NVN photoshop actions

photoshop actions – Neil’s secret sauce

In finessing an image, I rely on certain Photoshop plug-ins for retouching portraits, but there are also numerous well-known Photoshop tricks that I rely on. These vary, depending on what needs to be done with an image – sometimes lips need to be a shade darker, or eyes a touch lighter. It might be selective sharpening. Or a reduction in red tones. Or blue tones. It varies.

In referring to some of these Photoshop techniques in the various articles on the Tangents blog, I often refer to it as my “secret sauce” or “Photoshop fairy dust”. While the actual “secret sauce” that I used may very well differ from image to image, I rely on a few steady techniques.

For example, the portrait at the top which is a favorite image of mine. While I think the lighting is great, especially considering it is all done with a single on-camera bounced flash. However, it looks even better with some selective sweetening of the image in Photoshop.

And here it is … Neil’s (now not so) secret sauce. All packaged into two easy-to-use actions.
The fee to download the action is $20.00 US, and is payable via Paypal.

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The zip file contains three files:

  • Neil’s Secret Sauce – the action creates several layers, which can then be brought in through changes in the opacity of the layer, and / or the layer mask. When you run the action, it will create the layered version which looks the same as your original file, but now allows you to do selective changes to your photo.
  • Neil’s Extra Tasty Treats – a few additional effects that can be added.
  • a PDF instruction sheet, to explain how it all functions. For those even just slightly familiar with Photoshop, the action itself should be very simple to use. But the PDF is there in case you need help. And of course, we’ll answer all questions here that may come up.

Where this Action can and can’t work:

Adobe Photoshop: YES
Adobe Elements: NO
Lightroom in Conjunction with Adobe Photoshop: YES
Lightroom Standalone: NO
Aperture in Conjunction with Adobe Photoshop: YES (not verified)
Aperture Standalone: NO

further discussion

54 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 3Trev says

    I am sorry guys, I have never used PS Elements, but maybe someone else has.

    Does elements have ‘adjustment layers’ available to it?

    If so, more than likely it will.


  2. 4Kevin Deibert says

    Thanks for the sauce. I plan on purchasing the download for curiosity sake and for my own professional development. However, I would love/prefer if you would create a video tutorial of something like this with a screen capturing device (camtasia?) and sell that as the download. I myself….as well as many others, learn better in a digital arena like that. This way I could follow along step by step with the instructions and just press pause when I’m toggling between windows to perform the actions. It would be even better if in the download you provided the same image for the customer to manipulate so the directions would remain consistent for the audience.
    I enjoy the books and tutorials to read when I’m interested in flash, but when I’m trying to learn PS, I always prefer the video.
    Thanks and keep up the good work.

  3. 5Dan Rode says

    I’m no PS guru, but I’m reasonably skilled at retouching. I just had to download the actions to see what you’re doing and how :)

    Thanks for making them available.

  4. 7Trev says


    Sorry, I don’t think so, if like Lightroom [I don’t have a MAC], then no.

    Regarding Photoshop Elements. Sorry, short answer is NO.

    I have checked and unfortunately no. It can work to a degree, but one of the biggest drawbacks is you can only have 1 Action per Set, and there are several actions in these Sets. Also, in the main set, the Actions “calls” another action that’s in the Set to run, and this is the huge blocker, since all they layers created in the Super Set are actions ‘called’ to run.

    Very limited, hence Elements being a lot cheaper than Photoshop.

    Here is what I found:

    “Can Photoshop Actions work inside Elements?

    Those who are interested in creating Elements-compatible actions in Photoshop should be aware of these requirements:

    • Actions cannot call another action.

    • Action Sets may only contain a single action.

    • Some Photoshop functions and modes are simply not available in Elements, and actions which refer to them will not work in Elements.

    Before a Photoshop action can be used in Elements, the following steps must be taken.

    For all versions:
    • You must create a 64×64 pixel PSD file and place it in the same folder with a group of actions. For each action you want to call, you must create a layer in the PSD file with an image to represent the action. This is the image that will show in Elements’ Styles and Effects Palette. Each layer in the PSD file should be named to correspond with the Action it calls.”


