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, 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.

TKActions v4 Panel & Luminosity Masks

Complex masks can be easy to make

If you read my two earlier tutorials on luminosity masking, or have found articles and videos on the Internet, you probably have realized that using luminosity masks are, for the most part, an intermediate-level skill. Using the basic luminosity mask generated by Cmd/Ctrl-clicking on a channel thumbnail to load the lights as a selection (or inverting the selection to load the darks, instead), is something anyone can do. Anybody with Photoshop, or an application with similar features and access to the channels, can start using a basic luminosity mask to control adjustments and tint effects, and from observing, begin to understand how luminosity masks are different from other kinds of masking. In Photoshop, Select> Color Range> Shadows/Midtones/Highlights goes a step further, letting the user more specifically target a range of tones, instead of simply all the lights or all the darks, while still being intuitive and interactive.

Color Range selects Highlights
Although neither as targeted nor naturally feathered as luminosity masks created with channel operations, using Color Range for Shadows/Midtones/Highlights is a good way to get used to using luminosity masks. Here the range of values from 214 to 255 is selected (white), with a guess at feathering. The preview is a bit small to judge anything accurately.

However, the user who wants to make greater use of luminosity masks is going to need more advanced techniques and strategies for editing their images. This is where purchasing a 3rd party assistant can make a major difference between occasionally dabbling with luminosity masks, and incorporating their use  into an everyday workflow. For no money at all, anyone with an Internet connection and a little Googling can find out how to make a series of ever more narrowly-targeted luminosity masks. A basic understanding of recording actions in Photoshop (or comparable software), lets the user turn the steps for creating the masks into a one-click action. For the DIY-er, this might be just enough, but whenever I’m going to incorporate an editing method into my workflow, I want it to be as easy as possible. I know I’m going to have my work cut out just learning new strategies and finding the right conditions for the new method. I don’t really want to work with the most primitive tools available if there’s something fairly affordable that can help me out.

Expanded action steps for one mask
Here I’ve expanded the action for a similar selection to the Color Range selection above, showing the steps for Super Lights—just one of the many actions created to select each of the basic luminosity masks. There’s no need to guess at an appropriate feather to avoid harsh transitions.

For roughly a week’s worth of Starbucks’ lattes, you can get the TKActionsV4 Extension panel to work with Adobe Photoshop CS6 or CC. Although Tony Kuyper was the first to create an extension panel, TKActions are no longer the only extension panel or series of actions for Photoshop, and I’ve not tested the others—you may wish to. A script for GIMP users is also available. I chose TKActions because I felt the panel was very encouraging both for beginners to the wide world of luminosity masking (myself at the time), but also to ongoing experimentation with the masks as I developed better strategies—and the price was within my budget.  After using TKActions 3, I gladly upgraded to V4, as it clearly had new features and a new organization that made it much easier to use.

TKActionsV4 panel
The new TVActionsV4 panel adds greater ease with color coding and altering the size of the buttons used to select the basic and off-center masks. The coding indicates the type of action, such as using green for layers—creating a new layer, merging layers, creating a dodge layer, etc. Large buttons indicate a broad selection, getting successively smaller as the selection is more restricted.

When I first started out, I had no clue precisely what mask to make for any given image. Instead, I chose to work with Darks, Midtones, or Lights, then clicked a single button on the panel to have the action generate all the masks for the group and store them in the Channels panel. Next I viewed each mask in turn to see which one both included the area I wanted to modify, yet was restrictive enough not to include areas I didn’t want to modify. Note: if you’re not used to using actions, they are incredibly quick to run, so you’re not twiddling your thumbs every time you run a complete set. This made it easy to experiment and learn, but somewhat slow.

Channels panel after running All Lights
Beginners often start with the Basic tab and create a series of channels (or Curves or Levels layers), to view each mask before deciding which one is the Goldilocks zone between selecting too much or too little.

As I began to get a feel for the masks, instead of running all the darks, for example, I thought about whether I wanted most of the darks, or a more narrowed selection of some darker darks. The TKActions panel has always made viewing a selection simple, and with v4, it’s even easier. Now I click View to see a rubylith overlay on my image (or blue, if that’s better for me). The layers placed in the Layers panel are temporary—click View again to turn off the rubylith, remove the layers from the panel, and restore the marching ants. If the ants aren’t visible because no pixels are selected with more than a 50% opacity, a border around the upper half of the panel has a  “marching ants” look that lets me know a selection is active. If my selection doesn’t appear very useful—too much or too little is selected—I guess again and  choose another selection—each “guess” only takes a second to preview. I then click on a button to add a layer and mask for adjusting. Of course, once I have an active selection, I can use Photoshop directly, but if the TKActionsV4 panel is already open, I have a number of one-click choices available.

View of selection with red or blue overlay
When you click on View for a chosen selection, the action that runs uses a rubylith overlay on the image by default, but if you prefer to see a blue overlay, you can turn on the topmost layer in the group.
Marching Ants around panel indicate an active selection
Many luminosity masks won’t have any pixels with more than 50% opacity. Photoshop is unable to display the marching ants to indicate an active selection under these circumstances, but TKActionsV4 runs a black and white “marching ants” border around the upper half of the panel. You’ll always know if you have an active selection affecting your edits.

Beyond access to the basic luminosity layers that any action set will give you, I can choose to make selections using the digital Zone system, or create other multi-zone off-center selections, with the panel’s features aiding me in my choice. These selections help protect the lighter and darker tones around the selection from being affected by the adjustment. I first add a Curves adjustment layer, use the Targeted Adjustment tool (the hand with the pointing finger icon) to hover over the area in the image I want to adjust, then look at the input number at the bottom of the Curves panel. With that number in mind, I hover over either the Zone system numbers or the Multi-zone off-center selection numbers to find the number that comes closest, and choose that button for my mask. The unadjusted Curves layer is only used as an aid to locating the right masks while I’m editing the image.

Curves aid for off-center masks
Even if you don’t ever like to make adjustments with Curves, you can easily use a Curves adjustment layer to see the tonal value that’s underneath your cursor—shown in the Input field. Then hover over to find that target in the Digital Zone system of numbers, or over the buttons that select multi-zone off-center masks.
Layers panel with luminosity masks
The Layers panel shows the few luminosity masks I used to correct basic tonal range on a black and white photo that was scanned from an old print. Normally, I’d use Camera Raw or Lightroom to make such basic adjustments, and use luminosity masks for refinements, but I can just as easily make basic adjustments in Photoshop using luminosity masks. The blue overlay is the first darks mask; the red overlay is the last mask used.

I’ve barely touched on first steps when using the panel. It’s easier in practice than it is to describe, which is why there is so much documentation and tutorials for it. I’ll continue another time describing more strategies.

Original image, intermediate with luminosity masks, final after 3rd party filters
You can use Luminosity masks and Photoshop to perform many edits that you might use an expensive 3rd party plug-in for, or to restrict the effect of a 3rd party filter.  In the above series you can see the original photo after I used the Adaptive Wide Angle filter and the Spot Healing Brush to correct technical imperfections (left), followed by the results of basic edits with luminosity masks (middle), and the final version after adding 3rd party filters to the mix.