How to Record Flexible Layout Actions in Photoshop (Part 2)

How to Record Flexible Layout Actions in Photoshop (Part 2)

In this post we will cover how to automate the process of placing images in the layout created using actions recorded in the first part of this tutorial. I have separated tutorial into 2 parts for good reason which will be explained, among other things that I will try to explain in order to educate and protect you in some way.

A few words about actions before we proceed

You can read, what is recommended, my mini course about Photoshop actions. The best part is actually in the first few posts where I am explaining what are the actions and how this feature works. That's one more course you may say and I will agree. The problem is that nobody is stressing enough why it is so important, even for strict consumers to understand actions. In essence, actions are the very cool feature which can help users to automate certain, repetitive tasks. Not every repetitive task, at least not in the way that is used in many actions which you can download or purchase from the internet. Some of you will realize that I am using abstract terms like: "many". I will not point, nor give you the link to any particular resource because I do not want to make this post cheap promotion on someone else's back but rather to educate you. Let me give you more light on the subject.

Photoshop actions are executing commands from menus. In other words, action is doing things for you. The question is how one can record and provide to you action which is automating task of sharpening, noise removal, basic color adjustments... without non-destructive options/layers or to instruct you to adjust settings in the dialog which will open? How I, or anyone else can figure out which amount of sharpening is required for the images I haven't seen and I do not know nothing about? I am mentioning this because there are actions on the market and available for free which are, in essence, producing some results, but most likely and damaging your photos tricking you that the end result is a product of "secret options" and lots of experience. There are no secrets in this game, everything is clear and well known to everyone that wants to know. Actions which are dealing with commands mentioned above, without to create layers in the Layers panel or to open dialogs while action is playing are simply guessing or trick.

That's why it is desired and required to know the basics about digital images, Photoshop, actions and what's going on in all that process. You can simply expand action and see which steps are recorded in case you are not certain. If you see steps which are not desired to have in action like noise removal, sharpening, basic color corrections... without creating an adjustment layer or dialogs to adjust settings, then simply enable dialogs or trash that action.

The paragraph above is something that I think it is time for someone to say it loud. If you know someone who can automate color adjustments, to sharpen images, remove noise... perfectly and as desired using Photoshop actions in a destructive way and without dialogs, then please send him to comment below or to educate me. I am not asking to tell me the secret, just to prove me.

One more note that I am not stating how I am the only one who thinks about the end user, it's not the truth. The truth is that many people know how to record actions and others are using crowd to drive traffic or to even make some money. Free from its side does not mean good or just grab it. Things to be worse even paid actions are not guaranteed that you are getting quality stuff which will really help you. For that reason I will stop providing links to free resources that I am not 100% sure of its quality simply because I cannot check 1000 actions which are available for free and I cannot, actually I do not want to judge from preview images. The only thing that will remain the same is my recommendation to use Adobe Add-ons to search for helpers because, at least they really care about their customers/end users and the profit is not the only reason for existence of that market.

For those who can recognize the value of what is written above, let me give you information that I am about to start new, responsive chapter on my existing site: Photoshop Plus. It won't be freebies based, in fact, I may decide to not post new freebies, but you will be able to try everything that is offered with tutorials on how to use and much more educative articles with value deeper then how to draw Santa Claus in Photoshop in 55 steps or how to achieve the effect which serves for nothing. I am estimating one month from now to start my new mission.

Approach to automate image placing

Now let's move to something that is always worth and desired to automate. In particular, we are going to automate image placing in templates which we have created in the previous tutorial. The tutorial is separated mainly because you can use PSD templates store in Libraries panel or anywhere else on your drive/cloud. The problem remains the same: to automate processes to place the required number of images. Exact same approach you can take for any existing template downloaded from the internet or for any other automation task. In some of my tutorials I am mentioning "planning actions" or approaching the task. Let's see what I mean.

Our task or problem is to automate image placement in Photoshop. Can we do that? From what we know about actions and Photoshop it is clear that we can in a couple of different ways. I have already covered using variables and actions, but there are more options like scripts/panels, plugins. In this case we are interested to automate things using actions and chances are that we'll be using Place Embedded/Linked command.

What we know about Place command is that it is placing Smart Object above the currently selected layer. We can record action to open several Place dialogs and to quickly place images into a file, then to manually move layers and to clip them to vector layers which are creating our layout. It is not so exciting and profitable automation because we can do similar things from Bridge or Lightroom where we have some extra advantages with collections, for example, so we do not need to remember by hard where are located images or to hunt them through the folder's structure.

What can really bring value to this action is to automate placement, clipping and to enter free transform mode where we can scale and move images as desired. I count that we do not have always perfect situation where images have exact proportions and everything is perfectly cropped and adjusted. By clipping images to vector layers below, we have ability to crop images on the fly non-destructively and to use all the power of Photoshop for minor/major adjustments and changes.

There are two ways to accomplish this task: place - confirm placement, let action clip image to layer below and to enter free transform where you can scale and move the image. Things can be even better using Replace Contents command. We'll need more layers in templates which are created using actions from previous post. In particular Smart Object Layers above existing vector shapes because Replace Contents command works with SM. This is something that can be created quickly and easily using actions and we can simply duplicate existing vector layers, convert them to SO and clip them to layer below then to use Replace Contents command.

