The Hidden Power of Photoshop Elements The Hidden Power of Photoshop Elements

How to Run Actions in Adobe Photoshop Elements 3, 2 and 1

Actions are procedures (sometimes referred to as scripts, or macros) built in Photoshop that allow you to play back a series of events. In Photoshop, actions are built by simply recording the steps you make during corrections. Just turn on the Record feature, and Photoshop records your steps as you make them, and stores them in the actions palette. When you are done recording, the set of steps can be saved as an Action, and you can play back the series of events on any image, just by playing the action. In this way the steps can be easily repeated from image to image. Actions are useful if you find a particular way to make corrections or changes to an image that are universal, or if you create an effect that you would like to repeat. You can ease your workload by recording those steps and playing them back using Actions.

The same actions that are recorded for Photoshop can often be used in Photoshop Elements. For example, tools from the book The Hidden Power of Photoshop Elements are actions created in Photoshop that help accomplish specific tasks in Elements. Some of these events used with the tools raise functionality or create work-arounds for features thought not to be included in Elements. In other words, the Hidden Power tools ramp up the power of Elements using Actions.

A wide range of actions are available for free on the web for Photoshop that accomplish everything from practical correction (like Hidden Power tools) to helping render interesting effects (creating a frame, or changing an image to look like a drawing or watercolor). A whole store of Actions can be found for free download on Adobe Studio Exchange. Not all of them work in Elements, but many do — and the rest can be altered to work in Elements, if you can edit the actions (more on that later).

All versions of Elements to date (Elements 1, 2 and 3) have several different ways that actions can be played. For example, my Hidden Power Actions player for Elements 1 and 2 took advantage of HTML stored in Elements to enable users to create their own links to actions. Because it required manipulating HTML, it was a little too complicated for many users for doing add-ons of their own. With Elements 3, Adobe has made that method of implementation even more complex, switching to XML for display of recipes. However, there is a solution for running Actions that works in Elements 3, 2 and 1 that requires no HTML or XML. This solution is the one we'll look at here.

This article shows you how to attempt to run pre-recorded actions created for Photoshop (6, 7 and CS) using Elements (3, 2 and 1). If you let me know about successes and failures, I can post a listing to help other users find actions that work, and target those that might be interesting to update. Please POST YOUR RESULTS, as a favor to me and the Elements community so we can build a library of useful actions for Elements users.


There are several steps in playing actions using this method. I go into some detail here; after you do it once or twice it will be fairly easy. The general steps are listed here. Each step will be described in more detail through this tutorial:

1. Locate or create an action that you want to run in Elements.
2. Set up the preview image (if necessary).
3. Install the action folder in Elements.
4. Delete the Effects Cache folder.
5. Restart Elements.
6. Run the action.

To load and play your first action in Elements, please follow along with the steps in this tutorial. I will tell you where to get the action on the Internet, and then what to do step-by-step to play the action in Elements.

A sample "Hello World" action is provided here so you can work through the steps and check to see that you can get actions to work before you start trying to add new ones. This action will create a new document with the words Hello World. This sample just allows you to be sure that you can install actions correctly. You only need to download one of the following files. Simple compressed Files are recommended. This action has been tested and works as per these installation instructions in Elements 1, 2 and 3.

Platform Simple Compressed Files Self Extracting Archives Executable Files
PC Sample_pc.sea Sample_pc.exe
Mac Sample.sit Sample_mac.sea  

Steps Explained

1. Locate or create an action that you want to run in Elements.
While you will use the Sample file provided above to see how this works, you'll want to use other actions at some point. Actions for Elements can be found on the web, or you can create them yourself — if you have access to Photoshop (6, 7 and CS). Action files work on both Mac and PC, without alteration. You can identify action files by their three letter extension: .atn. A sample action file from the Hidden Power book is shown as it would appear in thumbnail view in Figure 1.

Figure 1: This action file is from the Hidden Power tool set, titled Basic Color Correct.atn

Any action that you download from the Internet may be compressed (e.g., a ZIP or SIT file for PC/Mac) so you may need to first download and decompress it to locate the actual action file. Free decompression utilities can be found on the Internet. See the suggested links below for utilities that will decompress files for you.

