Do You Really Need a Graphics Tablet?

Do You Really Need a Graphics Tablet?

I put off buying a graphics tablet for years after taking up photography, before buckling the best part of a decade ago. But, do you really need a graphics tablet?

Having grown up using desktop PCs, touch typing and swift mouse usage are second nature to me. I've been using Photoshop for about 18 years, and the bulk of those years were with a keyboard and mouse. So, when I was told I ought to get a graphics tablet, like a Wacom, for my retouching needs, I shunned the idea. Not only was I very comfortable indeed with my current setup, but my artistic skills are all but nonexistent. I had retouched thousands of images with a keyboard and mouse, and I couldn't see how my quality of life would improve by a wholesale technique change. Was I wrong? Well, I did eventually buy an entry level Wacom to find out, and now, I have a wealth of experience retouching both with and without a graphics tablet.

It's worth noting that I am not a high-end retoucher, or rather, those incredible beauty retouchers are out of my league. I can hold my own in certain areas, but I shoot a diverse range of subjects, so I've never needed to specialize too much. Both of these points are positives for this article as I see them. Firstly, by not being a retoucher of the highest commercial standard, what I say is more relevant to the everyday photographer. This is doubly true, as I retouch images of everything from watches and women to events and editorials.

Model: Rachel Wilkinson

Don't Make Us Scroll: Do We Need One or Not?

My short answer to the question in the title is "probably." I would say unless you do almost no retouching outside of raw adjustments and curves, it's a worthwhile investment. And it is an investment. Financially, it has a low point of entry, but in terms of time, it's a lot higher. I threw myself into the deep end when I bought my first tablet, a Wacom Intuos. I made myself edit two large shoots with only the stylus and tablet. I was cack-handed (this might be a Britishism, it just means completely inept and clumsy) with the pen, inaccurate with the strokes, and slow to the point of extreme frustration. My editing time had probably quadrupled per image, and I was constantly fighting the urge to unplug it and return to what I knew.

Nevertheless, I persevered. Every problem I encountered, which were invariably shortcuts I used that utilized my mouse in some way, I learned to do with the stylus or tablet. If there wasn't an obvious like-for-like translation, I would use custom functions to set up what I would do with the mouse. It took a lot of time and frustration, but I eventually broke the back of the problem and started catching up with the speed of my usual editing habits. Eventually, I upgraded to a Wacom Intuos Pro and made use of the extra features and buttons. My editing went from strength to strength, though I can't proclaim to have seen a significant improvement in my end product. While there certainly was an improvement and I would consider my retouching less sloppy, the dividends were paid in other ways. It was only then I started to understand the perks that were sold to me.

Model: Hanna Hughes

Perk 1: Speed

The first perk I noticed was the speed at which you can work if you're good with a stylus and graphics tablet. It's undeniable, but difficult to articulate to somebody who hasn't tried it or only tried it briefly. A lot of settings are baked into the stylus (I'll return to this in perk 3), and time is shaved off left and right, albeit not in great quantities anywhere. That's really why it's a hard sell to someone reluctant to learn how to use a graphics tablet; the benefits are subtle and only valuable to someone who has really invested time into mastering it.

Perk 2: Accuracy

These perks are accidentally in ascending order of important to me, with perk 1 being the least and perk 3 being the most. So, in the middle, we have accuracy. I am wholly aware of my limitations and what I'm frankly rubbish at. However, my accuracy and speed with a mouse is not one of them. However, some of the actions you undertake when retouching require infinitesimally small movements of the hand that feel more natural and accurate with a pen or pencil than with a mouse. This translates perfectly over to a tablet and stylus. Actions like dodging and burning feel far more precise and natural.

Perk 3: Skill Ceiling

Finally, there's the skill ceiling. It's difficult to fully unpack what I mean by this, but in essence, if you pitted against one another the best retoucher in the world with a graphics tablet and the best retoucher with a keyboard and mouse, the former would win out in almost every measurable metric over the latter. With elements like pressure sensitivity, the amount of control you have over the results of your actions is simply higher than that of a keyboard and mouse. Where you might be adjusting flow and opacity with your mouse, a well set-up tablet and stylus can achieve everything you want without the need to adjust anything at all.

Conclusion

So do you need a graphics tablet? It really comes down to the sort of editing you do and how much you edit. If you are dodging and burning, cloning, or creating layer masks on a regular basis, I would say you probably do need one, yes. It isn't going to have the wholesale, transformative impact that some photographers might claim, but rather a gentle and uniformly positive evolution of your workflow. The transition will almost certainly not come easily, but it's a worthy investment of your time and money if you take your editing seriously or enjoy the post-production side of photography.

Over to you now: do you think you need a graphics tablet for editing? Why or why not?

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26 Comments

Rob Mitchell's picture

I don't use anything else anymore. Even for normal computer stuff, not just photo stuff.
No mouse in this house.

Michael Yearout's picture

I have one, but like Robert I grew up touch typing and later using a mouse. And I haven't taken the time to force myself to process a complete set of images with just the tablet and stylus. I use it for certain functions but not everything. You've given me a push to give it a try. Thanks.

Jim Bolen's picture

Hey Michael! I've been using a for years now and can't ever imagine editing without one. I just find that it is more accurate, and I can handle the trickier stuff a lot easier.

Daniel Medley's picture

There are few things in my life that I actually "need."

Do I need my 4x4 truck? No, but it sure makes life more enjoyable.

Do I need my prosumer espresso machine? No, but it sure makes life more enjoyable.

Do I need that 25 year old bottle of Macallan sitting at home? No, but it really makes life more enjoyable.

