Photoshop comes pre-loaded with several actions already built in. These would be called your "Default Actions" as well as "Image Effects", production actions, etc. Honestly I rarely use any of these default actions, other than the ones that convert to Sepia images. There are 2 actions under "Image Effects" that I like that are called "Soft Focus" and "Soft Flat Color" that are cool. But they are like your basic old actions.
Using Actions to Speed Things Up
Probably the way we use actions here the most is by creating our own personalized actions for things that we do over and over and over and over and over again daily. For example, if you look in that graphic I have above, you'll see one called RGB to CMYK 300. This is an action I made that will convert a picture to 300 resolution, CMYK format. I use it all of the time when I'm doing print ads or catalogs to make sure my images are all at 300 resolution and CMYK.
Another you'll see is one that is called Image Resize 250. This is what we use to resize photos for web sites.
Basically, when you make your own action, you're telling Photoshop a series of 'actions' to do. To make a new action, you click on the upper right hand tab of the actions palette and choose "New Action". Then you can name whatever you're fixing to do, something like how we have it named Test Action. Then you will click on the button that says "record"
Once you do that, Photoshop starts remembering all of the steps you do. Such as going to the Image Menu, choosing the size you want to make the photos, etc. You just go about your work as normal until you finish the steps you need. The red record button means Photoshop is recording your steps. Then, when you're finished, you will need to tell Photoshop to "Stop recording" by just clicking the button at the bottom of your Actions palette that looks like a "stop" button.
Actions come in handy tremendously when doing things like sale catalogs, or when you're working with a bunch of photos, because you can even record the action to tell Photoshop where you want to save the photos. Every time I do a new catalog, I make a new action for that project, usually with these steps: Converting the picture to CMYK, 300 resolution, then saving as a JPG in the appropriate client folder. See below:
So even on a catalog that might have 300 photos, all I have to do is just click and "play" the action, and Photoshop does all of the rest.
Finding Actions Online
Despite the actions that come default with Photoshop, there are literally THOUSANDS of actions you can download for free or purchase off the internet. These are GREAT for people who like to do photography or play around on their home computers, because there are a TON of actions that will greatly enhance your images. Google around for "photoshop actions" or "Photoshop retouching actions" and see what you come up with. You'll be amazed. Plus, the great thing about using actions like these is that they make you look like a total professional photographer and it only takes a matter of seconds! Then all you have to do is download the actions, load them in Photoshop, and totally impress your friends!!!
Here are some samples of quick image enhancing done with some actions just to show some basic stuff.
Original Picture (my dog, Tori):
Here's the picture using one action that improves the color. It also makes the picture look sharper in the areas you want to focus on (like the dog) and blurs the background. This took all of ONE SECOND to do. I just hit the "play" button on the action.
Here's a different example of making a photo into black and white by using Photoshop Actions. It kind of makes it black and white and look grungy.
Now, being the big fan of ethical photo-retouching that I am, I would be remiss to say that you can be a Photoshop whiz but that doesn't take the place of people with actual technical training in photography. For example, my cousin who took all my wedding photos for me and did our RHD open house photos doesn't even OWN Photoshop! He does all of his wonders with just his knowledge and his camera. I love working in Photoshop, and having fun playing around with pictures, but I have a HUGE amount of respect for those professionals like my cousin and Christy Collins who do all of their magic with just a camera and a lens!