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This article is from March 8, 2010, and is no longer current.

Photoshop's Best Friend: What You Can Do with a Pressure-Sensitive Tablet

I’m always surprised when I meet someone who doesn’t use a pressure-sensitive tablet while editing photographs. If your edits are confined to global adjustments that can be easily applied using a slider, a tablet isn’t so necessary. But if you perform localized edits — dust removal or cloning; masking of tone or color adjustments; or any type of dodge or burn effects — then a tablet can greatly ease your post-production life.
If you’re unsure as to why you might need a tablet for your image editing chores, or if you don’t know what to look for in a tablet, this discussion should put you to rights.
What a Tablet Can Do For You
I’ve been using pressure-sensitive tablets for the past fifteen years. I was originally drawn to them by their superior ergonomics. Due to a medley of repetitive stress issues, using a mouse is a really bad idea for me. Retouching with a mouse is especially troublesome, because painting requires precise brush movements, which usually result in my clenching the mouse very tightly.
With a tablet, though, the grip is very light, and there’s no index finger clicking to aggravate the tennis elbow. Also, there are more ways that you can position your body with a tablet. You can work with it on a desktop, or in a lap, and it’s easy to shift position while you work. Finally, with a tablet I tend to sit a little farther from the screen, which can help reduce eyestrain.
But if you’re one of those people who doesn’t let something as minor as teeth-rattling hand pain get in the way of your image-editing tasks, a tablet can still be an essential accessory. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Precise painting is much easier. When you’re painting a mask or brushing an effect onto an image, fine detail work such as painting around difficult shapes or following an ungainly edge is much easier with a tablet. There are lots of reasons, from the natural pen-and-paper-like motions to the fact that you don’t run out of “mousing space” in the middle of a stroke. Once you’re practiced, painting will be much speedier with a tablet, and you’ll probably get better results.
2. Imprecise painting is much easier. Sometimes you need to cover a large area very quickly, but you don’t want to use a paint bucket because you don’t trust it to stay confined to a particular area. Grab your pen and tablet, dial in a big brush, and you can quickly cover a large area of a mask or image.
3. Airbrush effects are smoother and more gradual. Good mask painting and retouching often centers around the ability to create subtle airbrush effects. With a pressure-sensitive pen, you can configure your airbrush tool to apply more or less ink depending on how hard you push down. This makes smooth, gradual shading much easier. Sure, you can use a gradient tool to create smooth transitions, but if you’re transitioning around an irregular shape, there’s no substitute for painting.
4. Other brush dynamics. Depending on the tablet you have and the software you’re using, you can set up your digital brushes to respond to different pen dynamics. For example, by default, most brushes change shape depending on how hard you push, but you can also program them to change opacity or color. If your tablet supports it, you might be able to program the tilt and bearing of your pen. So, you could have size dependent on pressure, hue dependent on the direction you tilt the pen, and saturation dependent on how far you tilt. To be honest, I don’t use that much functionality for photo work, but if you also paint, these are nice features to have.
Finally, there are some less quantifiable advantages to tablets, the main one being that they’re simply fun. When I work with my tablet, I don’t feel so much that I’m working on a computer. While not as tactile as real analog media, there’s still a strong feeling of relating to your image through your hands.
To demonstrate the above points, I created the following short movie. Click below to open it in another window.

What to Look for in a Tablet
Wacom pretty much owns the tablet market, and with good reason. Their pens don’t require a battery, making them lighter and more convenient over the long haul; and they offer a wide array of sizes, with a varied assortment of utility features. And Wacom’s tablets are well-made, dependable, and come with very good driver software.
Size. When shopping for a tablet, your first consideration should be size. Tablets come in a wide range of sizes, from small and very portable to large and barely luggable.
The table below gives you a quick glimpse; for many, many more details, visit the Wacom tablet comparison pages for the Intuous4 and the Bamboo.

Model Drawing Area Dimensions* Price (US$)
Intuos4 Small** 3.9″ x 6.2″ 229
Intuos4 Medium** 8.8″ x 5.5″ 369
Intuos4 Large** 12.8″ x 8″ 499
Bamboo Pen 3.6″ x 5.8″ 49
Bamboo Fun** 8.5″ x 5.4″ 199
Bamboo Craft** 3.6″ x 5.8″ 129

* Sizes refer to the dimensions of the drawing area. The actual tablet size is larger.
** Tablet includes at least one programmable button.

If you usually edit images on the road, then a small tablet makes more sense. If you’re buying a tablet for exclusive use on your desktop, then you’ll want to consider what size will fit comfortably in your lap or on your desk. If you’re primarily a photographer, you probably don’t need an especially large tablet, as you won’t be trying to trace large documents or perform other “drafting” tasks.
But size can also affect ease of use. If you don’t have much painting or drawing experience, working on a large tablet may be more difficult than working on a small one. (For someone with limited painting/drawing experience, large strokes are harder to control than small ones.) Because your screen is mapped to the dimensions of the tablet’s drawing surface, a larger tablet requires larger strokes to cover a given distance across your document.

