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How to Use a Graphics Tablet to Edit Photos: 10 Powerful Tips


Photo editing is simpler than ever thanks to the power of a graphics tablet! Explore our top 10 tips to level up your skills.

If you’re just getting started with post-processing and retouching, you’re probably using a mouse and keyboard combo. You can get by with this setup, sure. But when the tasks become more intricate, the precision required can make the process pretty tedious.

That’s where a graphics tablet, like those from Wacom, comes into play. With a tablet, you can gain a whole new level of control and precision. You might even find that your editing workflow gets a significant speed boost.

Using a graphics tablet for photo editing can be pretty intuitive. Unfortunately, you might stumble a bit when it comes to the subtler aspects – but don’t fret, because this article will arm you with handy tips to help you unlock your tablet’s full potential.

Let’s dive right in!

1. Set up your tablet carefully

Using a graphics tablet for retouching photos.

Your first order of business? Setting up your graphics tablet the right way.

While many devices come with a plug-and-play feature and seem to work as soon as you plug them in, for graphics tablets, that’s not the whole story.

Truth be told, you might be able to use the pen, but the full functionality of your tablet isn’t unlocked until you install and configure the necessary software. Make sure to install all relevant drivers for your tablet, and if it comes with a software suite, explore all the options to optimize it to your liking.

Your tablet might seem fully functional without any software, but trust me: If you don’t want to miss out on any features, installing the provided software is crucial.

Over time, your preferences may evolve. If you feel that something could be improved, dive back into the software settings. There might be a solution to your issue just a few clicks away.

How to Use a Graphics Tablet to Edit Photos: 10 Powerful Tips
A lot of tablets will seem to work without any software installed, but such users are missing out on a lot of features.

2. Program those shortcut buttons

Once the basic setup is done, it’s time to turn your attention to the shortcut buttons.

The number of programmable buttons on your graphics tablet can vary based on the model. The budget-friendly ones might have only a few, while the pricier ones could be dotted with buttons.

How to customize these buttons is completely up to you. A smart approach is to reflect on your usual photo-editing workflow. What actions do you perform the most? Which of these could be executed more conveniently with a simple button click?

Once you’ve figured that out, setting up the buttons to suit your preferences is a breeze.

How to Use a Graphics Tablet to Edit Photos: 10 Powerful Tips
You have full control over how your shortcut buttons are set up. Use these in any way that suits your work!

Remember, you have complete control over your shortcut button configurations. Make them work for you, not the other way around.

I’ll be honest, I don’t find myself using the shortcut buttons all that much. The only one I find handy is for rotating the canvas. You might feel the same, and that’s perfectly okay. Don’t feel pressured to use something that doesn’t mesh with your style or needs.

3. Learn keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts while using a graphics tablet make a powerful combo.
Even with a tablet, you can still use the keyboard a lot when you work in Photoshop. Be sure to memorize any keyboard shortcuts that are relevant to you.

Even when you have a graphics tablet at your disposal, the keyboard remains a crucial partner in crime, especially when you want to speed up your workflow with quick keyboard shortcuts. Make it a point to read through each and every shortcut offered by your favorite editing program, write down the most useful ones, and ideally commit them to memory.

You might be wondering: If you have a graphics tablet for photo editing that features a handful of programmable buttons, why are keyboard shortcuts necessary at all?

Whether you work in the world of Lightroom, Photoshop, or other editing software, there’s such a rich array of features that it’s impossible to map all their functionality onto a few buttons. This is why it’s worth your while to program a few buttons, then spend time learning as many keyboard shortcuts as you can – particularly the ones that align with your usual editing workflow.

Admittedly, using a stylus in one hand and tapping keyboard shortcuts with the other might seem a little odd to begin with. But go ahead and persevere; you’ll soon find that it’s not as daunting as it first appears.

4. Understand the magic of “undo”

Among all the keyboard shortcuts at your disposal, there’s one you likely lean on more than any other. That’s the “undo” function, which reverses your last action and can be accessed by hitting Ctrl+z (or Cmd+z)

A pen enables you to make precise strokes, but just like sketching, not every stroke will turn out exactly as you want on the first go. There’s absolutely no harm in hitting “undo” repeatedly until you achieve the result you’re after. So get familiar with the Ctrl+z (or Cmd+z) and Ctrl+Alt+z (or Cmd+Alt+z) shortcuts.