Platform Link


WARNING: Please be aware that actions you locate and download from the Internet may be copyrighted. This means that those creating/distributing the actions claim some sort of intellectual property right to the action. Whether you paid a fee for the action or not, do not re-distribute actions without consent of the copyright holder!

If you have access to Photoshop, you can use it to record your own actions, save the action (using the Save Actions on the Actions palette), and then play these actions back in Elements. Some behaviors will not work and may need to be recorded differently (see "Actions that Will Not Work in Elements" later on this page). Some of these recording issues will be listed in the troubleshooting section. Note the location where you save the .atn file and copy it to the computer where you use Elements. Save the .atn file into a folder with a descriptive name for the category that you want it to appear in on the Effects drop list. For example, when you extract the Sample file, the Hello World.atn file will already be in a folder called Hello World. The folder will contain an action file (Hello World.atn) and a preview file (Hello World.psd). the action file contains the code that performs the behavior, and the preview file contains a thumbnail preview of the effect and the reference to the action file.

In the following section we will look at how to create the preview file.

2. Set Up the Action Preview File.
The action preview image is the key to launching your action in Elements. This image file displays in the Effects palette and points Elements to the action you are attempting to run. Photoshop actions that you download from the internet will not have this preview image, so you will have to create the preview in order to kick off your action in Elements. It is actually pretty easy to do. The sample folder will already have an action preview. If you would like to make your own preview, just follow instructions a through e:

a. Open Photoshop Elements.

b. Create a new image that is 64 by 64 pixels. Do this by choosing New from the File menu (File > New), or by pressing Command/CTRL+N (Mac/PC) on your keyboard. When the New dialog appears, enter the name for the action, change the dimensions to 64 by 64 pixels and make the mode RGB. See Figure 2.

Figure 2: the New dialog with proper parameters for creating a preview file.

c. Design your preview image as desired. This image can be changed later on after you test the action. In fact, after running the action successfully, you can use a sample of what the action does to create the preview after you run it. After you have created the look you want, flatten the image (you may want to save the file with layers before flattening so you can make adjustments to the preview without rebuilding it).

d. After flattening the image, open the Layers palette and double-click the Background layer. This will open the New Layer dialog. Change the Name of the layer to match the name of the action that you want it to run.

e. Save the file as a Photoshop document in the folder where you saved the action (.atn) during Step 1. When saving be sure that the option for Save Layers is checked.

You can create previews for multiple actions in one file, or compile different previews into a single file. You will likely want to do this if you are going to install more than one action in a folder, although you can have multiple preview files in a single folder. Keep in mind that the actions you plan to run using any preview file should be in the same folder; keep the action and its preview file in the same folder. The name of the folder they are in will appear in the category listing in the Effects palette. You can also add to existing Effects categories, including those supplied by Adobe. All you need to do is add the action file (.atn) and preview image (.psd) to the category folder, then delete the Cache and restart Elements. Deleting the Cache is covered in step 4, "Delete the Effects Cache folder". You can also add the preview images directly to the existing preview file if you prefer; be careful to leave the rest of the layers intact (don't flatten the file) if you adjust an existing preview file, or you may lose access to other actions in the category.

The next section will discuss where to put the folder for installation into Elements.

3. Install the Action Folder in Elements.
After locating, downloading and decompressing the action file and setting up the preview image, you are ready to place the action category folder in Elements. You will need to locate the Effects folder inside the Elements program folder. The Effects folder is located in slightly different places on PC (Figure 3) and Mac (Figure 4).

Location of the Effects folder on a PC:
Figure 3: The Effects folder on a PC is located on the C drive in the Photoshop Elements 3 program folder by default: C:\ Program Files\adobe\Photoshop Elements 3.0\Previews\Effects.

Location of the Effects folder on a Mac:
Figure 4: The Effects folder on a Mac is located in the Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 folder in the Applications folder: Applications: Adobe Photoshop Elements 3: Previews: Effects.

