Photoshop's built-in toolkit is superb, but you can expand your collection almost infinitely with third-party Photoshop Actions, which essentially 'record' a series of tasks conducted within the software and replay the steps automatically.
Third-party Actions are an easy way to apply new and imaginative effects to your photographs, and their developers often offer some of their most popular creations to download and use free. If you love the freebies, you might then consider buying a package containing more.
Another good place to find free Photoshop Actions is DeviantArt, where creatives and artists around the world share and critique each others’ work. Search the site for ‘Photoshop Filter’ and ‘Photoshop Action’ and you’ll find a ton of freebies (though you might have to email the creator for the file).
Don't have Photoshop? Check out our guide to the best free alternatives.
How to install Photoshop Actions
It only takes a few moments to install new Photoshop Actions. First, download the ZIP archive for your chosen Action and unpack the files to a convenient location.
Now open Photoshop and click the Menu button on the Actions palette. Click Load Actions, then select one of the downloaded ATN files. Repeat the process with the remaining files.
All the new Actions will now be installed and available in the palette.
Make your photo look like a frozen still from a broken video tape
This retro look will be familiar to both lovers of horror movies like The Ring, or anyone who’s watched their parents’ worn-out 80s wedding video. Glitch is a free Photoshop Action from from Creativetacos that you can use to give a normal photo the look of a glitchy VHS picture from decades past.
Download here: Glitch
2. Weekend B/W
A sophisticated monochrome filter for upmarket portrait shots
Graded with five colours and sensitive to skin tones, this Photoshop Action gives a sleek, classic monochrome look to your photos. It works best on portraits, including wedding, studio and children’s portraits. It’s only compatible with the latest versions of Photoshop, though, so you’ll need either CS6 or the Creative Cloud. This Photoshop Action was created by DeviantArt veteran Realgrow, aka Serge, from Russia.
Download here: Weekend B/W
Apply a comic-style effect reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein
Want to make your image look like a page from a comic book? Use this great Photoshop Action from Creativetacos to create a stylish halftone effect. It works best with colorful photos, and it's compatible with Photoshop CS3-CS6 and Photoshop CC.
Download here: Halftone Photo Effect
A stylish texture that lends pictures an old-school print look
Some Photoshop Actions are quite subtle, while others are very dramatic. This one fits firmly into the latter category, using Photoshop's built-in geometric shapes to create a stylish effect reminiscent of old print.
Download here: Free Vintage Retro Circle Effect
5. Old Film
Recreate the vintage feel of an old colour photo
Inspired by the era of film, this brilliant Photoshop Action from Shutter Pulse will transform a modern photo to give it the vintage feel of a bygone age. You can either download this Photoshop action by itself, or get it as part of a free bundle that includes 20 Lightroom presets and 20 Photoshop actions (provided you're happy to give the developer your email address).
Download here: Old Film
Add an icy look to your images with this stunning high contrast filter
Exposure School is a popular blog providing tips and tricks on how to improve your photography. Its creators are giving away this eerie Photoshop Action free, enabling you to add an unsettling look to your stranger snaps. It’s compatible with Photoshop CS3-CS6 and Photoshop CC.
Download here: Cold Nightmare
Transform colour photos with a beautiful monochrome sheen
Silver applies a sophisticated monochrome look that can really add a touch of class to otherwise ordinary images. There are versions of this free Photoshop Action for both Photoshop (CS4-CS6 and CC) and Photoshop Elements (11 and upwards).
Download here: Silver
Reproduce the fun effect of the Lomo LC-A camera
This stunning Photoshop Action from Photography Planet applies a fun, toy camera effect to your photos that’s inspired by the much-loved Lomo LC-A camera from the old Soviet Union.
There are two versions of the Action included in the download: the low res one, which works best with photos less than 1500px in height or width, and the regular one, which works better with larger photos – the difference being the amount of edge blur. Compatible with Photoshop CS4-CS6 and Photoshop CC.
Download here: Lomo
Simulate the look of imperfectly exposed film
In the days of film photography, light leaks (where light gets into a camera, exposing the film or sensor) were seen as a problem that could ruin a picture. Nowadays, there’s fond nostalgia for the unintended yet dramatic visual effects that light leaks caused, so this free Photoshop Action from Photography Planet allows you to apply the look to a modern digital image. It’s compatible with Photoshop CS4-CS6 and CC.
Download here: Vintage Light Leak
10. Desert Dust
A view through the eye of a sandstorm
Anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad will know that there’s an eerie, dusty glow to any desert scene. Give your pictures a desert makeover with this free Photoshop Action from Vandelay Design, which summons up a hazy vista of desert dirt and dust.
Download here: Desert Dust
11. Blue Evening
Envelop images in an evocative blue mist
Give your photo a dramatic blue cast with this evocative Photoshop Action from Photography Planet. Blue Evening works in Photoshop CS4-CS6 and CC, and there’s also a version compatible with Photoshop Elements 11 and above.
Download here: Blue Evening
13. Summer Haze
Bring a touch of warmth to outdoor shots
This free Photoshop Action from Photography Planet simulates the look of warm late afternoon sunshine. It’s best used on outdoor photos – especially portraits taken in natural light – and is compatible with Photoshop CS4-CS6 and Photoshop CC.
Download here: Summer Haze
A brilliant toolkit of professional-quality filters
Nik Collection is a set of plugins rather than actions, but it's so remarkable, we felt it had to be included.
Nik Collection is a set of seven top quality filters for creating stunning monochrome conversions, adjusting colors, applying retro film effects, sharpening, creating HDR images, reducing noise, and manipulating exposure. Each filter includes presets that will transform photos in a couple of clicks, as well as sliders to customize the results.
Download here: Google Nik Collection