one I’ve just described is simply to get you to a starting point to edit your own look and feel into your photos. This is less of a tutorial and more of a concept here. What I need to get across is that you now have 5 basic variables per adjustment layer to work with. They are as follows:

  1. The Editable Adjustment Itself. Besides the bloom layer, you can access the attributes of each adjustment layer by double-clicking the black & white colored icon to the left of the adjustment layer name.
  2. The Blending Mode of Each Adjustment. Layer Located at the top left of the Layer Panel.
  3. The Opacity of Each Layer. Located at the top right of the Layer Panel.
  4. Showing or Hiding Each Adjustment. Clicking the eye icon to the left of each layer name will hide the adjustment from view.
  5. Using Masks. By clicking the white rectangle to the left of the adjustment layer name, you can paint on black or white with the Brush Tool to select which area of the image is affect by the adjustment.

Here's the locations of all those variables.

This may seem like a lot of options…because it is! And this is a vastly simplified version of all that Photoshop can do for your images! By using these five attributes, however, your options become a lot less overwhelming and regardless of what you do to the image using these options, you’ll still end up with a pretty unique and subtly edited image.

These basic ideas can transfer to any style you’re looking for. Once you start creating Actions, you should see them less as definitive edits and more as giving yourself variables to work with. Also, using adjustment layers is key because they are editable and can easily be transferred from one document to another. With these tools, you’ll be able to quickly slap your function keys and start tweaking your image right away, using the set of functions you yourself have come up with! Post some links below of your favorite “look” you’ve designed…and rejoice! Your facebook photo page has just become infinitely more awesome.

From unedited to Photoshop Action'd out!


  1. Sahan Nov 12, 2010

    No link to download the action file? 🙁

  2. rod rodriguez Nov 12, 2010

    nice tuts, although I’m not sure using action to edit in image is a sure thing because most of the time pictures have different settings, but I liked the outcome, I’m giving this a try one of this days. Thanks mate.

  3. Taylor Lisney Nov 12, 2010

    Sahan – You twisted my arm.

    Rod – You’re absolutely correct. The main point I’m trying to make is that you’ll still need to have different sets of actions for different types of photos. This technique is much more versatile than using batch edits, though. Also, if you use the five (or more, depending on the action) variables you’ve given yourself, you can alter your settings to work with a particular image better. Thanks for reading!

  4. Sahan Nov 12, 2010

    Thanks Taylor keep up the good work 🙂

  5. Taylor Lisney Nov 17, 2010

    I sure will! Thanks for reading!

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