During the course of your love affair with photography, you’ll use many different pieces of equipment. Some you’ll purchase, some you’ll beg, borrow, or steal. They will all serve one purpose or another. Some you may love so much that you keep forever. Most you won’t.
You don’t hear me talk about gear often. Over time I’ve worked hard to simplify my gear, and as a travel photographer, I’ve had to be ruthless in shedding excess size and weight. Every now and then, however, you come across a tool that is so valuable to your workflow that you can’t imagine working without it. One of those tools for me is a graphics tablet.
I’ve been using a tablet for quite a few years now, and it’s totally worth the extra weight in my bag. When I sold everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to travel the world with my camera, I found space for my tablet. It has revolutionized my post-processing, and it can revolutionize yours too.
What is a Graphics Tablet?
A graphics tablet is a device that allows you to use a stylus instead of a mouse to control the cursor on your computer screen. They come in many sizes and offer a variety of features. They work by pointing at or drawing on the surface of the tablet with the stylus, which transfers your movements onto your screen. Most come with buttons on the stylus and on the tablet, which you can configure to act as mouse buttons or keystrokes.
They range from small tablets with no buttons all the way up to huge displays where you can draw directly onto the screen, much like an iPad. They often include features like pressure-sensitivity, allowing extremely precise controls that come in very handy when drawing.
Why Use a Tablet?
You might be asking yourself what’s so special about a tablet. What’s wrong with a good old mouse? I used to feel the same way until I tried using one. The humble mouse works fine for everyday computer usage, but it’s severely limited when it comes to photo editing.
Have you ever found yourself getting frustrated while trying to edit some fine details in a photo and having to go back over and over again? When you use a mouse, you’re relying on the movements of the large muscles and bones in your arm and hand to move it around your screen. It’s incredibly cumbersome. Your arm works great with big movements, but not so much with small, precise ones.
Now think about the precision and fine motor skills required to draw with a pen. Every tiny muscle in your hand is used to control the movements. I like to think of it this way: a toddler can use a mouse, but there’s no way they could use a tablet. They can’t even write their own name. A tablet will allow you to use those fine motor skills that you developed all those years ago.
How Do You Use a Tablet?
You may have seen tablets being used in Photoshop tutorials and wondered how they’re used. You don’t need to be a professional retoucher or illustrator to benefit from using a tablet. Even if you do all your post-processing in Lightroom, you will likely still find that a tablet will make the process much more precise and enjoyable.
The main benefits of editing with a tablet are speed and precision. As I mentioned earlier, most tablets will have some extra controls on the stylus and on the tablet itself. These controls can be customized to do pretty much anything.
This means that you can replace your most commonly used keystrokes with a single button. The touch ring can be set to adjust things like brush size and hardness, or scroll and zoom. These controls can speed up your post-processing dramatically.
Where a graphics tablet really shines is when you want to apply local adjustments to your photos. Whether you’re making selections, drawing, painting, erasing, or dodging and burning, you’ll find that it’s far easier with a stylus than a mouse. It feels more natural and you’ll make a lot fewer mistakes.
If you don’t currently make a lot of local adjustments to your photos, I highly recommend taking some time to learn how. Learning basic dodging and burning is one of the best things you can do to take your post-processing skills to the next level. Do it with a tablet and you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes to your workflow.
There are many great resources available online for free that will teach you the basics of dodging and burning in both Lightroom and Photoshop. Likewise with setting up and using a tablet. There is a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to edit with a mouse again.
Choosing a Tablet
As I’ve mentioned, tablets range massively in price, size, and features. What you need will depend on a few factors like your budget, how much space you have on your desk, and how you like to work.
You can spend anywhere from $25 to $2000, so there is something that will suit your needs. You should be able to find a decent tablet under $100 that does the job.
Choosing the right size can be tricky. On one hand, the larger your tablet, the easier it is to use. You won’t find yourself having to move around the screen as much with a larger tablet. On the other hand, it will take up more space on your desk or in your bag. I personally like using a tablet that’s smaller than my laptop, that way they both fit nicely in my bag when I’m on the road.
In terms of features, you don’t need a lot of the more advanced features. My older Wacom Intuos doesn’t feature pressure sensitivity, and I don’t miss it. I would recommend using a tablet with at least a few control buttons, as they can speed up your workflow quite a bit.
Don’t stress about getting an expensive, high-end tablet, though. You’ll likely find that a basic model or a cheaper brand will suit your needs just fine. If you have an iPad lying around, there are apps available that allow you to connect it to your computer and use it as a tablet.
Beg, Borrow or Steal
Well, maybe not steal, but ask around and see if someone you know has a tablet you could borrow or rent to try for a week. If you can find one to test out, give it a chance. As I’ve said, it takes a while to get used to it, so don’t give up too soon.
I’m sure that once you get your head around it you’ll be wanting one of your very own, and you’ll never look back.