Detail from Circles portrait

Troubleshooting 3rd Party Actions

Understanding the photo art actions you purchase

Lately I’ve been seeing an increasing number of people creating photo art state that in their process, they used an action from graphicriver.net, a popular online retail source for very lengthy and complex actions that produce artistic effects. (I have looked around, and yes, there are other places selling products to designers that also carry some actions, if you want to check for other sources.) I myself was directed to the site just a couple of months ago, and have slowly begun to acquaint myself with the effects I can get from the actions that are different from my favorite plug-ins, such as Topaz, On1, and Nik. I have also purchased a few, and as a customer, I can definitely state that you might run into some snags when you try to run these actions.

So I thought I’d just briefly talk about what you can do before you give up in frustration and send screenshots, perhaps even your file, to the action’s designer. The good news when purchasing actions from this retailer is there is easy access provided to speak directly with the designers, and from the public comments they appear to be very quickly responsive to any issues you have. However, it’s always a good idea to know how to do some troubleshooting on your own, as well as how to use these actions to increase your own understanding of what Photoshop can do, and learn to modify the results.

Painterly results on still life
Commercial Photoshop actions offer a variety of different looks and allow you to modify the results. You can combine them with other actions or 3rd party filters, expanding your options when creating photo art. This is the default result using the Splash Art 2 action by IndWorks.

Fortunately for us, many of the actions come with a video tutorial on YouTube. The designer walks you through the setup to get both Photoshop and your image into the state the action requires to run. Since each designer, and even each action, may have slightly different requirements, you should make certain you watch at least the beginning of their tutorial before you start. Some do provide a readme file, but not all, or the file may not include all the steps to set up your Photoshop. The video tutorial covers it visually. Even better, the tutorial then demonstrates what the various layers and sections do to the image and how you can modify it. Watching before you purchase can help you decide if the action will be customizable enough to suit you.

Baby portrait with graphic action
Thanks to the YouTube tutorial, this image (using the action Circles by sevenstyles) was easy to modify to look very different from the default result.

Even with so much help, though, things can go wrong. An action may start to run, then quit with a message that it couldn’t perform a step. And this is when you need to know how to troubleshoot the action. If it stops very soon after starting, it’s usually that something is missing in the setup. You didn’t name the layer you created correctly for the action, you forgot to load a brush or pattern, or you didn’t make sure the file was in 8 bit mode. (Photoshop has never upgraded most of its ancient filters to run in 16 bit.) There are other setup requirements as well, and each one will be encountered at some step in the action, so each must be strictly adhered to.

Painterly style using Dust by sevenstyles
Many of the actions work by letting you select the main subject and/or focal point where you want the most detail to appear. This selection is filled with color on a separate layer, and different actions require different names for that layer. A soft selection will produce one type of result, while a hard edged selection may produce an entirely different result. It’s worth running the action more than once, varying your selection, to get different results. Here a very soft selection was used for the Dust action by sevenstyles.

First thing you need to do, then, is to check that the basic setup is as called for. But there can be more obstacles than the tutorial tells you about. For example, I kept having the first action I purchased fail early, but not terribly early, in the action. In fact, in this case, even posting a comment on the site for help from the designer wouldn’t have helped. I had unchecked an option for automatically creating masks when adding an adjustment or fill layer. As soon as I realized the action was expecting masks that my preferences weren’t creating, it was a simple matter of re-enabling the default preferences. I then sent an email to the designer so that perhaps in future, he’ll include it in his instructions. Another occasion was far more involved and complex. Tolerances in a selection process were too restrictive for many images. Once I’d isolated the issue (resolving it by placing modal stops to manually alter the input), and informed the designer, the designer cleverly rewrote the action to solve the issue without the user needing to stop to change the default settings.

Placing modal stops or removing action steps
Clicking on an empty box next to a checkmark (above left) inserts a modal stop. Use this when you want to change the input of that step, rather than accept the recorded input. Not all steps allow you to add a modal stop, but most that allow for input do. If you don’t want to allow the action to perform a step, such as converting your document to the sRGB color profile (above right), simply click on the checkmark next to the step to turn it off.
Demonstrating the use of the Insert Stop dialog
There is no reason you can’t add what you want to an action. You can record additional steps if you’re feeling adventurous. Inserting Stops that help explain some of the steps in an action is a very safe, effective way to remind yourself of what the action is doing or what you might want to do to customize it at this point. These Stops can be very useful when you don’t use an action for awhile and have forgotten the details.

To find out where an action was failing, I needed to step through the action slowly, watching the Layers panel, the document window, and the Actions panel. If you’ve ever looked at actions, you’ll know that they’re written in plain English, so not that difficult to understand. Photoshop offers Playback Options in the Actions menu to help you run the action. The option Step-by-Step will pause briefly after each step, allowing you a little time to read an action. If you just want to get a quick idea about how the action works, this is a good option. The option Pause for (blank) seconds is self-explanatory.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t know in advance how long it will take me to read or grasp the intent of a step, as well as notice each step’s effect in the Layers panel and on the image itself, so I choose to manually advance from one step to the next—I hold down the Cmd/Ctrl key while clicking on the play button. I can stop for as long as I need to understand the effect of each step.

Playback options for actions
Usually you want to play an action with the Accelerated option enabled. However, to get a better view of what the action is doing, you might choose one of the other, slower options. The option you choose is sticky, so if you discover your action is running very slowly, check to see if you haven’t forgotten to set the options back to Accelerated.

Taking the time to perform a careful check of your setup and, if necessary or you’re curious, to walk through an action, will reduce frustration and increase your understanding of how Photoshop can be used to create an effect. If you’re someone who likes to tinker, you’ll also see where adding modal stops, or turning off a step entirely, could be to your advantage. The money you spend on 3rd party actions will go a lot further the more you involve yourself with the nuts and bolts of each action, giving you the edge when it comes to modifying the action to suit a wider variety of images.

Art Journal "The Great Divide"
The Great Divide, part of my Democracy series, was created long before I bought any photo art actions, but the theme of inequality is still very relevant. Having looked at the actions, I have noticed there are a number which will turn photos into sketches that I could easily incorporate into my art journal pieces. Credits: mainly from itKuPilli’s altered art kits.
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