Photoshop actions – the secret sauce to make your images pop

Photoshop fairy dust / Neil’s secret sauce

As much as I believe in the “get it right in camera” ethos, it is near inescapable that most images can use some sweetening in Photoshop. My own preference is for fairly subtle retouching of photographs.

The photograph above is one I’ve shown a few times as a great example of how good on-camera bounce flash can look. I did have to adjust the WB and exposure as part of my usual RAW post-processing workflow. And for the image on the left, I also removed some skin blemishes with the Healing Tool. So it does look pretty good .. but it can be subtly enhanced. And the keyword here for me is *subtle*.

My post-processing retouching for portraits involve some Photoshop plug-ins that I use, but there are some useful (and well-known) Photoshop techniques to make an image pop a little bit more. Over several articles on Tangents, I’ve referred to it as either “Photoshop fairy dust” or in a humorous way as my “secret sauce”. The techniques vary, depending on what is needed, and on what I’d like to achieve.  So the “secret sauce” varies from image to image by some degree. It really depends.

With the help of Photoshop wiz, Adrian (aka, Trev from the Tangents forum), we’ve put together two action sets that make these Photoshop techniques quite accessible … and more importantly, accessible in a subtle way. No over-the-top effect. Just that sweetening of the photograph as is necessary. The image on the right-hand shows the type of retouching that is possible with this action set.

The action set, called Neil’s Secret Sauce, is available for download for a $20 fee from that linked page. The zip file includes two actions as well as a PDF instruction sheet.

And of course, we’ll gladly help!

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

17 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 3Trev says


    I just tested in Lightroom and you sure can utilise those action sets from LR.

    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 and it goes back into LR as a PSD and you just 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.


  2. 4Trev says

    Sorry, I forgot to say, if you want to RE-EDIT the PSD image, still choose Edit in… and choose P’shop, but, make sure when the next window pops up, you choose ‘Edit Original’ that way it opens back up as a full editable PSD file.


  3. 6Trev says

    Hi Mike,

    Unfortunately, if you don’t have Photoshop installed, it cannot, since Lightroom uses ‘Presets’ and Photoshop ‘Actions’. Two entirely different things.

    You can create a droplet which runs an action when importing files, however, this still needs Photoshop to work, no way around it that I can see, and even if you could open it in LR, there are no layers to work with creating a stylised approach and any action run as a droplet imported into LR has to be the ‘final’ edit.

    Anyone else may chime in here, but I don’t think so from what I can see.


  4. 9Trev says

    Regarding use of PS Actions in Elements. 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. 10Bob Madia says

    Like everything else from you, when I think that I already knew “that”, you add a twist. I am not newB (or am I). This simple/complex action will save me time / and add “that twist”. $10…hmm…2 Starbucks or this…..the winner is….

  6. 11 says

    Neil, I have playing with the action sets today. I feel the changes are very subtle (maybe too subtle )but then again I probably am doing something wrong. The ones with the black masks seem to be giving me the most trouble. I have my brush switched to white, have increased the hardness and can see the effects on the mask but when I remove the “eye” I do not see a difference on the picture. Opacity is set to 100% everywhere I can set it. Can you think of any other setting I may have wrong? In particular I am looking to “darken” over exposed faces and “lighten” ones that are shadowed. Any advice on how to use your actions to correct my lighting problems would be greatly appreciated. As I am sure you can guess I am new to using masks! Thanks,

  7. 14Michael Foley says

    ‘The command “mezzotint” is not currently available’ is the message displayed when I attempt to run old vintage look (both bw and color).


  8. 15Trev says


    Please read the last couple of posts at this link.

    I take it you are running on a normal jpeg, no layers, but flattened.

    Neil tested and it’s fine on his and on mine.

    Read that link, some posts couple up from bottom where someone else had same trouble. ‘Mezzotint’ is just a filter in the Pixalate section so should run.

    Suggested you delete the set and reload action set again.


  9. 16Trev says

    I think I found the problem regarding the ‘Mezzotint is not currently availalbe’ message displayed.

    I can now duplicate the problem and that is you get that message if you run it on a 16-bit file, instead of an 8-bit file which is what 99% of people automatically have without realising.

    This Old Vintage Look is designed to be run on a normal 8-bit file, a duplicate obviously of your finished original file as a separate ‘effect’.
    I may have completely finished editing a file, save the jpeg, then do a copy of the image so I can have an effect. No different than having a color image then doing a separate BW version.

    Can only be run on a flattened image.

    There are 2 solutions:
    Change file to 8 bits first.
    On your Menu Bar: Image/Mode/Select “8 bits/channel”

    2] Run on a 16-bit file, but when that message comes up, Click ‘Continue’ and a warning message about no pixels being selected will come up, Click OK, then about 2 more warnings regarding ‘Mezzotint not found’ simply click on Continue each time until it finishes.

    Images and explanation also in forum here:


  10. 17Mike says

    Hey Neil,

    Thanks for providing the action set! I just purchased it. I’ve been a daily reader of your blog for a year now. Thanks again for all the valuable information!

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