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10 Tips for Using a Graphics Tablet for Easier Photo Editing


In terms of post-processing and retouching, there are a lot of basic techniques that you can use with a mouse (a trackpad is even worse) and a keyboard combo. However, once you get into the more complicated stuff, the amount of precision you need to apply becomes tedious and hard to do with that setup. This is where using a graphics tablet for photo editing comes into its own. Graphics tablets, such as those from Wacom, offer you an enormous amount of control and precision in your retouching. They can also speed up your workflow a lot.

If you’ve never used a graphics tablet for photo editing before, you may wonder if you actually need one.

Using a graphics tablet for retouching photos.

The answer depends on how much time you spend and the type of post-processing that you do. But I will say, this is one of those pieces of equipment that, once you’ve been using it for a week, you’ll wonder how you ever got on without it.

Using a graphics tablet for cleaner and more consistent lines.

Left: Not a mouse, but a trackpad. You can still see how the lines are sloppy and less controlled. Right: With a graphics tablet, more consistent lines become much easier to make.

While graphics tablets are (for the most part) intuitive to use and get to grips with, some of the finer aspects of their use can seem a bit tricky. This article will cover a set of tips to help you get the most out of your graphics tablet.

1. Setup

The first thing you should make sure you do with your graphics tablet is to ensure that it is set up properly.

Many devices have plug-and-play functionality and will seem to work by just plugging them in. This isn’t the case.

In most cases, while you may have use of the pen, the full functionality of your tablet won’t be open to you until you install and setup the relevant software.  Ensure any you install any relevant drivers for your tablet and if it has a software suite, go through all of the options and make sure it is set up in a way that works for you.

Image: A lot of tablets will seem to work without any software installed, but it is important to mak...

A lot of tablets will seem to work without any software installed, but it is important to make sure that you do install it, or you will be missing out on a lot of features.

Your preferences may change over time. If you find that something could be working better for you, do look in the software to see if any of the settings there can help you solve any issue you might be having.

2. Shortcut buttons

After you’ve set-up the basics, you can now move on to the shortcut buttons.

Most graphics tablets offer a number of programmable buttons that you can program and set to any function you choose. Some cheaper tablets might have only a few buttons, while some of the more expensive ones can be covered in them.

How you program them is up to you. A good way to approach this is to take a moment and examine your normal workflow in Photoshop. What actions do you make the most? Which of those actions would be easier (and suitable) to use at the click of a button?

Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is set-up the buttons in a way that suits you.

Image: You have full control over how your shortcut buttons are setup. Use these in any way that sui...

You have full control over how your shortcut buttons are setup. Use these in any way that suits the way you work.

Now, I don’t like using the shortcut buttons and they don’t suit me. The only one I use is the one that allows me to rotate the canvas. That may be the case for you too. That’s fine, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to use something that doesn’t suit your needs or approach.

3. Keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts while using a graphics tablet make a powerful combo.

Even with a tablet, you will still use the keyboard a lot for Photoshop shortcuts. Be sure to memorize any that are relevant to you.

Whether you are using Lightroom, Photoshop or any of the other software packages, you will still be using the keyboard alongside your graphics tablet for photo editing.

These programs hold so much functionality that there’s no way that everything you can do could be contained to a few buttons. As such, do spend some time learning as many of the keyboard shortcuts as you can (or at least the ones relevant to your workflow).

Using both a stylus and a keyboard at the same time can seem counterintuitive at first, but you will quickly find it’s nothing to worry about.

4. Undo

Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, there is one that you already probably use more than any other. That, of course, is Ctrl+z (cmd+z) to undo your last action. Be prepared to use this a lot.

Using a pen allows you to work with precision strokes, and just like in drawing, not all of those strokes are going to be perfect the first time. There is nothing wrong with undoing something over and over again until you get it right, so do get comfortable with ctrl+z (cmd+z) and ctrl+alt+z (cmd+alt=z).

You could always set this to a shortcut button on your tablet if you think that option would be good for you.

