Al Ward's Photoshop Productivity Toolkit
Posted: 30-Oct-2004

Mac Guild Grade

Publisher: Sybex


Reviewer: Mike Saemisch $34.99

Al Ward's Photoshop Productivity Toolkit:
Over 600 Time-Saving Actions

By Al Ward
July 2004 | 1st edition | 160 pages
ISBN: 0-7821-4334-2
List Price: $34.99
Sybex Online Price: $27.99

What the Book is About
Photoshop actions are one of the main program features to justify a full version of Photoshop, in my opinion, as opposed to simpler, but very capable, programs such as Photoshop Elements. If you are not familiar with actions, they are macro programs you can create in Photoshop to automate steps that you find yourself repeating on different programs (applying filters, adjusting image attributes, adding file information such as copyright, etc.). You can use actions from an actions palette in addition to performing batch operations on folders full of files and other time saving activities. Plus, if you are like me, they are great for remembering current favorite tweaks and grouping current favorite actions for repeating on each new file I work. They are also a great way to share techniques among Photoshop users, since they can be exported and imported. This is where Toolkit comes in. The author has created and compiled actions for you to use selectively or in bulk to add to your Photoshop prowess. And, the book provides a tutorial to provide in-depth information on how to create and work with actions.

"Al Ward's Photoshop Productivity Toolkit: Over 600 Time-Saving Actions" is a book and CD that comes with over 600 actions and other goodies for your use. In addition to getting these actions, the book provides a good tutorial on Photoshop actions, which I will not even begin to try and describe all the aspects of actions and their power. As an avid Photoshop user and action creator, I found much to learn in regards to how actions and the Photoshop interface work and how I can create and use actions more effectively. A challenging aspect of this review was that in addition to reviewing the book, there are the 600 individual actions. I sampled all the types of actions but will find much more diversion time to try all of them. The title talks about time-saving actions, but it goes far beyond that to introduce you to even more of Photoshop's seemingly unlimited potential.

Target Audience
This book is intended for Photoshop users who desire to learn about "actions", tasks that utilize Photoshop's ability to create macros to automate steps on individual files or to batches of files. The book provides excellent information to help the reader learn about the basics of actions as well as the details of the Photoshop actions implementation. In addition, it is intended for Photoshop users looking to expand their libraries of actions with a wide variety of pre-written actions grouped by action type (photographic, artistic, and text effects).

What to Expect
The book is really divided into two parts. The first 80 pages are devoted to explaining all about Photoshop actions. You are introduced to actions, what they can do, and how to work with actions created by others, including editing. From there, the creation, testing and editing of actions is covered. The power of actions is batch applications is also presented along with other tidbits. Even as an experienced actions creator and user, I did find much to learn on the power of Photoshop actions, as is true for Photoshop in general - always lots to learn.

The second part of the book is devoted to introducing you to the actions provided on the included CD. The types of actions along with sample applications of some of the actions are presented. With the sheer number of included actions, not all can be described so many are just listed. Experimenting and trying the various actions are really the only way to learn about what all is included. The examples and descriptions just peak your interest on the many many mini-adventures that are to be found in the software half of this package.

I liked the detailed description of the Photoshop implementation of actions since it filled in needed details from what I had learned in my self-studies. The descriptions of the actions themselves are too brief to help you know what you are getting and how they might be applied, but those kinds of details may not feasible with the sheer volume of the actions.

The actions themselves run the gamut. There are file actions, artistic effects, text (e.g. molten metal, wood, plastic), printing layouts, digital photo actions, borders, patterns, aging effects, 3D (I need to find some glasses to see how these work!), and many others to try. The book provides a description of a few and a listing of all the actions. In general, with this product, you have to try them to see what they do and compare (to try and evaluate the various sharpening actions, for example). I found many to be interesting and fun while others did not appeal to me. A different source picture with different colors, dynamic ranges or resolution, may have offered better results. Since I am not an artist, my tastes may not be that developed.

One technique I used in working with these actions was to just delete the actions that I did not find interesting, leaving a shorter list to work with. One of them that I liked was an action called "Comic Action" that converted my picture to a colorful and beautiful rendition. Another was "ModelShot2" that added a warm blur to the picture with interesting highlights that will work nicely on portraits. With ModelShot2, I found that the resolution of the target file makes a difference. When I tried it on a low resolution picture, it looked great. Trying it on a higher resolution picture did not look as nice since the effects were smaller. So, the lesson is to convert to a lower resolution when applying this action.

As one who is currently very interested and active in the study of photo manipulations in Photoshop, there were very few actions that benefited me in terms of improving my photos. For users who are not as skilled in how to use Photoshop, this package would be of benefit and would save you some of the time that I had invested to learn these techniques the hard way. I did find many interesting effects, such as adding aging effects, that will come in useful with some photos.

When trying the actions, I found some problems as you might expect when running someone else's macros on your files where the simple programs did not anticipate or account for various Photoshop file possibilities.
The first action in the package crashed Photoshop on both my machines. This action was designed to create an aging effect, "PTK-PhotoAgingCS-01.atn". It contains dozens of steps creating numerous layers before Photoshop apparently has a problem and quits. I run Photoshop CS on a G4 Powerbook and a dual G4 desktop.

Another problem I ran into is when I am in 16-bit mode (which I am doing much more in my photography work), many of the actions would run into problems since the filters they were calling are not available in 16-bit mode. I could change to 8-bit mode and then run the action (it would be nice if the action would alert you when you need to be in 8-bit mode). I also experienced some other problems (e.g. an error that "The command 'Make' is not currently available") which leaves you high and dry with no clue what to do (except F12 to revert the file to last saved state and move on to another action to try). Others would require some research to learn the best use of the actions (e.g. the 45 Duotone actions).

In addition to the actions, the package includes additional Photoshop add-ons such as brushes, patterns, shapes, and styles, along with some other third party goodies that I have yet to explore. If you like looking through piles of things for treasures, you will enjoy this area of the Toolkit. Their use will require additional Photoshop knowledge on how to install and access these goodies.

Mac Guild Grade
My grade was based on the price versus the value of what I thought you got. The written tutorial on actions was excellent, but is a such a focused aspect of Photoshop, I did not think the value matched other books in this price range. Plus, I realized that out of the 600 actions provided with the book, I will really only be keeping just a few. Most created effects that I could not see using again. So depending on how useful you find the actions, your value may vary.

For the book portion, I thought the actions tutorial was very well written and very informative. I would give it an A for quality and clarity of the writing and the information provided. I just have a hard time recommending a $30 book for such a focused topic. The actions provided on the CD I rate a 3 1/2 out of 5 mice rating. Since I have learned so much about Photoshop's ability through other books that layout actions to do various photo corrections and such, I was a bit disappointed that I did not get as much out of this product.

C+ (Good)

Final Words
If you are interested in digging deep into learning how to create and use Photoshop actions, this book will provide you valuable information to support your learning and is an excellence resource for this purpose, as well as providing a treasure load of actions to explore and learn from. If you like experimenting to look for new artistic effects, both photo and text, you will have fun going through all the actions. If your primary interest is in actions for techniques for improving digital photos (without special effects), you will find better help in books such as Scott Kelby's book "The Photoshop CS Book for Digital Photographers" and creating your own actions from what you learn there.