The Intuos4 Wireless pen tablet
Programmable Buttons. Once you add a tablet to your workflow, you won’t want to use a keyboard as often because of the hassle of switching back and forth. To replicate important keyboard functions such as navigating a document or reproducing keyboard shortcuts for modifying brush behavior, many tablets include buttons that you can program to generate these same keystrokes.
So, for example, you can create Shift and Control buttons on the tablet, or specific key commands for changing tools. Some tablets also include special controls ideally suited to zooming in and out of a document.
Tablet Surface. Tablet surface is, unfortunately, not something you can probably test beforehand, so you’ll have to depend on reviews. Surface feel is something that’s easy to take for granted until you try using a tablet with a bad surface. Scraping a pen or pencil across a piece of paper generates a fair amount of friction, and that tactile feedback helps you control your stroke. A good tablet will offer a similar type of surface. A slippery tablet surface will make for strokes that are harder to control, and a stylus that “skates”.
Pen Design. Stylus design is also very important, and weight will be your primary concern. Again, unless you can get your hands on a tablet beforehand, you’ll have to base your decision on reviews.
You want at least one programmable button on the side of the pen, and you’ll usually configure this for double-click. Some pens also have a virtual eraser on the other end of the pen. This effectively gives you immediate access to two tools simply by flipping the pen over. Some pens even have interchangeable nibs, to get a different feel for different types of painting.
Wacom’s Intuos tablets all come with pens that have a two-button switch on the side, an eraser on the top, and interchangeable nibs. Wacom sells additional pens for the Intuos4 series, including a pen with true airbrush controls. The Wacom Bamboo series pens feature two buttons on the side, but lack an eraser and interchangeable nibs. Unfortunately, pens are not interchangeable, so you can’t buy a Bamboo and use it with a fancy Intuos4 pen.
Wireless or Wired? Wireless gives you a little more ergonomic freedom, but wired doesn’t require pairing with Bluetooth, which some computers don’t have.
Getting Used to a Tablet
Some people find painting and drawing on a tablet to be confusing at first, because you draw on one surface and look at another. If you have traditional sketching experience, you shouldn’t have any trouble adjusting to the coordination of a tablet.
Even without sketching experience, in a few days of solid tablet use, you should find that you don’t think about the seemingly disjointed coordination. For even greater comfort, check the controls in your driver. You might be able to change the sensitivity of some of the pen’s behaviors to achieve a better feel.
The Latest
Wacom’s Intuos4 Wireless is a great example of a state-of-the-art tablet. Shipping in three sizes, the Intuos offers fantastic performance with up-to-the-minute features. I reviewed the wired version of the Intuos4, and the Intuos4 Wireless is the same design with the addition of a Bluetooth connection.

The tablet also has a normal USB port, giving you the option for wired use. You charge the tablet via the USB port. Because it’s Bluetooth, its battery must be charged before you can use the tablet wirelessly. As with any Bluetooth device, the tablet must be paired with your computer. To pair the tablet, you turn it on and press a small button on the tablet’s side. This makes the Intuos4 discoverable for three minutes. It presents itself to your computer as a mouse, and I had no trouble pairing it with any of my Macs.
As far as actual use goes, the tablet doesn’t feel or perform any differently than when it’s corded. But not having the cord — which sticks out the side — definitely gives you some extra ergonomic options. It’s easier to work with the tablet in your lap, since the cord doesn’t smash into your knees. That said, I’m glad the corded option is available for times when I forget to charge the battery, or move it to a computer without Bluetooth.
In all other ways, the tablet is the same as the normal Intuos4, meaning it’s a great tablet with excellent features and software.

  • Anonymous says:

    My Bamboo Pen and Touch has an eraser on the opposite end of the pen and changeable nubs. So I’m not sure why you say they don’t have them.

    Good overall push for tablet use, it only took me a week to get hooked. LOVE MINE for all types of graphics and photo retouching. It makes the pen tool particularly easier to maneuver.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the great article. I’m a photographer who will do some masking edits on PS. I’m quite comfortable on the mouse but sometimes gets frustrated because the mouse doesn’t move smoothly. Is the tablet a good solution for this problem?

    Also, what’s your take on the Intuos vs Bamboo? There’s quite a significant price difference, and if I’m not going to be using all the extra features, maybe a Bamboo will be better?

  • Anonymous says:

    Nibs and surface wear extremely quickly. Drivers are questionable. In fact, there’s even a petition going on agains Wacom’s new policies: https://www.petitiononline.com/wacombug/petition.html
    Better consider an Intuos3 if you’re used to constant, reliable performance.

  • Anonymous says:

    There certainly is a big difference in price, which makes the Bamboo a great starter tablet. If you’re not certain that you want a tablet, then maybe the Bamboo is a good way for you to see if a tablet’s a good solution for you.

  • Anonymous says:

    Great information for a fence-sitter like me. Thanks.

  • Anonymous says:

    I’d love to know where you found a Bamboo pen for $49. Seriously, I’ve been thinking about getting one but haven’t seen one at near that price.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the great article. I’m a photographer who will do some masking edits on PS. I’m quite comfortable on the mouse but sometimes gets frustrated because the mouse doesn’t move smoothly. Is the tablet a good solution for this problem?
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  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you for showing how the tablet works. This has help me on my decision to purchase the tablet.

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