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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Previous comments
Noam Galai's picture

Pratik - next time you're in NYC, bring one with you... I want to try :)

Richard Chen's picture

I've picked up the tablet for almost a decade now - and I've gotten used to it within a period of about 2 weeks (I wasn't good at drawings and paintings during that time, I'm one of those untalented people who cannot draw and paint, but eventually I've picked it up in my adult years), and after I've done so, I didn't turn back. (The mouse still sees a wide range of usage because I do spend a lot of time doing precision clicks and placement of objects especially for page layout etc.)

Here is a list of benefits and observations I've gathered from my experiences using a tablet:

Sensitivity, and the natural stroke.

Getting used to working with pressure sensitivity is that I can give my brushings a proper level of touch that has really sped up my work, and given it a natural stroke (and touch), and this is constantly refined by my experiences so I felt that I've gotten better at this as time goes by. Also with a higher end tablet like the intuos line of tablets, they can also detect the tilt of your stylus - which can be pegged to help modify and change the shape of the brushes, giving even more control. However, to the uninitiated, though it would also steepen the learning curve for people who aren't trained, or aren't inclined to painting/drawing/illustration. All being said, it's not a must-have, because natural strokes can be achieved using any form of digitizer. During my time in Multimedia studies to the fine arts college, I've seen plenty of people, kids who are my age, people who are older than me even, doing their digital painting and illustration with track pads, cheap beige mice (on photoshop 6.0 then) and others with one of those miniscule portable mouse with retractable cables (more recent times).

Ergonomics, saving (or pampering) the hands.

Using a tablet and stylus comes very natural and the hand posture is very comfortable. That is a factor that has helped me prolong my work stamina if I couldn't avoid spending long hours in front of a computer. I'm involved in multimedia for quite a long time, and rather early in my life, years of computer usage has weaken my hands so much that they tire rather quickly, but fortunately I don't have carpal tunnel syndrome. I get tired pretty easily from mouse usage these days, and it applies particularly to smaller mouse body designs, and also those which are ambidextrous. This has prompted me to choose large bodied, deeply molded right-handed mice, and in an effort to save my hands, I'm going with soft mechanical keyboards with impact dampening o-rings fitted under every key so they are softer to type on.

Larger tablet helps with spatial accuracy.

From my experiences, working with a slightly larger tablet gives better (varies by user) spatial accuracy throughout - especially when working with a larger desktop area which is more often the case nowadays due to the increasing screen sizes and desktop area granted by the new, large, widescreen monitors. When the tablet is smaller, smaller hand and wrist actions would translate to a lot more movement on the screen: so strokes travel further and more drastic, and when the tablet is bigger, that same movement would translate into less movement on the screen, and and it allows you. It's nice to have a large tablet, but this is not essential to a person to have a larger one. Also the larger tablet really forms quite a nice arm rest when I'm doing my work. I do have a friend who is an illustrator and graphics designer, he sketches with a Large Intuos 3, while I do well with a Medium sized Bluetooth Intuos 4. The issue of accuracy can not only be dealt with within the tablet with the Precision mode, but also if you work on a deeper zoom, though it would slow you down because you are zooming in a lot so your strokes would turn out finer, so it's ultimately up to the user - who finds what setting/size works best and works the fastest.

Speaking of Ergonomics:

While not on topic, I also do have a few enhancements that help me around in photoshop: I use a lot of Actions for my work, so one of the enhancements that I've gotten for myself is a left-handed, half-sized gaming keyboard (Razer Orbweaver). I love the shape, and the adjustable arch support for the center of my palm and proper wrist rest, angle of the keys follows the curvature motion of the fingers better so it is easy to press. The best thing about it is that you get to map each of the 20 keys (like Shift+Ctrl+F6, which requires big hands, if you decide to map an action with that short cut key - and it would give you very sore pinky fingers), and the keys are horizontally laid out as opposed to the vertical layout of the buttons on an Intuos. Lastly, it's a definite plus if you are a gamer who does a bit of MMORPGS. ;)

Mark Warren's picture

1. I've been using a tablet since 2004! It only took me about a week to get used to it.
2. I've only owned the Wacom Graphire 3 and Intuos 5. I got used to both of them very quickly.

3. I primarily shoot portraits.
4. I use my tablet all the time since I got the Intuos 5. I never though I would use the touch features but I find I use them all the time. I customized the button, wheel and touch features according to each program I'm using. For example in LR I have the touch wheel setup to make +/- slider adjustments and all I have to do is click the text heading and roll the wheel to make adjustments to that particular option. I also use the radial menu to switch modules. I don't just use it for retouching either. I use it in a music program called Reason and with the touch features it makes it easier to change EQ and fader settings. I have custom setups for PS, LR, Premiere, Reason and Windows in general. Like someone else stated, it has also help with my carpal tunnel and elbow/forearm tendon issues from using a mouse all these years!
5. The best advice I can give for someone just starting is just unplug your mouse and use nothing but the tablet for a week or two. The more you use it the more you'll get used to using. After a while you'll never want to use a mouse again!

Christopher Helms's picture

I just got one - an Intuos 5 Medium for use on my 30" screen. I've decided to put away my mouse and not even use the tablet's touch functionality and try to use the pen for everything so I can get used to it faster. I've done some work in Aperture, Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign with it. I'm not super-proficient yet, as I don't have an art/sketching background, but I'm finding it more and more useful as I stick with it.

Bethany Seagrave's picture

Great article! Thank you Pratik!

I was fortunate to land a job that required we use a tablet daily. The edits were simple enough but in bulk and needed to be edited down as fast as possible. I had used a tablet in school and liked but never really attuned to it having only used it for 2hrs. It took me 4 days to get used to it with no mouse ( actually put it away and used the Wacom for everything including web surfing). And it took me about 2 weeks before I felt I had perfected it and preferred it over the mouse.

The products we were shooting were for an online e-commerce site and ranged from products on a white backdrop, to kids clothes that were back lit, to clothing on models on a grey background. All products needed to be 100% white background so there was a swish and flick type of brush stroke used. This was not as easy for all of my team either. Some flourished with that kind of editing, others preferred the more simple crop that came with the clothing/fashion edits.

I did prefer to use the wacom all of the time actually. It helped me to never break the flow of my workflow. I found that going between a mouse and a tablet just to look something up on the web was more incongruous than I would have expected.

Tips: Try it for a week or two as your cut off point. Put as much effort into learning/adapting as you can and if by that point you haven't been able to make yourself comfortable with it by using it routinely then you likely won't be able to. Also Pratik is 100% right, try drawing or sketching a little to help broaden your feel of the tablet, it correlates well.

Bethany Seagrave's picture

Also, I feel that if you are a laptop user with the finger pad, getting used to the Wacom with the touch pad is a great intro as well.

Daniel Meadows's picture

I've used a mouse for years longer than I've used a tablet, yet I still couldn't work with a fraction of the speed and control I have with one. I even have a small Bamboo I take along for digitech work, I truly can't imagine how hamstrung I'd be with a mouse.

Chris Pickrell's picture

I think for me, it's the fact that I use my mouse with my right hand, but write with my left, so to do "drawing" type movements on a computer with my left hand feels weird. Because I'm so used to using my left hand to hit hot keys when retouching.