Is A Graphic Tablet Really Necessary For A Photographer To Have For Retouching?

Is A Graphic Tablet Really Necessary For A Photographer To Have For Retouching?

How important is it to have a graphic tablet and do I really need it? This is a question that I get asked quite often and wanted to elaborate on it. It may be that you've never tried one or perhaps you never got used to it and did not like the experience. Is that normal and how imperative is it that you get used to using one? 

Those are a few question among others I wanted to explore openly.

For those of you who aren't familiar, we're talking about tablets like Wacom products that allow you to use a pen to take the place of your mouse. It enables really fine artistic control and fluid motion. If you aren't familiar with them yet, be sure to take a look before reading further.

As a retoucher, I have grown fond of using one. I feel that there is no alternative to using one and wouldn't do without it. With that being said, I wanted to look at the question openly without bias. Over the years and through the countless people I've met in our industry, I have found that my sentiments weren't necessarily the same as everyone else. I found that many people just didn't like using one or never got used to it. They asked me for help so I decided to look into it.

A majority of my own personal network seemed to like using one but the demographic was skewed because they were more inclined to be retouchers or they were photographers who were more serious about retouching. Also, a vast majority of them were in fields that demanded more out of retouching.

So when I looked at the wider gamut of photographers, it wasn't as one sided as I had originally imagined.


How long does it take to get used to one?

As a follow up question, I would ask how long they took to get used to using a tablet, for those who already owned a tablet. Surprisingly, I found that people picked it up at different paces. There were the lucky ones who picked it up immediately. They made the connection right away and it made sense to them. A larger majority took a few days to get used to it. Initially, they saw the benefit and liked it but needed time to fine tune the experience and dial it in. Others took a week to fully get accustomed to it. Many could never get used to it in the end and actually ended up selling theirs.

I sat a little on all ends. Initially I did not enjoy it right away. In my mind, I knew it was the better way and took some time to force myself to learn. I put my mouse away and used it for a few days till I become fully accustomed to it.


Why is there such a large disparity?

As much as I would love for everyone to get used to using one right away, I had to realize this typically isn't the case. I had to find out why this happens.

One of the common things I found had to deal with their history with writing and drawing. I've seen that many people who picked the tablet up right away had a good relationship with being able to draw or write well. They either had great handwriting or loved to draw and paint. Their brains were more artistically inclined to pick it up right away.

With those that had issues picking it up as fast, it was partly due to a disconnect with being able to relate what their hand was doing to what was happening on the screen. They weren't able to put the two together and it was an inconvenience.

In the end, there wasn't a conclusion as to why there was such a large difference on how fast people picked up using a tablet. Many, as mentioned, didn't pick it up at all. What was clear though is that it is expected that it will take time to learn and you will have to give it a fair chance. However, it is worth it if it you can adjust yourself to it.


Why do some people never get the hang of it? How can I make sure I get used to using one?

Some people eventually get used to using a tablet and others simply don't. What is the difference between these two types of people? I asked those who sold their tablets how long they gave theirs a shot. I found out most of them did not give it a fair chance, they gave up too early. Some actually gave it a fair shot and they just never got a hang of it.

If you don't pick it up right away and you want to be sure you give it a fair chance, there are some tips to make sure you do.

1. Put your mouse to the side! Like learning to ride a bike, you have to put in the effort and time and it won't be easy at first. Use just the pen and immerse yourself in using one for retouching. Keep a mouse around for surfing the web or any other tasks. Other than that, make sure you are just using the tablet.

2. Give it a full week of practice. You can't expect to be comfortable in just a couple of days. When you begin writing on paper for the first time, you have to build muscle memory to make the connection. It's the same principle, you will need time to build the muscle memory to make a relationship if you are using a tablet.

3. Pay attention to comfort. Chances are you may be gripping the pen really tightly or your posture changes when using the tablet. Be aware of your comfort level and make fine adjustments.

4. Practice creating shapes. In Photoshop, create a new blank canvas and begin drawing straight lines and various shapes. Surprisingly this helped me out quite a bit as it allowed me to make the relationship between moving my hand and drawing on screen.

For more tips, here's a great article by Mark Johnson that further goes into actually getting used to using one.


So how do I know if a graphic tablet is right for me?