If it makes your life easier, you could even set up this function as a shortcut button on your tablet.

5. Customize your brush settings

When you bring a graphics tablet into your photo editing journey, you also unlock some nifty features in Photoshop that were previously off-limits.

The brush settings – and more specifically, the pen pressure settings – are arguably the most impactful of these. By activating these, you gain the ability to control the brush pressure simply by varying how hard you press down on the tablet.

For instance, if you have the “Always Use Pressure for Size” option selected, your brush size will vary in accordance with the force you apply with the pen.

If you’re using the opacity option, a light touch will result in a low-opacity brush stroke. Activate both settings, and the effects become compounded.

Mastering the pressure settings is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful advantages of using a graphics tablet for photo editing. In fact, in isolation, these settings provide a compelling case for using a tablet if you’re still unsure. My advice? Get well-acquainted with these settings – they will shape your graphics tablet editing experience.

How to Use a Graphics Tablet to Edit Photos: 10 Powerful Tips
Taking control of the pressure settings is one of the most powerful aspects of using a graphics tablet for photo editing.

6. Try tilting brushes

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself rarely using tilt-sensitive brushes for photo retouching. But, hey, they’re there, so why not get acquainted with them? You don’t want to accidentally stumble onto these tools and suspect a malfunction in your tablet.

A charcoal pencil brush, for instance, reacts based on how you position your pen. All the lines you see below were crafted simply by altering the pen’s hold, all while keeping the pressure settings at zero:

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

In other words, these tilt-sensitive brushes change their shape and texture based on your pen hold, mimicking how an artist varies their brush or pencil strokes. It’s a playful feature to experiment with. If you manage to incorporate it into your photo editing process, well, that’s quite a bonus!

7. Explore digital art tutorials

Using a graphics tablet for retouching can feel both intuitive and bafflingly counterintuitive. If you have some art experience, you’ll likely find it easier to adapt. But if you’re like me – with zero art background – do yourself a favor and spend some time watching digital painting tutorials.

The most beneficial types of tutorials to seek out include:

  • Drawing lines: These exercises are about mastering control over your stylus and familiarizing yourself with your tablet’s pressure sensitivity. They’ll help you make more precise movements, ultimately enhancing the quality of your output. Watching these tutorials and practicing line drawing will boost your confidence and experience with your tablet.
  • Rendering: Digital painting tutorials that focus on painting with values can be highly useful, especially when you want to apply techniques like dodging and burning. These methods will improve your blending skills and encourage more controlled adjustments.
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 gain confidence and experience!

8. Practice with your graphics tablet stylus

You’ve watched the tutorials. Great! Now, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

Set up a blank canvas and work on those brush strokes using different pressure settings. This is the key to mastering your tablet quickly.

Similarly, it’s essential that you practice blending values, especially if you plan to incorporate certain retouching techniques into your workflow. Practice relentlessly, both within and beyond the scope of retouching.

Bottom line: Don’t stop at watching the tutorials. Practice fervently, and make it a point to revisit these exercises periodically. Regular practice is your golden ticket to becoming proficient with your tablet.

Practice using a graphics tablet as often as possible.
Don’t just follow the tutorials once. Practice a lot at first, then make it a point to practice some more at regular intervals.

9. Warm up before you start

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.

You don’t need anything fancy here. Just fire up Photoshop, open a blank canvas, and spend a few minutes – say two or three – honing your line work and rendering, or any other skill you plan to use in your editing session. Simple yet effective!

10. Practice, practice, practice!

How to Use a Graphics Tablet to Edit Photos: 10 Powerful Tips

How do you truly master your graphics tablet? The answer’s as old as time: practice! And then practice some more.

Every skill in life demands repetition and patience, and using a graphics tablet is no different. The more you use it, the better you’ll get. So don’t hold back. Dive in and start racking up those hours. The early hiccups you encounter will soon be a thing of the past.

How to use a graphics tablet for editing: final words

There you go: 10 nuggets of wisdom to guide your journey into the world of photo editing with a graphics tablet. I didn’t share anything too complex, but you’ve hopefully found a tip or two to help you get off to a good start.

So remember the advice I’ve offered, set up that tablet, and have fun. A graphic tablet genuinely can revolutionize your editing workflow; you just have to be open to it!

Now over to you:

Do you have any additional tips or tricks for using a graphics tablet? Share your thoughts 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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