  5. 9Trev says

    Regarding running Actions “from” Lightroom. YES!
    IF you actually have Photoshop installed as well. No Photoshop, then NO.

    Aperture: Presume same as Lightroom, [I don’t have Aperture] must also have Photoshop itself installed.

    Note: We are talking Photoshop itself, not Elements.

    HOW TO:

    Once you have edited your RAW image as much as possible in Lightroom, simply right click on the image, choose ‘Edit in…..’ select ‘Edit in Adobe Photoshop CS5 [or whatever version of PS], a window will pop up, make sure ‘Edit a Copy with Lightroom Adjustments’ is checked, then it opens in Photoshop.

    Run the actions, do adjustments, once finished, you don’t even need to flatten, actually it’s best not to, do a Ctrl/S to save, it will auto save as a PSD file, then just do a Ctrl/W to close the file out of Photoshop and it goes back into LR as a PSD and you simply export that version as a jpeg as normal, the beauty is you still have ALL your edits if you change your mind on something, just go back do a re-edit.


    If you want to RE-EDIT the PSD image, still choose Edit in… then choose Photoshop, but, make sure when the next window pops up, you choose ‘Edit Original’ that way it opens back up the original PSD as a fully editable PSD file.

    Lightroom Presets?

    These actions are designed to ‘finesse’ an image, not fully and totally edit, although you can if image is color correct and exposure somewhat accurate.
    Trying to create a Lightroom Preset to do what can be done in Photoshop is not possible, since you are working with layers for Opening Shadows, Light/Dark Tonal Ranges, but the main drawback is the ‘finessing’ of a final image is for Eyes, Whites Eyes, Teeth, Lips, etc. and there are in layers and brushed on for effect.


  6. 11Trev says


    Absolutely can be used on a ‘general’ image.

    What layers you can use:

    Open Shadows
    Light Tonal Contrast
    Dark Tonal Contrast
    Open Up Colors
    Fill Light: Opens up certain areas, say near faces, eye sockets, etc. does not need to be just a portrait.
    Remove Blue [Great to ‘whiten’ those wedding dresses which have the blue/shade effect and you want them whiter.
    Sunburn Relief [with this it does not just have to be a ‘face’, any section which contains too much ‘red’ can be fixed.


  7. 13Tid says

    Could you post some before/after to show some of the individual actions?
    As we don’t use LR, our lighting is already pretty good after processing.

  8. 14Trev says


    That sample link:
    with girl on beach, is virtually how it was straight out of RAW. I merely processed it from LR to see if I could use actions from LR itself which I can.

    All I did was: [looking at RAW now]
    1] Increase temp from 5450 to 5678
    2] Increase tint from +9 to +11
    3] Decrease Exposure from 0.00 to -0.20
    4] Recovery 0 to 10

    Left Blacks; Brightness; Contrast; Sharpness to their defaults on import.

    Nothing else.

    Sure I can find image and post more before/after of individual actions, that shot also in the link of Neil’s shows precisely the before especially for the eyes, etc.
    Anything in particular you wanted, I may not be able to find really close-up portraits to hand.


  9. 16Linda says

    Neil, thank you for these action sets. As a fairly experienced Photoshopper, I was interested in seeing what they could ‘really’ do, especially after seeing the image sample above. I am more than pleasantly surprised as there are several features that will now become part of my post processing workflow. I particularly appreciate the subtleties in some of the actions, especially when working on close up portraits. There are several action sets on the market today that sell for a substantially greater cost. Owning a few, of which I only use a little, I can say that yours offers exceptional value for some very important workflow actions. What a find, truly!

  10. 18 says

    Barry … I’m at the tail-end of a busy wedding season, so my time is a little tight at the moment. But it is definitely on my To Do list.