Now that we've talked about some of the realities of actually using one and getting used to one, it still hasn't answered the main question.

Looking at it from an overhead perspective of our industry, this will relate to the individual. If you find that you are primarily spending a great deal of time retouching in Photoshop, I would definitely recommend getting one. If what you shoot doesn't require you to spend much time in Photoshop doing retouching, it may not be as important. There are a lot of photographers who have a workflow where they don't need to retouch as often. They may simply make selections in Lightroom, batch process them for look and feel, use Photoshop for minor work and then call it a day. This workflow may not warrant the need of a graphic tablet 'as much' as people who spend a vast majority of time in Photoshop working on perfecting individual images.

If you're in the latter, I would definitely recommend getting a tablet while still keeping in mind the realities presented in the article.

On the flipside, there are some artists out there that use a tablet and get used to using one but still prefer using a mouse to do their work! Michael O is one of these artists.

Do you use a tablet or a mouse?

A mouse 90% of the time. My style is more technical than strict digital painting so there is more of a need for clicking around than making brush strokes. I like to use a tablet for hair and some effects.


In Conclusion

There is no definite answer so you have to try it out. In the end it comes down to comfort and analyzing what you need it for. Remember, these are all tools that make our world and work better. It does not mean that one may necessarily be superior than the other. You also can't ignore the fact that many people like myself do better with tablets. On the contrary, you can't disregard the fact that some people may never get used to using a tablet and they may work better with a mouse and that is okay too! As long as you try every option given to you to make sure you don't miss out on it, that is what matters the most. What is best for you is not the same for everyone. Keep in mind that many people who use a mouse to retouch won't be as expressive about the fact as those who have gotten accustomed to using a tablet either so public perception may be skewed at times. The best thing you can do is give using a tablet a real shot, you will thank yourself for it if you love it, I know I did.


To our readers:

To expand public discussion, I want to hear about your experience with using a tablet.

1. Do you use one and how long did you get accustomed to it?
2. How many of you have tried and never got used to using one?
3. What do you primarily shoot?
4. Do you find the tablet was really beneficial to your workflow outside of retouching?
5. What tips do you have for people who want to get better at using it from your own experience?



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Jason Vinson's picture

took about a week to really get used to using my tablet... now i literally hate to edit without it... its not a huge deal if just working in lightroom, but anything i need to be in photoshop for, i need my tablet...

Marko Mihaljevic's picture

i think it was around 3 days, though i cannot recall it accurately :) basicaly all of the serious retouching i did was made with tablet. Other than photography retouching, it REALLY HELPS WITH CAD. Seriously, i am much faster with tablet than with a mouse when makin a CAD drawing, or 3D modeling. Wacom Intuos 4 can have custom functions on it's buttons and it can make a day much easier.
But the most important thing to me is the HAND POSITION. Are you familiar with the Carpal tunnel syndrome? I see the tablet as the best way to preserve health when i cannot avoid hours of graphic work.

That is a great point regarding Carpal Tunnel Marko! My hand definitely feels a lot more comofortable with the stylus without extensive pressure and the different in hand position. Thank you for that!

If you're serious about working in Photoshop, I would recommend a tablet, and have found them so important that I have two now. To answer your questions.

1. Starting originally with the Wacom Intuos 3, I was up to speed in a matter of hours. The same is true of my newer Intuos 5 and its different touch controls and radial menus. I can go back and forth from each with little difficulty.

2. NA

3. My work varies from portrait retouching to extensive compositing and manipulation.

4. I find it beneficial for all my Photoshop work, not just retouching, and hate having to work in PS without it (sometimes I do, like when traveling).

5. Tips: Get a larger tablet -- one you can comfortably set your hands on. With Intuos, you can adjust work area, so the tablet can be large but you can set the area you want to work with. Set the touch controls the way that make sense to you, which will almost always differ from how others set theirs. It's not right-wrong, it's what lets you work efficiently based on how you think. Finally, you usually see people put their tablets off to one side (right or left, depending upon their handedness). Try putting it on your lap, or the desk, square in front of your screen. For me, this makes it easier to use both hands (one on the touch commands, the other with the stylus) and the screen/stylus interaction seems more natural.

