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Graphics Tablets for Photo Retouching: The New Buyers' Guide

Graphics tablets are a creative-industry staple for a wide variety of tasks involving precision computer input. They're recommended for every photographer and designer, and pretty much a requirement for any kind of digital artist or painter. How, though, are they used? What makes them so indispensable in the industry? And what features are you supposed to look for when shopping for one?

Illustration of a graphics tablet

5 Reasons Why You Need a Graphics Tablet for Photo Retouching Work

Every laptop today comes with a touchpad, and, if you're under 30, you probably grew up using a mouse. What makes a graphics tablet so much better than these? Here are just a few reason to consider trying one out:

Graphics Tablets Make Your Work Safer

The computer mouse is a fascinating invention, but it's just not ergonomically suited to human hands or doing precision graphics work. Even in a short period, using a mouse to do intensive, fine motor work can seriously injure your hand, wrists, elbow and shoulder. Holding a pressure-sensitive pen is far less hard on your body. If you're serious about photo post-processing, do your body a favour and get a tablet.

graphics tablet on a computer work desk
This is my positioning for photo processing. For painting, I put it on the other wing of my L desk to give my elbow somewhere to sit.

Graphics Tablets Help You Work Faster

How many clicks do you make when working in creative software? We use keyboard shortcuts and actions to cut down on click because they are very time consuming. How many fractions of a second per click do you lose between moving the mouse pointer from one part of the screen to another, or overshooting your target? If you spend any kind of significant amount of time in front of the software of your choice, eventually this adds up to a lot of time wasted.

With a graphics tablet, the pointer moves as fast as your hand can move. If you lift the pen up far enough, you can jump from one side of the screen to the other instantaneously. The sensitive rectangle on the tablet maps to the entire screen. Because hovering shows you where the cursor is before the tip touches down to click, you can precisely stab at buttons and menus as fast as your hand can move.

Natural Motion and Lines

The increased precision you get when holding a pen-shaped stylus is significant. Think about it this way: if you were trying to trace a line on a piece of paper as closely as possible, would a prefer to use pen block of soap?

Each got seven attempts This was the closest the mouse got to not looking terrible Not very close
Each got 7 attempts. This was the closest the mouse got to not looking terrible. Not very close.

No one ever invented a pen shaped like a bar of soap, so why draw like that? For photographers, this gets really interesting when we try to make selections or dodging and burning. With a tablet, you can do a lot of things without worrying about jumping into our subject because the mouse slipped.

Pressure Sensitivity

Tablet tools actually go one step further than pens. Not only do they allow naturally precise finger manipulation, but they add another dimension of control: pressure sensitivity. As anyone who's ever doodled in class, ballpoint pens give maybe three to four levels of pressure sensitivity on the line weight and density. Pencils are similar. Tablets, however, generally allow between 512 and 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity! Basically, as far as your hand is concerned, it's analogue control, not digital.

Naturalistic drawing The Wacom has a nice paper-like surface which is perfect
Naturalistic drawing. The Wacom has a nice, paper-like surface which is perfect.

Want to make applied pressure control brush size? You can do that. Want it to control opacity or flow? You can do that too. Both? Also doable. Some other random variable like hue or texture? Most likely entirely achievable. Digital brings these benefits to the table that even a traditional spray gun or watercolour brush can't compete with. And your mouse, with its single level of sensitivity, is left in the dust.

The best I could manage in a few minutes with the mouse I stopped because it just wasnt getting better The real world doesnt operate on parallel lines
The best I could manage in a few minutes with the mouse. I stopped because it just wasn't getting better. The real world doesn't operate on parallel lines.

So no longer are you restricted to circles and sausages. The brushwork is confident and precise and follows the contours it needs to. Whether matte painting a background, sketching in pre-production or dodging and burning a portrait, the brushwork will look like brushwork, not like it came out of an MS-DOS version of Paint.

Hot Keys

Do you use more keyboard shortcuts than your fingers can comfortably handle? Tablets usually offer a number of programmable hot keys to add some extra simplicity to a complex or variable workflow. My old tablet had keys around the outside of the sensitive area. My Wacom Bamboo has four customisable hardware keys. Intuoses have quite a few more.

The four buttons on the Bamboo The Intuos Pro has eight plus a touch ring
The four buttons on the Bamboo. The Intuos [Pro] has eight plus a touch ring.

You're probably now starting to see why every time you watch a video of someone post-processing, they're using a tablet. So what tablets are there out there? How should you determine which one to buy?

Buying Your First Tablet

When you start shopping for tablets, you'll quickly realize that it's a specialised market with only a few players. You'll also notice that Wacom seems to dominate the marketplace. On B&H, for example, you'll find graphic tablet and pen offerings from eight companies. There's 42 products and accessories from Wacom; all the other companies combined only offer 15.

