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.
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.
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.
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?