Great tips! Especially the reasons for the larger tablet as well strictly for the surface area and flexibility. Thanks Karl!

I'd like to add that as far as placement goes, it's a huge advantage if both tablet, keyboard and mouse are all wireless - otherwise things tend to get tangled up and it becomes so much of a nuisance that you risk not using the tablet because you can't really be bothered.

If money is an issue, you may opt only to have a wireless mouse and keyboard, leaving the tablet as the only wired device.

Intuos 5 can be wired or wireless. It's nice to have both, because even though I prefer wireless for the tablet, when the batteries run low, I can go back to wired and keep working while they recharge.

I concur! The larger tablet will make it easier to use, and I loved the touch screen mode on mine when I got frustrated with the pen. In fact, I went out and purchased the exact model.

If you come from a traditional art background you'll pick it up almost instantly and feel right at home. If you've never really done any traditional work it might take a few days to feel comfortable at it. Assigning the hotkeys to the buttons on the tablet can reduce your edit time significantly if they are assigned for intelligent flow. Everyone is different and works differently so spending a little time really thinking about the tasks that you do most and customizing the tablet to YOUR workflow will save mountains of hours down the road. Once you go tablet, you don't go back... or something like that.

I shoot still life and commercial portrait work and my background is as an art director and retoucher. I can use a tablet but I find it annoyingly imprecise for the still life work. It works pretty well for portrait retouching but when I am drawing paths and doing things that require a lot of precision I just find the tablet slows me down.

Zach Sutton's picture

I am one of the few, but I'm still a believer in the mouse. I had an Intous 4 Medium for a long time and didn't like it nearly as much.

I'm not known for my drawing abilities, so bringing a tablet into the equation has always felt weird.

I had bought one a few years ago and sadly, I gave up almost instantly and sold it. I have a graphic design background, so I am very fast in Photoshop and that slow down/learning curve was just killing me (it's like learning how to re-type)

With that said, I really should have stuck with it. My only issue with it now is that I'm a couch editor. I use a laptop / trackpad on my couch and am quite content. Does anyone have a good solution for using a tablet in such a location? I had thought about one that would go over the laptop, but I'm not really sure how well that would work (needing the keyboard)

Any other couch editors out there who use a tablet?

Spy Black's picture

Use a wireless or bluetooth mouse. That's what I do.

stefano druetta's picture

last month I got my right collarbone busted in a mtb accident while freeriding, had surgery performed, 6 weeks with a k-wire running thru it [tomorrow is the day they will remove it!! I can't wait!!!], but I couldn't afford not to deliver some pictures to a couple clients. I cannot properly sit at a table, the less painful position is laying down, so I moved my "office" into bed:

my bamboo tablet is wrapped in xerox paper coz the surface is so worn out and shiny it has no more texture on, this gives a real paper-like feel to the pen, and helps a lot with precision since it's grippier.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Pratik, i do a lot of retouching and i STILL haven't got a tablet (part of that is resisting the change!). Your article might just be the final straw i needed to get me onto one though, thanks for the good read

I really hope it helps, if there's anything you struggle on as you work through it feel free to let me know personally. It's never fun when you hate something that you know that may really help you. The readers have posted some amazing tips and I have learned a lot from them as well.

Spy Black's picture

Back in the '90s I got my first really serious retouching workstation together, and I bought a 12x12 Calcomp tablet to do all my retouching. It was the greatest thing since slice bread, so I thought. Then I started freelancing and all the studios I went to had a tablet - for the head retoucher. When I would ask if there was a tablet I could use, I usually got a look that said STFU and get to work. So I had to re-learn how to retouch everything using a mouse.

Now I go into studios and every workstation has a little 4x5 tablet, and everyone looks at me weird when I pull out my wireless mouse and start retouching. I do still have the Calcomp, however. It makes a great wrist rest...

That's an incredible story! Thank you for sharing. I wasn't retouching in the 90's but I would have felt the same initially. Do you find that with going back to the mouse you've actually gotten even better at retouching? I know it's strange to ask but I can imagine with that much practice, it may have become an even better tool in some way?

Spy Black's picture

You make more accurate masks, for one thing. Most masks I see made with tablets are the sloppiest messes I've ever seen. I guess they work, but I prefer making a mask that, well, masks!