Copy or move the entire category folder that you have created for your action into the Effects folder. In the case of the example action, you would want to move the the Hello World folder into the Effects folder (see #3 in Figure 5. After you have added the action category folder to the Effects folder with the action file (.atn) and preview file (.psd) in it, you have effectively installed the action. You can do these steps in different order (e.g., create the category folder, then add the action and preview files), but vary the process only after you are sure how it works. All that is left to do is make Elements recognize the new files and run the action.

Figure 5: In Step 3 you copy the category folders into Effects. In Step 4, you'll delete the cache.

In the next section we look at deleting the Cache to force Elements to recognize the new files.

4. Delete the Effects Cache folder.
The Effects Cache file stores information about the effects that are currently installed in Elements. Regretfully the file does not get effectively rebuilt each time Elements starts up. While this will save startup time, it will not be very helpful when you have added new actions to try out, because they will not be recognized. What you will have to do is delete the Cache folder. To do this just drag it to the trash and empty the trash. It is best to do this when the Elements program is not running.

a. Shut down Elements.

b. Locate the Elements Previews folder (see Figure 3 or Figure 4 for the location)

c. Drag the Cache folder to the trash

d. Empty the trash.

When you restart Elements it will look for the Cache, and when it doesn't find it, Elements will rebuild the cache according to the files currently installed in the Effects folder. In effect this forces Elements to recognize the new files you have installed. You have to delete the Cache files after every action installation in order to force Elements to rebuild the Cache.

5. Restart Elements.
Restart Photoshop Elements and look in the Effects palette for your new action additions. If the Effects palette is not visible, open the palette by selecting it from the Window menu from the menu bar in Elements. If using Elements 3, choose Effects from the drop list at the upper left of the palette. With the Effects palette in view, allow Elements some time to rebuild the cache and previews. Depending on how many items you have in the Effects, this can take a while. Be patient. When rebuilding activity seems to stop, take a look for your new action by viewing the contents of the Effects palette, or by selecting the category you added your action to by selecting the folder name from the category drop list. If the action appears in the list, you are ready to run it. If the action does not appear, and you have been patient with the rebuilding, see the troubleshooting information later on this page.

6. Run the Action.
To run the action, be sure an image is open, and double-click the thumbnail in the listing. An image must be open even if the action (like the "Hello World" sample) opens a new image during the action. It is best to run most actions on RGB images. When running actions, take note of specific errors that appear, if any. These error messages will help in troubleshooting the problem.

NOTE: Steps 1-6 are probably far more intense in writing than they are in practice; I wanted to note detail so that users would be able to complete the installation. A quicker method of testing actions is described in "Actions that Will Not Work in Elements" later on this page.


If you still cannot access the actions you believe you have installed, please follow these troubleshooting tips. As stated earlier, the sample file was tested on ALL versions of Elements. If you are unable to get the sample to work, there are several places in the process where things may be going wrong, starting with the decompression. Please read through the following suggestions and take all of them into consideration before taking the last step. Some of the following troubleshooting steps may seem redundant either with the installation instructions or with one another. Please humor me...These instructions were developed to help you get out of installation troubles, so they have to cover the bases—and that sometimes means a little tedium.

Problem: Nothing new appears in the Effect menu after installation.
There is a fundamental problem with the installation.

a. Reboot your machine, start Elements, open the Effects and wait 3 minutes (to be sure the cache is rebuilt). If the actions folder you have created and installed still does not appear in the drop list, go to b.

b. Be sure you are looking in the right place in Elements for the Effects. The Effects will be located on the Effects palette under a category named exactly as the folder you installed the action(s) and preview files into. Elements 1 and 2 have a dedicated Effects palette; Elements 3's Effects shares a palette with Styles. Open the palette by choosing Effects (for Elements 1 and 2) or Styles and Effects (for Elements 3) from the Window menu. If you can locate the palette and there is still nothing listed, go to c.

c. Be sure you are opening the correct version of Elements. Users who have multiple versions of the Elements program are prone to installing the actions into a folder that is not the one they are currently accessing with a shortcut. To be sure you are opening the right version of the program, close Elements. Locate the Effects folder where the actions folder is installed and back out to the root of the Elements program folder. Locate the program file in the program folder and start up the program by double-clicking the program file. If this solution works, you need to delete and rebuild your shortcut for the program. If you have checked and the program you are opening is correct, go to d.