The process is following: select layer in the Layers panel, duplicate it, convert it to Smart Object then clip it to layer below and use Replace Contents command. It is perfectly easy in this case because we are controlling everything from start to end. We know how many layers will have our layout and layers are stacked one above another. We can even target layer by clicking on them what is limitation to use actions with some other templates which does not have layers with the same naming convention. Actions provided to you in the previous tutorial are creating layers with the default naming convention what is perfectly ok in my opinion, if the template is to use it as it is, by you and without thinking about larger composition. We have layers numbered 1-X and X layers in total where number 1 is in the top left corner and so on. Layers are stacked and everything is ok.

Do not do things and waste time just because someone says that is how professionals are doing things. In fact, if you need someone to tell you are you professional or not, then you are not without any lengthy discussion. Otherwise consider naming layers through action or at least grouping them. I do not want to bother anyone with theories, but naming layers and grouping them is something that will save your time. For me, it is not question about professional/non professional relation, it is a question about logic and self helping. If you are working often with compositions which have more than 5 layers, then you will realize very quickly how much is more convenient and time saver to name and group layers. Just start naming layers and develop that habit. It is a matter of habit as everything else in our lives.

We have touched and another question which must be considered when planning or approaching actions and that is: who will use actions(s)? I will assume that actions are for personal use to quickly create a layout/composition for blog post, to post on social media sites or similar purpose. I am writing this two posts for beginners and those who supports me because I can't record every action that you may need. Knowing about action will also allow you to modify and adopt them for your project needs.

We know our options, purpose and we can start recording which is the easy part of this post.

Record action to place images

It is much simpler of what you may expect. We know what we should record and everything is in our hands without any need to check every possibility. We always have a Background layer on the bottom and layers stacked above. Number of layers are changing, but that's not a problem because we know from previous posts how easy is to duplicate steps in action or to drag them onto the trash can. To start recording action you can run any of layout actions recorded in previous post or simply create a new document with the Background layer and at least one layer above, it can be even blank layer. You can even simply duplicate Background layer. Are you confused a bit? Wondering? You still do not understand actions.

When converting a layer to Smart Object it will save information's (pixels) and will consider that layer as 100% scaling without any distortion applied. In case you want to use Replace Contents command, Photoshop will discard saved information's about content and place, actually replace them with an image you have selected. Placed image will be at 100% of its dimensions regardless of dimensions of previous content which you are replacing. This is the case if you haven't scaled content in the meantime, from the moment of converting something to Smart Object and using Replace Contents command. Otherwise, scaling, distortion percentages or Smart Filter will be automatically applied. Did you get it? You can convert and empty layer to SO then to use Replace Contents command. It can be shape layer too, because information's will be discarded anyway without any proposal or special requirement what can be used for replacement. Another thing worth to mention is that X and Y coordinates will remain the same, in other words center of replacement image will be at the same spot where was center of previous content which is discarded and that's another advantage in our case.

So lets quickly record our action where I will describe the steps and skip how to create new action what is covered many times on this blog.

Step 1 Target Background layer
The very first step is to target or select Background layer using keyboard shortcut. It is present in every of our layout actions and we want to skip targeting directly layers by clicking them because that means limitation. Targeted (directly clicked) layer must be present with the same name when running action. We want to have the flexibility to use action with some other templates. However, one layer at the bottom, which will not be used is required unless you modify action later. Simply press Alt/Opt + , (comma) and you are done in this step. You should see: Select back layer step recorded in your action.

Step 2 Target layer above Background
We won't use currently selected layer so we need to select the layer above it. Use again keyboard shortcut Alt/Opt + ] to target layer.

Step 3 Duplicate currently selected layer
Simply press Ctrl/Cmd + J to duplicate currently selected layer which we are going to convert to SO and then to do things with it.

Step 4 Convert the layer to a Smart Object
You can convert duplicated layer to a Smart Object on right click > Convert to Smart Object. It is a quick and easy way. That is another good habit to use right click.
Convert to Smart Object

Step 5 Clip Smart Object layer to layer below
We want to clip the Smart Object layer to layer below and to use clipping mask as a powerful tool to show only portion that we want visible according to available space. Click on the Layers panel menu and choose: Create Clipping Mask.
Create clipping mask

Step 6 Replace Contents command
Now we want to replace content on the layer with the image/content which we want to actually use. Go to Actions panel menu and choose Insert menu Item then go to Layer > Smart Object > Replace Contents. Click OK and we are almost done.
Replace Contents

Step 7 Free Transform
Repeat again step with Insert Menu Item and this time choose Edit > Free Transform. We almost always want to transform placed content, to scale or move it. Replace Content, previous step will not allow you to scale or transform the content as Place command from the File menu.

Step 8 Stop recording action

Step 9 Duplicate steps as many times as you want
Now we are going to automate actions recording. Select steps in range: Select forward layer through Select Free Transform menu item and drag them onto the page icon at the bottom of the Actions panel. Repeat same step as many times as you want, in fact as many times as you need to place images. For template with 7 shape layers which are placeholders to which will be clipped images/placed content, you will need to duplicate 6 times selected steps. What if you have more steps to place images of what you need with some other? Guess what you need to do, duplicate entire action, then drag steps Select Free Transform menu item  through Select forward layer onto the trash can.
Duplicate steps

Download actions recorded for this tutorial

Here is a link to download actions which I have recorded while writing this tutorial.


Hopefully you have a better understanding of this particular task that we have completed and actions in general. I gave you some additional information which are not necessarily required for this tutorial, but can be helpful. In essence, I am counting that at least 95% of the internet is filled with rubbish worth nothing.


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