Wacom

First, let me state that I (nor Envato) have no affiliation with Wacom. I have used other products, but it seems clear to me that Wacom makes a superior product. There's a reason Wacom are the industry standard, and I'm going to let you in on the secret why: Wacom is the only tablet brand which does everything in-house, from hardware to software to support. Why? Because pen and touch interaction is all that Wacom does.

graphicstablet_06

One benefit of this ecosystem is that Wacom write their own drivers. This means that, by and large, their tablets just work (even with Linux, though more so with the more popular distros). They also have an incentive to fix things quickly, or people will start looking for a new product.

Years ago, I had a Trust tablet. Nothing against Trust, but the Trust tablet has the same chipset made by the same supplier as every other non-Wacom tablet out there. And when the "Trust" drivers stop working, you have to dig out the original ones, which are next to impossible to find because the whole mish-mash of OEMs and rebranding produces a logistical nightmare which Windows doesn't stand a chance of understanding. You end up with memory leaks and crashes all over the place and no amount of messing about in Device Manager is going to make it work again reliably. Yuck.

Ive never had to go in here with the Wacom not once
I've never had to go in here with the Wacom, not once.

When I finally gave up on the Trust tablet, I looked at a variety of others. I found some non-Wacoms for the same price as Wacoms. However, the research I'd already done on trying to resurrect the Trust had shown me that these higher priced tablets are essentially the same low-end hardware wrapped in a nicer case with a couple extra features. They're just not Wacoms.

Preaching aside, if you don't have the cash to buy a Wacom, know that pretty much every other tablet is same. Plus, Bamboo and Intuos tablets are both Wacom products, and they're only about $70 these days!

A Note on Size

Tablets are available in a variety of sizes. This is generally the main differentiation in the pricing, but bigger isn't necessarily better. What you're using it for, as well as practical factors like desk real estate, should inform this decision.

Generally what I've found, and I've heard along similar lines from others, is that for photography either of the bottom two sizes will do. Because you're frequently zooming to check detail, having more surface mapped to the screen to get more precision doesn't really significantly benefit the photographer or retoucher. Not that this'll stop you from seeing retouchers with letter/A4-size Intuoses or 21" Cintiqs, but these larger, fancier models are really made for illustrators and designers, who need the larger surface area for expressive brushstrokes. So don't worry if your tablet budget is under $200, because for photography that's really just fine and anything else is probably overkill.

The sensitive area outline marks on the smallest tablet iPhone 5 for scale
The sensitive area outline marks on the smallest tablet. iPhone 5 for scale.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing a lot of digital painting, detail restoration, graphic artwork, or organic 3D modeling then having the larger surface area so you aren't constantly finding yourself zooming in and out can be a bonus. If this is the case, I would go for the letter/A4 size tablet, or even the next one up like the monster Intuos4 XL, especially if I had a 27-30" monitor.

Your Choice of Tablet Features

Honestly, when starting out, none of the fancy stuff is actually necessary. Get a basic model.

I got a Wacom with multitouch, thinking it would be much easier to rotate and zoom while working without switching tools in Photoshop, but I've found that the sensitivity is lacking a little on the multitouch layer sometimes, leading to lag. Sometimes the Wacom doesn't map to a program properly, so pinch-to-zoom doesn't engage Navigator, for example, or when it does, a large finger movement produces a small on-screen movement with no sensitivity adjustment available. So even when a feature seems useful on paper, that doesn't necessarily mean it is. Luckily, the Wacom drivers do allow you to deeply customise your touch pad, so if you do happen to have a more deluxe model you can pick and choose which features to turn on and off.

A little lag on the rotate way too much movement required to zoom

A little lag on the rotate, way too much movement required to zoom.

So things like multitouch, hot keys, and Bluetooth ports are probably best tried in a store later on, once you know your way around a graphics tablet and understand what could be missing from your workflow. Features like the LCD screen on the Cintiq are designed for working pros who can justify the minor speed gain and increased comfort from drawing on the same surface as you're looking at based on their hourly rates. Some high-end pros don't even like the Cintiq experience, for whatever reason, so don't fall into the more-expensive-is-better trap.

Stylus Features

It used to be that pens with extra features were sold separately so you could upgrade as necessary. Now, each product family tends to have its own dedicated pen and the extra controls that used to be on the pen have migrated to the side of the tablet body. The only differentiator left is tilt. Cheap consumer tablets only have pressure sensitivity (usually 1024 levels), whereas professional grade tablets have both pressure (usually upgraded to 2048 levels) and tilt sensitivity.

Try a Graphics Tablet!

For the beginning user, I'd say just get a small, basic pen and tablet combo for under $150. You don't know if you'll need any more features on either the tablet or the pen, and it doesn't make sense to waste potentially hundreds of dollars on features you won't use. If you do decide to upgrade, you can always sell your first tablet or pass it along to a friend.

I've never honestly found myself thinking that I really needed tilt sensitivity, though perhaps in some cases it would be useful to control pen roundness. I think that more is made of some graphics tablet features than they strictly merit most of the time.

That's all I've got for now on getting started with graphics tablets. Don't be oversold, just get what you need. Just like camera gear! If you have experience using a graphics tablet as a photographer, let us know how it went in the comments! Has it sped up your workflow or helped you be more precise?

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