d. Because the following step is a little more drastic, delete the Effects Cache folder again and restart Elements, even if you have done it previously. Locate the Cache folder using the same path described in Step 4 of the installation instructions. Restart Elements. If this does not solve the problem, go to e.

e. Rebuild the Settings file, which may have become corupt. To rebuild the Settings, hold down the Command+Option+Shift/Ctrl+Alt+Shift keys (Mac/PC) on the keyboard when starting up Elements — immediately after choosing Edit and Enhance Photos on the Welcome screen, if you are on a PC. Hold the keys down until the prompt to delete the Adobe Photoshop Elements settings file appears, and click [YES]. The deleted file will be re-created automatically. This will restore default palette placement and tool settings, and will delete your color settings — you will have to reset your preferences. If you still can't see the new categories, go to f.

f. Close Elements. Rename the Effects folder to xEffects. Create a new Effects folder in the Previews folder. Copy the Hello World folder into the new Effects folder. Delete the Effects Cache and restart Elements. If you see the Hello World folder in Effects after the restart, one of the effects is corrupted. Add them back one-at-a-time and delete the Cache and restart Elements after each is added. this will help you determine which folder is corrupt. if you are able to add back all the effects, delete the xEffects folder. If you do not have any change in the Effects palette after renaming the folder, go to g.

g. Reinstall Elements. Proper reinstallation will require first uninstalling and then reinstalling the program. if you still can't get this to work, go to The Second to Last Step.

Problem: The category appears in the Effect menu after installation, but no Effects/actions appear.
The Preview image files are not being recognized by Elements because of placement, configuration or damage.

a. Be sure the action/effect is not nested in the installation folder. Folders for Effects should be inside the Effects folder with no addional folders nested inside. Using the sample, there should be a Hello World folder directly inside the Effects folder, and the .atn and .psd files should be in that, not another buffering folder. If there is a nested folder, move the actions and preview files out of the inner folder and delete the empty folder. next delete the Cache and restart Elements. If this does not fix the problem, go to b.

Correct Previews: Effects: Hello World: Hello World.psd
  Previews: Effects: Hello World: Hello World.atn
Incorrect Previews: Effects: Hello World+: Hello World: Hello World.psd
  Previews: Effects: Hello World+: Hello World: Hello World.atn

b. Open Elements and then open the preview file (.psd) for the action you are trying to install. This should be located in the folder with the action. Make no changes to the file, but save it using Save As (File>Save As...). Save over the existing file. Delete the Cache and restart Elements. I this does not fix the trouble, go to step c.

c. Use another decompression tool and a freshly downloaded action file. Some decompression tools do not adequately decompress the files, and this can lead to the files not being recognized or to files being damaged. This is why the tools noted above have been recommended: they work. If even these tools are not working, there may have been a problem in downloading the file itself. Downloading the file again is recommended. If this does not fix the problem, go to The Second to Last Step.

Problem: The category and thumbnail preview appears in the Effect menu after installation, but an error displays saying the request could not be completed.
Action files are not being recognized by Elements because of placement, configuration or damage.

a. Be sure the action file is located in the same folder as its preview file. Using the sample, there should be a Hello World folder directly inside the Effects folder, and the .atn and .psd files should both be in that folder. If you have to move the action into the folder with the preview file, you should be able to run the action without restarting Elements by double-clicking the preview/thumbnail in the Effects palette.

Correct Previews: Effects: Hello World: Hello World.psd
  Previews: Effects: Hello World: Hello World.atn
Incorrect Previews: Effects: Hello World: Hello World.psd
  Previews: Effects: Actions: Hello World.atn

b. Be sure the layer name in the preview file is an exact match to the name of the action you intend to run. Watch out for additional spaces in the name. Change the name of the action file to match the layer name, rather than the other way around. By renaming the action file instead of the layer, you will not have to restart Elements and delete the Cache to test.

c. Use another decompression tool and a freshly downloaded action file. Some decompression tools do not adequately decompress the files, and this can lead to the files not being recognized or to files being damaged. This is why the tools noted above have been recommended: they work. If even these tools are not working, there may have been a problem in downloading the file itself. Downloading the file again is recommended. If this does not fix the problem, go to The Second to Last Step.