5. Brush settings

When you start using a graphics tablet for photo editing, you unlock a few features in Photoshop that were previously unavailable to you.

The most important of these are the brush settings; specifically, they’re the pen pressure settings. By turning these on, you give yourself control of the brush pressure through how much pressure you apply to the tablet.

For example, if you have the Always Use Pressure for Size option clicked, then the brush size will change depending on how hard you press down with the pen.

If it’s the opacity option you are using, then a light touch will result in a low opacity from your brush. Turn them both on, and the effects combine.

Image: Taking control of the pressure settings is one of the most powerful aspects of using a graphi...

Taking control of the pressure settings is one of the most powerful aspects of using a graphics tablet for photo editing.

These settings are powerful, and on their own, one of the biggest reasons to use a tablet if you’re on the fence about them. Get to know these settings intimately as they will define your use of your graphics tablet for photo editing.

6. Tilting brushes

This is a bit of a wild card, as you might never use one of these brushes for retouching photos. However, because they exist, it’s good to know about them before you stumble onto them by accident and think your tablet is broken.

Using a graphics tablet unlocks features in Photoshop that are otherwise unavailable.

This charcoal pencil brush responds to the way you hold your pen. Here, all of these lines were made by holding the pen in different positions with all of the pressure settings turned off.

These brushes respond to the way you hold your pen and alter the shape and texture of their output. This replicates how a traditional artist would use a brush or pencil (or other tools) to create different strokes and marks.

If nothing else, it is a fun feature to play with, and if you can figure out how to use it with your photography, more power to you.

7. Digital art tutorials

Using a graphics tablet for retouching can be both intuitive and counterintuitive at the same time. If you have any art background at all (I do not), you will find it easier than other photographers without that kind of background, and you can skip this tip.

If, like me, you don’t have any experience with art (either traditional or digital), I highly recommend taking the time to watch and read some digital painting tutorials.

Some of the most useful types of tutorials are:

Drawing lines – These exercises will give you control over your stylus and help you get used to the pressure sensitivity of your tablet. They will also help you make more precise movements, which will overall help to increase the quality of your output.

Follow digital painting tutorials to get better at using a graphics tablet.

Following tutorials that teach you how to practice making lines and other marks will help you to gain confidence and experience with using your tablet.

Rendering – Digital painting tutorials that deal with painting with values can be an invaluable asset when your using techniques like dodging and burning. These techniques will help you blend your values better and teach you to make more controlled adjustments.

8. Brushstrokes and control

Now that you have watched some tutorials on the subject, don’t forget to actually practice them.

Taking the time to set up a blank canvas and practice your brush strokes with the various pressure settings will only help you to become proficient with your tablet faster.

The same goes for blending values for the retouching techniques that use them. Practice as much as you can, both inside and outside of retouching.

Practice using a graphics tablet as often as possible.

Don’t just follow the tutorials once. Practice a lot at first and then make it a point to practice some more at regular intervals.

9. Warm-up

This one is entirely optional, but if you’re feeling stiff and not getting the results you want, you can borrow another technique from traditional artists and do some warm-up exercises.

There’s nothing fancy here, just set up a blank canvas in Photoshop and spend time practicing your lines and rendering (two or three minutes might be plenty), or whatever else you will be using in your retouching session.

10. Practice, practice, practice

Image: The best way to get to grips with your graphics tablet is to use it a lot.

The best way to get to grips with your graphics tablet is to use it a lot.

Just like everything else in life, if you want to get proficient in using a graphics tablet, there is only one solution:

Use it.

Put in as much mileage as you can as quickly as you can. You should find that any challenges you face in the beginning are quickly put to rest.

The end

There you have it, 10 tips to help you get the most out of using a graphics tablet for photo editing. While there is nothing complicated here, I hope that you will have found something that will help you get the most out of your graphics tablet for photo editing in the early days.

If you have any tips that you feel I have left out, please leave them in the comments below.

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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