Do I need my Wacom? No, but, damned, it sure makes life a lot more pleasant.

Granted, you have to spend at least a couple of weeks reprogramming your motor skills vis a vis mouse/computer interaction, but once that hump is behind you, there's no looking back.

Heiko Kanzler's picture

Well... with regards the Macallan... that's a need, for sure.

Marko Bradich's picture

I bought my first Wacom tablet 23 years ago. I can't imagine working in Photoshop without one. Especially dodging, burning, painting, molding in Liquify, blending layers (for manual HDR)... But that being said, I only use it with Photoshop (I do photography, design and video, so I also use Illustrator, InDesign and Final Cut Pro all the time). And I hardly ever use the buttons, or touch function, on my Intuos Pro, just the stylus + mouse & keyboard. (I have tried using Wacom's buttons and the dial for video and audio apps, didn't work; now I have a Contour ShuttlePro V2 for that purpose).

For anyone thinking about the exact model to get, my personal recommendation would be the current Intuos Bluetooth Creative Pen Tablet, medium size. It's about half the price of the medium Pro and has a much smaller footprint. (The medium Intuos Pro I use is very hefty, but I connect via Bluetooth, so the tablet goes easily into the drawer when not using Photoshop). The stylus is less sensitive, but I really don't think a new user would notice (I certainly don't; my tablet is one or two generations behind [these things are eternal], not sure anymore, so probably on par with the current non-pro model).

Also, for anyone thinking about using the iPad + Duet or Astropad instead of a Wacom, I have tried it and it doesn't compare even remotely. I especially miss the hover function. But that's just me and that 23-year long muscle memory.

I have a Wacom, but I find it easier to use the stylus the came with my laptop and draw directly on the screen.

David Love's picture

YES YOU DO. I waited too late and using a mouse for so many years has ruined my wrist to where it is sore all of the time and will probably require surgery. All of that holding the left click down as you use the pen tool or paint is horrible for your hand as well as having your wrist bent to the left for hours. Get one!

Stuart Carver's picture

i edit on a 13" Macbook Pro on our sofa, it does my head in but cant do out else.. id love a graphics tablet and hopefully Catalina plus the new OS for ipad means we can start using the ipad as one.

im tempted to get a 16" MBP when they are announced to give me some more real estate for editing.

Brent Daniel's picture

Crap. I *knew* clicking on this article was going to cost me money....

C.R. "Kroy" Brown's picture

I agree with this completely. After a few years using a graphics tablet I wonder how I ever got stuff done without it. Yes, there's a learning curve, in particular getting eye-hand coordination in sync - but it's so worth it! Nice article, concise and to the point!

user-206807's picture

I've always wanted to use a tablet. I tried so many times, but I always surrendered after a few hours.
I've never had so much time to learn, always in too much of a hurry
Now that I have more free time, I think I'll try again, seriously this time.
Wish me good luck!

Eric Robinson's picture

If you want to work accurately on an image inside Photoshop why would you choose not to use a tablet? It’s a bit of a photographic no-brainier.

Eric Robinson's picture

If you are a photographer spending serval or even 1K on a camera and several K on lenses 0.25K appears to be a relatively small amount given the return........but I suppose it all comes down to how much post-processing you do and its nature. I do mostly portraits and for skin retouching/blemish removal Id be lost without a tablet.

Stuart Carver's picture

I’ve got the several K of camera and lenses but I don’t have £500 knocking about to get a graphics tablet, also we don’t have a useable office space so I’m just using a MacBook Pro for editing at present.

I have no doubt they are excellent, but there are lots of reasons not to have one.

You don't have to spend that much to get a tablet. The entry level wacom is around $60 usd. It'll get the job done. You can also buy used and get a good deal.

Stuart Carver's picture

yeah but still doesnt solve the issue of us having no room to use it at present.

user-206807's picture

Maybe because I already work (enough) precisely without a tablet for what I need?
I think since I can't use a tablet perfectly, I wouldn't work better with it.
So the only way to find out is to learn how to use the tablet and draw my own conclusions. ;)
Cost is really not a problem

Eric Robinson's picture

In my opinion, if you can use a pencil, you can use a tablet, after all, that's more or less what it is with added bells and whistles.

Heiko Kanzler's picture

I bought a cheep Wacom Bamboo and was frustrated because nothing worked for me... I kept going. And then I got better and can't imagine to do Photoshop work without a tablet (How?!) ... Upgraded to an Intous Pro S and later I got a cheap Wacom Cintiq 13HD and that's my main Photoshop Tool now.

Mr Drizz's picture

To answer the question in the title. No, no you don't need a tablet. I'm faster and more accurate with a good gaming mouse.

Dave Dundas's picture

You personally, maybe. Everyone else on the planet, no way. :)

I bought a pen tablet display a couple of years ago. I use it all the time. I feel like it made me more creative when editing. I had a standard Wacom and it rarely used it.

Scott Weaver's picture

I purchased one several years ago. My primary computer is a MacBook Pro and I am very comfortable using the trackpad and a finger. I have never used a mouse with this laptop. I quickly realized one issue: my hands are always on the MacBook's keyboard, or just a couple of inches down using the trackpad. In PS and LR I am constantly hitting keyboard shortcuts and the letter keys to navigate and command. It just seems very inconvenient to move my right hand over to the Intuos and pick up the stylus. And I have to put it down to go back to the keyboard. I just has never made sense to me. So... my Intuos is still there just to the right of my MacBook... stacked with papers!

Dave Dundas's picture

Are you holding that stylus with both hands or something? I think I found your problem... 😂