5 Best Tips to Set up Your Wacom Tablet for Retouching in Photoshop

I personally have never used a Wacom tablet or stylus in my life. They always seemed like the most useful post-processing tool ever, but I never bit the bullet and tested the waters. However, after filming Elia Locardi edit over 40 images for his "Photographing the World" landscape series, I am confident enough to finally give it a try myself. Luckily my good friends over at Phlearn have laid out five of the most useful tips for making your Wacom tablet easy to use.

If you aren't already subscribed to Phlearn's YouTube channel, you are missing out on some of the best retouching education currently on the web. Aaron Nace is both an amazing retoucher and photographer, and his free tutorials always combine an interesting photo concept with really clever retouching and compositing. The first five tips Nace suggests when configuring your Wacom tablet and stylus include adjusting your pen's response to movement, changing the overall brush pressure sensitivity, programming brush size and hardness shortcuts, manipulating flow and opacity settings, and adopting the previous tips to other tools besides just the brush. Having someone like Nace to walk me through some of these Photoshop menus (many of which I have never seen before) is definitely going to make my transition easier than if I was just doing it blindly.

My Sink or Swim Wacom Challenge

Moving from a mouse to a stylus is a scary proposition. I'm not going to lie, I'm a bit worried about my stress levels next week when I jump head first into touchpad bliss. Some of my favorite retouchers like Pratik Naik, Julia Kuzmenko McKim, Aaron Nace, and Dani Diamond have all traded in their mouse pads for a pen and tablet system. I've heard countless times from my friends in the retouching world that they would not be the experts they are if it wasn't for the Wacom tablet. Their claims make sense too; if you could paint and edit your photos using a much more familiar "pen" instead of an awkward mouse, the creative possibilities would surely be increased at least 10 fold.

My worries about making this transition from mouse to pen is probably similar to the feelings people have when picking up an instrument for the first time. Anyone who has become moderately proficient at an instrument can make simple tasks look incredibly easy. Muscle memory is an incredible achievement of the human body, and breaking decade old habits can be so extremely difficult that many people simply give up. I hope to not be one of those people.

Since my daily responsibilities at Fstoppers requires me to answer dozens of emails, edit video in Premiere, build and design banners and graphics, and retouch traditional still photographs, I'm going to give myself seven days to make the transition. It's literally going to be sink or swim, and I pray for the sanity of my assistants who share adjoining walls with my office during this next week.

If you have made this transition already yourself, I would love to hear your stories, suggestions, and advice on how you made the Wacom tablet part of your daily workflow. Do you use the pen for every task including browsing online and navigating your operating system, or do you only use it for retouching? The thought of using a pen for retouching skin in Photoshop sounds like a dream come true, while using a pen for editing video in Premiere seems like a potential nightmare. My official start day is going to be Saturday, August 15 so please wish me luck.

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Ryan Mense's picture

I went full Wacom about two months ago. My tip is to hide the mouse out of sight for the first week. I've tried switching in the past but would go back to the mouse when it was just there on my desk and I'd feel like I could do a task faster by just grabbing the mouse for a second. It's better to just keep training with the pen for everything, even the stuff that feels awkward at first.

Adam Ottke's picture

Totally agree. And FORCE yourself to use those express keys. It's tempting to use 100% of the keyboard when you already know the shortcuts... But in my experience, it's well worth forcing yourself to get the muscle memory for these Wacoms. I've been so much happier ever since I did..

Jason Ranalli's picture

Do it as I don't think you'll regret it. I made the jump several years ago(after learning my initial Photoshop chops from Phlearn and having Aaron recommend it) and never looked back.

I do occasionally use it for browsing, etc - this keeps my coordination somewhat sharp so I'm less likely to fall out of comfort with it but if I'm retouching a lot that week I don't need to.

Depending on how much you retouch it might take you more than seven days to get fully used to it. I would recommend simply an hour each night for two weeks before you no longer need to look back and it feels normal.

Best of luck!

Alexios Ntounas's picture

I am also thinking about starting using a Wacom tablet for the first time. It would be nice to read an article describing how was your transition! Which tablet are you going to use?

PS: My respect to Aaron. He has a great YouTube channel.

B C's picture

I've been using the Intuos Pro Medium for 8 months and I've never looked back. My only gripe is that my Wacom seems to disconnect randomly and interrupts my workflow. This is exceptionally frustrating when it occurs mid brush stroke. I've also found it to have some delay/sensing issues.

I've tried multiple solutions to resolve the tablet of these issue but to no avail. Maybe new drivers for Windows 10 might solve it? (I'm currently using Windows 8.1)

B C's picture

Hey Jerry! When it shuts off I'm using it wireless. My version has the wireless module built in to the unit. I've tried changing my PC's wireless timeout settings etc, but nothing has helped. It seems to happen randomly and not at set times. I worked with it wired last night for a few hours and no issues.

Patrick Hall's picture

Hmmm...I just bought the wireless connectors for my Intuos Medium. Hopefully it works better than you guys are experiencing

B C's picture

I did notice that my settings were forgotten going from wireless to wired or vise versa. Really bad flaw and very annoying.

B C's picture

I actually shut it off every time I leave the my desk. This has no effect. However, I did find that if I leave it plugged in when I shut my computer down, when I boot back up, my computer cannot fully boot and locks up and won't launch the explorer thereby preventing me from being able to view any files. I have a custom built PC, so maybe there is something going on unrelated to the Wacom, but it appears to be associated with the Wacom.

Lauchlan Toal's picture

Thanks for sharing this, Phlearn always has great tips. I just started using an Intuos 5 a few weeks ago, and while I'm still getting used to it it's opened up a lot of more natural editing techniques using pen pressure. I still find the mouse steadier, but for dodging and burning it's hard to beat a tablet. I think you'll find it useful!

