One of the niftiest unsung new features of Elements 3 is how easy it is to install and use actions. You still can't create them or edit them, but it's a cinch to use them once someone has written them for you.
Actions are little scripts, like macros, that let you do complicated activities with just a double-click. Photoshop users rely on actions to automate all kinds of tasks. For example, they use actions to automate complicated artistic effects, like making a photo look like a watercolor, or adding a 3-D frame, as well as for automating repetitive retouching tasks. (That's one difference between actions in Photoshop and in Elements. In Photoshop you can run an action on the entire contents of a folder at once, but in Elements you can run actions only on one photo at a time.)
Elements can play actions, but you need Photoshop to write them. In this article, I'll take you step by step through writing, installing, and troubleshooting actions in Elements 3 for the Mac or Windows.
You need Photoshop to write actions for Elements. If you don't have Photoshop, you can ask a friend who does to write your action for you.
If you want to write actions for Elements, here are a couple pointers: Remember that all the steps of your action must exist in Elements. If you write actions that use tools or commands that Elements doesn't have, the results will be weird, or the thing won't work at all.
Also, Elements doesn't give you a list view of your action, so you can't turn individual steps off and on the way you can in the Photoshop Actions palette. You can write actions that include stops, though, so you can create actions that let those running the action make settings changes as they go.
After you write your action, save it where you can find it. For this article, I implemented the technique I used on one of the graphics in the book. It creates an effect like a tinted steel engraving, so I called it redsteel.atn.
To install your action in Elements you need one other thing besides the action itself. You need a thumbnail for the Styles and Effects palette. The required file, Original.psd, is in Applications > Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 > Previews > Effects (Mac) or C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop Elements 3.0\Previews\Effects (Windows). This is the little green apple that you see in all the thumbnails for the Filters and Effects.
Make a copy of this file, open the copy in Photoshop after you've written the action, and run your action on it. If your action leaves you with a layered image, use the Merge Visible command (not Flatten Image) to get back to one layer, then do a Save As with exactly the same name as your action. For the example action, it's redsteel.psd.
In the Layers palette, you must name the layer with the name of your action as well. So instead of "Original," the layer is "redsteel."
Incidentally, you don't have to use the apple thumbnail. You can use any .psd file that's 64 pixels square. The trick is that you have to add it as a layer to Original.psd and then merge (not flatten) the layers.
Each layer shows up as a separate effect in the Styles and Effects palette. If you want to create a group of actions, you can save your copy of Original.psd with each action's thumbnail as a separate layer.
So at this point, you have two files: redsteel.atn and redsteel.psd.
If you don't have Photoshop but want to install a downloaded action you can do it this way: Create two copies of Original.psd and, in the first copy, rename the layer and the file as directed above. Your action will run, but it won't have a unique thumbnail. After you install the action, navigate to the second copy, run the action on it, and rename it exactly as you did with the first copy. Quit Elements and substitute the new copy for the first one in the Effects folder. Trash caches again, and when you restart you should see the updated thumbnail.
There are several ways to get your action into Elements 3. I think this is the easiest and safest method, and it also gives you a way to manage your actions once you start collecting them, but it's not the only approach.
Put the action file and the .psd file into a new folder, and give the folder any name you want. The name you give the folder will show up as the category in the pull-down menu on the Styles and Effects palette. I called my folder "Barb's Actions" so I can add more actions to it when I write them. It's crucial not to have any subfolders inside this folder. Elements won't see your action if it has more than one layer of folder around it.
Now quit Elements and go to the Elements folder in your applications/program files folder.
First, you want to put your action folder into Adobe Photoshop Elements > Previews > Effects. Now Go to Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 > Previews > Cache, and empty the Effects Cache folder. Leave the folder, but throw away the three files inside it, the ones that are circled in the top group in the illustration.
You don't have to empty the Filters cache as well (unless you are installing an action into the Filters folder), but some people prefer to do this at the same time.
First, put your action folder into C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop Elements 3.0\Previews\Effects.
Now go to C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop Elements 3.0\Previews\Cache, and empty the Effects Cache folder and the Filters Cache folder. Leave the folders, but throw away the three files inside each one. The files are the same ones you can see in the Mac screenshot.
Launch Elements. It's going to take the program a minute or two to rebuild the thumbnail cache, so give it time to finish. You should see your action folder in the Effects categories menu and your thumbnail in the palette. Just double-click it to run your action.
It's as easy as that!
You can also install in the Filters if you prefer. As I said at the beginning, there are other ways to install actions besides this one, but since most of other ways involve hacking the Elements files, I think this one is safer.
Also, the use of folders lets you keep your actions organized. Now that you know how simple it is, I hope you will be writing and sharing actions for Elements.
If you don't see your thumbnail or if Elements starts crashing, check to be sure your thumbnail is okay. If Elements crashes, you may need to recreate your thumbnail. If you just don't see anything in the Styles and Effects palette, try opening the thumbnail .psd (File > Open) and doing a Save As with the same name into the same place to associate it with Elements 3. Windows users, be sure not to save the file as a version and don't let the file go into the Organizer either.
Also, while the actual .atn files should work on both platforms, if you have a downloaded action that doesn't work, a new folder may fix things. The folder structure is not the same for Mac and Windows and there are different invisible files for each, so you may find that Elements won't see your Mac action on your Windows computer until you create a Windows folder for it, and vice versa.
Just remove the actual .atn and .psd files and put them into your new folder.
Special thanks to Ray Robillard of eclecticacademy.com and Conchita from the dpreview.com forums.