    Neil vN

  11. 19littlewangja says

    Love ur tutorials!!!
    i’ll second that on video…
    When u have time of course…
    And congrats on ur citizenship!!!
    I for one, know how important it is…

  12. 20Gio says

    Im not understanding the people who need video tutorials.. People, if you know how to run Actions on your photos, then there is really no need to have a video tutorial. All you are really doing it letting the Action play and once its done (10secs or less), you start to slide the opacity to apply the majority of the layers..

  13. 21Guru Saini says

    Hi Neil got these actions some days ago.. and should say thank you very much. They are brilliant and I am still getting use to them and learning how to get the exact effect, but they are brilliant. Till now no problem using them and thanks to you as they are simple and easy to use.
    Want to begin Flash photography and learning from your book, hopefully one day.

    Best Regards and keep brining amazing stuff and some more Actions…

    Guru Saini

  14. 22Guru Saini says

    Hi Neil again with question about your actions. They are working great and thnx again. Just a question I dont know whether I am doing right or using the one of the actions right to get that pop up effect in the images. After running your super set 1, then i run seceret sauce advance button and also simple advance. This places a layer on the top of the image, but what effect i am suppose to get dont know. as when i try to change the opacity i feel it is giving efffect like when you increase the clarity in camera raw… Is is suppose to happen like that or i am doing something worng an same thing happens with simple sauce action too. Please advice on this.

    Looking forward for your reply and may be you can show difference by using image to see what is the end effect.

    Guru, from London

  15. 23Richard says

    Just bought 2 of your flash books on Amazon, and now your action sets.
    You deserve all the adoration you receive
    Many thanks.

  16. 24Trev says

    Hi Guru,

    Thanks for comments.

    Just to clarify first up: You do not need to run both ‘Secret Sauce’ actions together as the explanation of the ‘Secret Sauce ADVANCED/SIMPLE’ action is, well, simple. Poor pun intended :)

    Now the idea of the actual Super Set, as you know, is to manipulate your images, as in Open Shadows, Light/Dark Tonal Ranges, Open Colors, Eye Whites, Teeth, Eye Crisp etc. etc.

    Once you are happy with the image and while you are still in layers, but, if you think you may still want to do some more editing later on, keeping the layers, you run the Secret Sauce ADVANCED action, that puts a layer on top of the other layers, adjust the opacity of the Secret Sauce layer to suit.

    Even after running the Secret Sauce ‘Advanced’ action you are then able to adjust any of the other layers beneath, as image is still adjustable totally with the ‘Secret Sauce ADVANCED’ layer on top.

    Yes, it is similar to ‘Clarity’ or with other methods, done in a different way. The advantage being that once in jpeg and you are tweaking the image with this set, you can give it the pop without having to think ‘I should have given it more clarity in RAW’.

    Regarding running Secret Sauce SIMPLE action:

    It merely flattens all the layers, it’s assuming that you are totally satisfied with the adjustments below, and then do exactly the same thing re adjust layer opacity to suit, flatten again and you are done.

    It was designed simple, or advanced for the more experienced users so that they can still alter their images later on, or even saving the PSD file for further use down the track, eg BW it, since tonal ranges alter between color and BW.

    Sometimes, very rarely depending on the image, if you run the secret sauce and adjust the opacity, it may slightly alter the overall look you were after, so having the flexibility of still adjusting the Color layer, the Open up Shadows and the Light & Dark Tonal Ranges is a possibility with the Secret Sauce ADVANCED layer already set.

    I hope this helps you.


  17. 25 says

    Hi Neil and Trev,

    I purchased your action set (which is an incredible deal BTW) and read through the instructions several times. However, I cannot get the “Super Set” to run no matter what I do. I have re-downloaded twice but continue to get errors. The other individual actions seem to b working just fine. Probably user error, but I am stumped – let me know if someone can help. Thanks!

  18. 26Brad KIng says

    Love them! Thanks Neil. Best $10 I’ve ever spent. (I can’t get out of Starbucks with my kids for that cheap!)

  19. 27Trev says

    Hi Cary,

    A bit late, but I thought I had better post here since your problem was resolved via email. For some reason the download link was giving you the old version and you have since indicated to me it’s now working great for you.