Anonymous's picture

All the luck in the world, Pat! Thanks for taking this on - I'd be interested in your results using this with video & Premier.

Craig Powell's picture

I am "trying" to make the leap. But I would trade anyone my large Wacom for a small one! I have the surface area of my large Wacom set to the size of a paper back novel and it takes up way to much space on my desk so I don't spend as much time with it as I should.

Anthony Cayetano's picture

Been using the Wacom Intuos Pro Medium for years. The video does help me gain a few tricks despite that. I do have a question though- some colleagues keep insisting that getting the Large version is the next step which is kinda silly but intriguing. Does anyone out there gone from the Medium to Large for everything from Retouching to Illustration and noticed any significant improvements? Thanks.

Darren Nana's picture

I started with medium and found it unnatural. Went to small. I know most people recommend small including Aaron also recommends this i believe. Can imagine using the large needing huge arm movements.

Anthony Cayetano's picture

Oh! All this time I thought Aaron was using the Intuos Medium.

Lars Jansen's picture

I have been working with a wacom for a little under a year now.

What I learned: Tablet Sizes above S are mostly usefull for Designers. For Photography purposes I would prefer the S.
You will have to use your arm way to much on the M or L version and IMHO do not have that much extra benifit from it.
Which might also be the reason why it took only about a week for me, using the S size, to get used to it. Others who say it takes 2 weeks or a month, I suspect are using the bigger Versions.

Though I have to say the pressure sensitive brushes are not for me. Esp. when painting with low opacity or general low contrast situations and haveing size jitter set to pen pressure... I never know where i actually painted. Caz you have a big circle on screen but may only be actually painting a couple of pixels thick in the middle. And I for once do not have such a fine feeling that i know which exact level of pressure I apply ... messured on a scale of 1024 or 2XXX steps.
I do sometimes use penpreassure for the opacity. But In general I have both turned off.
Even without these featuer the accuracy of a the pen and more natural movement are well worh it. Esp. for masking and skin retouching and stuff.
I do stuff free hand now that I would have rather tryed to use some sort of trick like the magic wand or so before.

I only use the tablet when Lightroom or Photoshop are open. But in this case exclusivly. Even if I e.g. look something up on the net.
For any other kind of sessions Office/Browsing/Video etc. I stick to my mouse.

Darren Nana's picture

Patrick, I remember when i got mine I struggled for about two weeks thinking i had wasted my money and everyone else was mad but them suddenly you are using it and it feels like 2nd nature.

I'd recommend the small tablet as making huge sweeping gestures across the pad felt awkward and unnatural, it is similar to how i use my mouse, i can traverse the entire desktop with a wrist move moment. I started with the medium but that was way too big. I also have mine in front of me and the keyboard, offset to the right a little rather than completely off to the right where my mouse would be unlike most people i see using them in online tutorials. I think this stems from drawing when i was younger... try drawing when your pencil and pad is over to the side where your mouse is...doesn't compute for me.

In a nutshell: do it and stick with it, soon you'll wonder how you ever coped without it.

Stephen Vosloo's picture

Can't work in Photoshop without it... it's an invaluable tool, but it also took me a while to get into it... give yourself at least a couple of weeks. Also, I totally still use my mouse. I have so much time and muscle memory invested in that piece of tech it was hard to let go of it. Can't use Photoshop without my Wacom tablet but email, web all the other stuff I still use my mouse. I don't think it has to be one or the other. No doubt though, it changed my editing world.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Thanks so much for the shoutout Patrick!

Patrick Hall's picture

It's always well deserved Julia, you are an inspiration for sure! Any tips you can recommend for my wacom challenge?

Adam Milton's picture

I would strongly recommend changing the buttons on the stylus from the defaults to having alt/option for the lower button and right click for the upper button. This is a feature that gets overlooked, but it's very convenient to have the alt/option button right there, as there are so many functions in PS and LR that are modified by the alt/option key.

I still prefer the mouse for very precise movements such as small crop adjustments or image transformations, but the stylus is wonderful otherwise.

I've had some minor repetitive strain issues from using a mouse too much, but using the tablet has completely nullified any of those symptoms.

Zagato Zee's picture

I only use my tablet for retouching - I found it to be inefficient for everything else I do. I use a gaming mouse with multiple shortcut buttons on it for day-to-day activities and the stylus simply can't compete with that. I also find that the tablet itself (I have an intuos 5 small) is too large to stay on my desk beside my keyboard for 24/7 use. I prefer to pull the intuos from where I store it into my lap when I use it for retouching. It isn't the be-all-end-all some people make it out to be, but I have found it invaluable for retouching - think of it as using the right tool for the job. Sometimes, that really is a good mouse, other times it's a stylus.

John Skinner's picture

I guess I was lucky in that although I had used a mouse, it was not natural to me whatsoever. And once I had a WACOM (6 years ago) I took to it like a fish to water. No transition whatsoever.

That said , if you are hesitant or wondering just how much difference it would make in workflow.. STOP and just jump in. This device and Ps were made to work together period. I'll never understand how people could use a mouse and get the results and accuracy needed. And Top Gear Top Tip ! Their support line is really top notch. I've called about a few issues and they've been bang on, short and to the point, and flawless.

Without doubt in the top 3 pieces of kit I own.. I can even use it to work Windows and browsers just like a mouse.. Just stellar !

Przemek Lodej's picture

I've been using Wacom for almost a decade now. It feels much more natural than a mouse. I use with Photoshop and 3d applications like Maya, max, zBrush and finally for browsing the web. Haven't looked back.