When working with jewelry I sometimes resort to a mask for some situations, but typically I mouse it and depend on channel ops to make my masks.

Some people are more comfortable pathing with a tablet, but for me I need a mouse. I guess it's just from years of catalog work pathing the crap out of everything, no way I can use a tablet for that. Even when I used my Calcomp I still pathed with a mouse.

Ultimately it just comes down to whatever floats your boat, but when you're forced into a certain modus operandi, I guess after a while you just don't care about what everyone else is raving about, you know what works for you.

Tony Guillaro's picture

Yes, Without a doubt...The answer is YES

I don't know how I ever edited without one?!?

Tony Guillaro's picture

1. Do you use one and how long did you get accustomed to it?

It took me about a day to fully get use to it, I hovered the pen in the air for awhile until I learned to use my finger tip as a tracer until I was ready to edit
3. What do you primarily shoot?
Models-Portraits-Head shots
4. Do you find the tablet was really beneficial to your workflow outside of retouching?
I don't use it outside of retouching
5. What tips do you have for people who want to get better at using it from your own experience?

There are so many hot keys and presets you can adjust, it might be a little overwhelming at first. Don' worry about it, take your time learning it and adjusting the setting as you need them

I had to learn how to use one in college and it took me almost a month to get used to. With that being said whenever I need to do any fine editing I can't do without it, however if the only thing I need to do is change a few curves then it isn't necessary. In my opinion at least.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I've still got my A4 sized Intuos 1. Feels different to the modern models but I prefer it.

There's still a mouse plugged in which gets used for some stuff but a pen makes me 10x quicker.

Once you go with it, you never go back! Happened to me. I use mouse too but when I do masking and painting in Photoshop, it's Intuos what I'm using!

stefano druetta's picture

1] yup! needed a few days to get used to it, 5 years after I can't use a mouse any more. I wish trackpads on laptops were pen-capable, someday.
2] most of the photogs and retouchers I know use one.
3] people and such
4] YES. definitely. it happens to use a mouse sometime, and my wrist hurts after a few minutes. pen gestures are much more ergonomic than mouse and trackpad ones, it's more natural.
5] get rid of any other pointing device. make sure your tracking settings are in "pen mode" and go with the flow.

Dennis Titov's picture

At the moment i can't retouch without it. But yes, it took me about a week to get used to it. I think it's just because i've tried to totally replace my mouse with the tablet. And the most difficult was to use it in Aperture while cataloging, key wording, rating etc.

But as soon as i started working on beauty retouch project, i've just fall in love with it.

At the moment i'm primarily working on beauty shots.

The tip: there's no need to buy expensive Intuos tablet. You can start with bamboo series. And if you'll like it - then you can go for Intuos 5.

It took me a few weeks to get used to it. But now that I am, I can't go back.

I'm left handed but use a mouse with my right hand so I could never really attain the levels of accuracy I was chasing (I had just learnt all about "high-end" retouching techniques at the time).

Although I still suffer from hand cramp over long retouching periods, it's not nearly as painful as having a mouse-shaped hand!

Personally, I use my tablet just to do art from scratch - draw, paint, etc. When I retouch, I use my mouse. It's soothing to me.

with a lot of different brands in the market, is it ok for me to buy a cheap one for now and invest in a more expensive one in the future? and is DPI/pressure important?

I have 2 tablets. A smaller one to carry while travelling and another one at my station. I started with an Intuos 2 and It only took me few hours to get the hang of it. Now I'm completely addicated to them. The speed and efficiency it brings to my work is simply magical. Now I have an Intuos 4 and Intuos 3. I'll be getting an Intuos 5 very soon.

I do a lot of nature and travel photography but more than retouching my photos, I use it for design work since I'm a Graphic Designer as well.

For those who want to get better at it; If you're beginner I'd say the most important thing is improving the eye-hand cordination and I'd suggest drawing circles on a grid document in photoshop and continue it until you can do it at the specific position you want to without looking at the tablet and try to make the circles as perfect as possible.

And one thing I'd suggest to any tablet user is a Smudge Guard ( Whether you're retouching, illustrating or painting, this helps to move your hand smoothly over the tablet and at the same time keeps the tablet clean.

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