The Second to Last Step

If you have given the old college try to get things working and you just can't seem to, the next best place to look for a solution is on the forum. There is a part of the forum dedicated specifically to Hidden Power tools and using actions in Elements. Feel free to browse previous questions or ask brand new ones. Find the forums using the link below. Ask the question in the forum under the version of Elements that you are using.

The Last Step

While it is highly unlikely that you will get this far without a solution, you aren't a lost cause yet. Contact Richard by sending an email to: he will run you through these steps again and the installation will work. You will be slightly embarrassed, and he will sound cross (his brief notes can be mistaken as such), but he is not... Please use the Subject: Installation Trouble HPPE3. Include information about what tools you are trying to install, what version of Elements you are running, what platform computer you are on, and any information you have concerning errors (and wordings of those errors), along with a description of what is happening during the install.

Actions that Will Not Work in Elements

While it is likely that any effect that you are looking to achieve can be done in Elements if you can do it in Photoshop, not every action recorded for Photoshop will work in Elements as is. This may sound like a little bit of a contradiction. The real problem is that you may have to tailor actions to the abilities of Elements rather than assuming Elements will do everything exactly as Photoshop will. This can be a problem, but it isn't an insurmountable one.

The quickest way to find out if an action works in Elements is just to install it and test it out. A good way to install temporarily, without constantly re-starting and going through creating the preview file, is to borrow an existing Effect. If you have followed the suggestions above and installed the Hello World effect, this folder can be used to test actions. All you need to do is rename the Hello World.atn to something else (e.g., xHello World.atn), name the action you want to test Hello World.atn, and copy that action into the Hello World Effects folder. Even if you do not re-start Elements, Elements will execute the new action when you double-click the Hello World Effect thumbnail in the Effects palette. If the action runs satisfactorily, you can then create a preview file and install the tested action to another folder/category with a proper name. Testing this way will allow you to try out many actions without restarting Elements.

When an action fails in Elements, it will usually be because of a few specific things:

a. The action references another action (unsupported in Elements Effects)

b. The action attempts to use a function or mode that is not available in Elements

c. The action references functions incorrectly.

In order to fix these problems, you will have to edit the action. This means either aquiring a demo version of Photoshop 6 (which will allow action editing and saving, yet does not expire like other demos), or locating a version of Photoshop (at a school or library, for example) where you can edit actions and return them to your system to run in Elements. A third choice might be to present an action to another Photoshop user for editing (like Richard Lynch). Once changes are made to an action so it will make use of Elements features, it will be able to create the same effect, even if it happens to do it in another way.

A key concept of successfully editing an action to work in Elements is not to throw up your hands and declare that an action doesn't work if it does not produce the expected results the first time you play it. When a step does not work in Elements, a good solution and work-around can almost always be found to produce the same (or very similar) results by editing the action. Coming to the solution will require taking note of the errors that appear, and noting the steps in the process where questionable events occur. The latter is best to do by slowing the action playback in Elements (this can be done with the Hidden Power tools), or by playing the action back slowly in Photoshop. In Elements you will want to keep the Undo History in view as you play back the action; in Photoshop you will want to view the Actions and History palettes — so long as there is room on the screen.

For example, actions that switch to LAB mode often do so to affect a color or tonal change. Instead of worrying that the LAB mode is not available in Elements, you might replicate the result by applying a change using layer properties (in this case Luminosity or Color layer modes). While it took 150 steps to replicate, I did create a tool that mimics the functionality of the Healing brush for Elements 1 and 2 users which I called the Mend tool. This tool is also a very good tool to study if you are looking to make other work-arounds for Elements. It also explores several different 'work-arounds' that may be valuable in developing other effects.

If all else fails and you need some help, you are welcome to try The Second to Last Step and The Last Step described above. When you have successfully adjusted actions or created them, I hope you will contact me about possibly distributing them from the Hidden Power website either for free or for a fee.

Copyright © 2005 Richard Lynch