  20. 28G. Rudolph says

    25.Hi Neil and Trev,

    I purchased your action set (which is an incredible deal BTW) and read through the instructions several times. However, I cannot get the “Super Set” to run no matter what I do. I have re-downloaded twice but continue to get errors. The other individual actions seem to b working just fine. Probably user error, but I am stumped – let me know if someone can help. Thanks!

    Comment by Cary Rothschild — December 26, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    Hi Neil,
    I’ve exactly the same problem. Some individual actions work like eye crisp, teeth whitening, eye whites others don’t and with the whole set I get a lot of different error comments. Is it possible to get a link for the download the actual version of the software?

    G. Rudolph

  21. 29 says

    Guenter .. I re-added the latest version again to the download page. So hopefully this won’t happen again.

    Anyway, Trev tells me he helped you in sorting out this problem.

    Neil vN

  22. 30 says

    I have Photoshop CS and in running the action I get a message that ‘make’ is not available as in ‘make adjustment layer’ etc. I am thinking that this must be something that is available in later versions of Photoshop. Is this something I can get around or am I out of luck?

  23. 31Toan says

    Hello: Neil and Trev

    I purchased your action last night. So far I am happy with it.
    Just a question: Is it possible the individual action can be run without flattened image? Thank you


  24. 32Trev says


    I have sent email, but the answer is a no on the main action ‘Neil’s Super Set v2 – Run 1st’ action.

    It’s merely meant to be a tweak of an already edited file, just to give it that final lift.


  25. 33 says

    Hello guys, i got the actions yesterday night but some commands cannot be run because i have an italian version of PS5. As instance, any “Select level Background” command cannot be run because PS does not find any level with such name, then it stops with the message ” the object “Background level” is not currently available”…. I tried to edit a few of them but i’ve got the feeling i’m just wasting time… it seems it’s gonna take me some days to amend all the single commands in all the actions….

  26. 35 says

    Neil, thanks for your feedback and refund. I actually guess i’ll keep on testing your actions somehow trying to “localize” them for the italian version of PS.
    Will get back on you if i will get some good results.

  27. 36Trev says


    *Maybe* this will work. Open image, change your background layer from Italian [Fondo is it?] to the English ‘Background’, before running the Action. See if that works, since it is looking for the background.


  28. 37 says

    Neil, Trev: i have now translated all the english commands into italian and i’m enjoying the actions a lot, making the post-production of a wedding i shot last week, then i feel i have to pay for them: do you suggest me to go through the downloading and paypal process again or there’s a more straight way to pay you..?
    Carlo (Barone)

  29. 39Robin says

    Hi Neil,

    I just purchased your PS Actions and I downloaded the action thru the link provided. However, when I opened the zip file, I don’t see the Neil’s Extra Tasty Treats. Is it still included in the sale? Thank you!

  30. 41Trev says


    I had just sent you an email prior to reading this, yep, all bundled into the one action set now in case anyone else has same question.

  31. 42Robin says

    Hi Neil, I have another question, While I am using your actions, I discovered that when I increase the opacity for Dark Tonal Range artifacts are introduced into the photo , in particular, these artifacts are a series of squares from left to right, top to bottom. At first, I thought it was a camera’s sensor problem, but when I checked other photos from different cameras, these artifacts are also present. The artifacts are more visible when you have a light background like skies, etc. Is this normal? Thank you!

  32. 43Trev says


    Are you editing in 16-bit mode, this set was designed to be for final tweaks of an already normally edited 8-bit image and some of the actions call for calculations to be run twice.

    Photoshop has a bug in it whereby it does not like doing calculations twice when in 16-bit mode.

    Change to 8-bit.


  33. 45 says

    Really, I didn’t mind spending some bucks on the PS Actions. I have about probably more than ten Photoshop tricks but this one’s awesome. Although at first I had some probs with some commands but I was able to figure them out. Now, I am so happy with my purchase.

