Why You Should Get A Pen Tablet for You Photographic Post-Production

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I’ve been editing my photos with a computer mouse for more than half a decade. So far, I've gone through only two PC mice: one a generic Deluxe 800 dpi mouse (which didn't last for more than 6 months), and the other a Verbatim Rapier V1 3200 dpi laser mouse, which is still kicking after 6 years of regular abuse. The Verbatim does a great job. I can’t really complain. I can easily change the sensitivity, I have macro keys at my disposal, and I can even change the weight.

But it is still just a mouse. Even if a mouse had one million DPI, you would still be facing the problem that the accuracy depends on your arm, and not your palm (which is more dexterous and accurate). That is why I decided to buy a pen tablet even though I was skeptical at first. I had my doubts about the effectiveness of pen tablets, but because mouse-accuracy is so limited, I decided to buy the Intuos S Wacom Tablet, which has a working area of 10×15 cm and was the cheapest on the market.

Was it a good decision? Indeed it was. Speaking from my personal experience, I can say that if you are switching from mouse to pen tablet for the first time, there are some things that you need to consider.

Olde Tyme Wacom'ing
Photo by Evan p. cordes

Getting Used To It

Using a pen tablet could be a totally new concept for you, and at first it will feel weird due to the absolute positioning of the tablet – the surface area of the tablet corresponds exactly to the screen. So the top right corner on the pen tablet will always be the top right corner of the screen. If you are used to trackpads (which are relative position trackers) it will feel really unusual, but just give it some time, and you will get used to it. Once you do, you’ll find that the mouse is actually rather redundant. I’ve caught myself using the pen tablet to browse the web by habit. I've even played a few games with it.

Drivers

I have to be honest with you: conflicts concerning drivers will be a problem you will have to deal with, on occasion. I had this issue with Windows interfering with the Wacom driver which made precise work a pain. Luckily, the new drivers made it work, but I had to edit some files by hand. You can find all sorts of tutorials and videos online that address all the different headache-inducing issues, but for the most part, they are easy to fix.

The Freedom

Once you have your Wacom tablet all set up and working and you open Photoshop (for this you’ll basically have had to set it up all over again), you can finally make use of pen pressure. Actually, you can control almost all aspects in any brush via pen pressure. I usually control size and opacity on the brushes with pen pressure (except for healing brush, when I just control the size) simply because it makes masking and cloning much easier and natural. Free hand gestures are more precise, feel natural to work with, and make your masking and cloning (and healing, dodging, burning, and everything else involving a brush) look much better and more realistic.

My Wacom
Drawing by Susan Murtaugh

Speed

Once you are used to the tablet – when you've gotten to know the surface area by muscle memory – the editing speed starts to increase. You may worry that the many executed-in-a-tenth-of-a-second actions will cause your PC to get blocked. You can't make quite as many brush strokes with a mouse (since you need more time and hand-eye coordination to do so), but again, it is a totally different world using the stylus. If your PC is hardy enough, your advanced edits can become faster by a 50% increase in very little time, which makes all the difference when you have to edit several photos.

Summary

I can't justly say that having a pen tablet (regardless of whether it is a Wacom or that of another company) is an extreme necessity, but if you are into heavy editing, especially if your workflow happens in Photoshop most of the time, it is very nice to have one. The pros of the pen tablet outweigh the cons, and once you've owned one for a period of time, it will grow on you and you soon won’t be able to imagine handling your workflow without it.

Additionally, I would advise you to get yourself an additional batch of pen tips at the outset since they wear out quickly, if you work a lot. My original tip is almost worn to the end, and from what I've heard, the replacement ones don't last as long. Luckily, they are cheap.

Are you using a pen tablet for your edits? If so, what kind of tablet do you use, and are you satisfied with the results? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and loves sharing his knowledge about it.

Yes, a tablet would be nice. I have an Intuos 3 that has never worked correctly. A lot of time and money has been spent on trying to make this thing operate on any of three different computers. Umpteen drivers downloaded and no luck. At first the tablet would crash windows, the latest driver fixed that and now only crashes my Photoshop. The Wacom customer service is nonexistent, and I’m back to using the mouse. I’ll probably try a cheap Chinese unit next, if Wacom thinks I’ll chip in another three hundred fifty or more for more grief, they’re silly ….

Yeah I had my issues with the Wakom as well, but mine costed around 50-70 dollars. To be honest I managed to fix them, using the latest drivers, turning off windows ink in the Wacom driver on Windows 8.1, not in the windows pen and tablet menu. If I turn off windows ink there, things go bad quickly.

Thanks for this. I was teetering on the verge of whether to buy one or not. I think you’ve pretty much made my mind up.

I’m glad that I could help. The pen tablet (no matter which one you choose, but get a decent one so you’ll have to buy it once) will change your editing game completely. Bear in mind, it will be weird at the beginning, until you get out of “mouse mode”. But once you get the hang of it, you won’t be able to imagine the editing process done with a mouse again.

I’ve found myself continuing to use the tablet for browsing, even for playing RTS games after I finish the edits, just because it feels so natural.

My tablet has replaced my mouse as my default pointing device for everything. I use AutoCAD a lot for work, and the program needs a scroll wheel for zooming in and out. I can’t stand using a tablet or tapas pinch to zoom feature. What I did is placed my mouse on the opposite side of my keyboard (I am right handed, so my mouse is now on my left). Now I can use my scroll wheel with my left hand and it works great. I have discovered a couple of other benefits using this setup. I can reach the Ctrl key with my left index finger, when you press Ctrl and use the scroll wheel you can zoom in and out in Word, Acrobat, almost all programs, this is useful. Sometimes when I need to click on a very precise spot the pen may miss by a bit, the Hoover feature of the pen is great in this situation. I can hold my cursor over the spot I want to click using my pen, while hovering I click the left mouse button with my left hand and just drag the cursor while hovering and holding the mouse button. I also use Microsoft Onenote and I love being able to use hand written notes.

I borrowed a friend’s old Wacom Intuos 3 tablet after she bought the latest version, and liked using it in preference to the mouse for editing. When she wanted it back to give to her daughter, I knew I needed to get one, but didn’t want to pay Wacom prices. I ended up getting a Huion H610 Pro tablet from Amazon for about £65.
It is much better than the Wacom Intuos 3 in all aspects, and is much more comfortable to use over longer periods. Highly recommend trying them over Wacom, especially as you get a lot bigger tablet for less money too.

I have read about the Wacom tablets but find they are always mentioned in conjunction with Photoshop. I use Lightroom so does it work with Lightroom and is it just as useful there?

It will work with Lightroom, it works with any piece of software for that matter. Now the most benefit in Lightroom will be the masking/clone stamping. For moving sliders, whether you use the tablet or the mouse, it doesn’t really matter.

I use an old wacom tablet and pen that a friend sent me. I found that it didn’t take me long to become comfortable using it. Now I don’t use a mouse at all on my MBP. As mine is old, I am wanting to upgrade to the Intuous line.

on the subject of practice, are there any programs or apps that help build the muscle memory,,
things that help with positioning and acuracy.

I’ve just bought a Huion 6020 plus and although I’m still getting used to it, I find the accuracy in Photoshop is much better than I could achieve with a mouse. It was very easy to install, downloaded the latest drivers, set the shortcut buttons how I like and off we go. At a third of the price of wacom its a great buy for beginners like me

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