  34. 46Sara says

    All Photoshop fans will surely like this post. I am very interested in the “secret sauce” thing here. I always experiment with new image editing stuff especially when it comes to giving sweetness to images. Sometimes I even end up with images that are almost impossible to recognize which is definitely what editing is all about. Great info here!

  35. 47Angelo says

    Hi Neil

    Big fan of your work and I have learnt so much. I have also modelled my workflow on your posts which has vastly improved the quality of my images. However, today, after attending my local printing lab, all my images were far too red in skin tones. The lab uses a Fuji Frontier printer.
    I shoot in RAW and edit as per your ACR presets in a previous tangent. My adjustments are usually a tweak here or there.
    The photos I speak about were of a local pre school (approx 70 children) , manual manual flash, fixed positions.
    All images were batched processed as mentioned with a WB of 5600k.
    My MACs are calibrated via SYDER 3 ELITE. And to be honest, they look very “smick” (not sure if you use this term in the USA).
    Smick down under means sweet.
    Cameras are Canon 1DSMk3 and 1DX, all with a profile of sRGB. Used a 50mm f1.2 all day.
    I use this lab all the time and have never experienced this problem.
    Any suggestions.



          Comment by Angelo — November 15, 2012 @ 3:32 am

  36. 48Angelo says

    Hi Neil

    This problem has been sorted out, thanks to my new found friend, Trev.
    He has identified the issue and has sorted it out for me, and may I say very pronto.
    A big thank you to Trev, aka “wombat”



  37. 50 says

    Hi Guys…

    I am fortunate enough to now be using CS6 Master Suite and last night I purchased the Action set (thanks!). Not had the opportunity to try it out yet, I need some more good portrait images! It has loaded fine into PS CS6 but the individual actions are not colour coded as per your pdf instructions.

    Do you know if there is a way to re-instate or add the colour to the actions so that I can mimic the instruction set. It’s not a big deal because I can obviously see what they are by the description but you have gone to the trouble of detailing it this way.

    CS6 differs great from the CS3 version so I am finding my feet again!

    Oh… and Angelo… I’m also an Aussie and I would pronounce it “Schmick”, emphasis on the “Shh” :) – but lets just go with “tops mate”. … just thinking – I do have a portrait of a Wombat I took in Tasmania a few months ago…


  38. 51Trev says


    I would presume you have the action palette’s Button Mode turned off, everything will look grey with little folders showing, that’s the long way of doing stuff, having to click on the action, than having to go to the bottom to press play triangle.

    Go to the top right of the action palette, and you will see a tiny triangle and some small lines on the same line as the word ACTIONS, click that to get the wing menu, then choose ‘Button Mode’ and the actions will turn into direct buttons, meaning you click once and it will play automatically.

    If you need to go into the sets again, do the opposite, just click on the Button Mode where the tick is now showing, and it will turn off.


    PS: Heads up: Once in Button Mode and you have a lot of actions, they may look like 2 or even 3 columns which is very confusing.

    So, to fix that it means you have the palette too wide, just click and hold on any side, left/right, and drag it in a bit to shorten the width, until the columns disappear and you are left with just the one long list. Much much easier to sort and use.

  39. 52 says

    Excellent, thanks! – Not in front on ‘my’ PC at the moment but I know exactly where you mean… any idea about the action colours?

    Again – not critical.



  40. 53Trev says


    When you turn on button mode, the buttons become colour that was built in when creating. Normally the default button colour is a light Grey, but you will see exactly like the PDF once turned on.

    The idea generally of selecting a colour when building, is to differentiate between the section, say Blue for the face [lips, teeth, eyes] or others.

    You have a choice when building actions to incorporate the desired colour, although there is not a huge range: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Grey [which is dark] but if none used, default is a light grey.



  41. 54Rani S. says

    In terms of Photoshop the best result is that one that doesn’t show a lot of difference from the original image. Photoshop is supposed to enhance and not totally change. Retouching the eyes and lips to make them look more attractive or reducing tones are kinda basic but they are the best when applied properly. I definitely will get your secret sauce!

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