The idea of purchasing a Wacom Tablet is something many digital photographers wrestle with as they settle into refining their workflow.
“Do I need one?”
“What can that do that my mouse cannot?”
“Is that really going to make a difference?”
The answers to the above questions are simple. First, NO, you don’t need one. You need oxygen. Need is a mighty strong word and a tad over used by many (e.g. “I need a beer!”). But I will tell you this; once you do use a Wacom tablet for a decent amount of time, it will be like you are lacking oxygen when editing your images without one!
The list of things that using a Wacom tablet can do are almost endless. The customizable power of the Wacom Intuos Pro interface (That is the Tablet we will discuss in this article) is amazing. Not only will you realize tremendous advantages in Lightroom and Photoshop or whatever image editing application you use (Wacom supports over 150 applications), your operating system can become a much smoother experience when using this fantastic tool as well.
And to answer if it is going to make a difference, ask someone who uses one. Going from a mouse to a Wacom Tablet is like jumping from a 1979 Ford Pinto into a Mercedes Benz S Class. It is truly like night and day once you’ve used one and become comfortable with it.
Here are some reasons why you NEED (Ok, really want) a Wacom Tablet.
1 Pressure Sensitivity
For many users of the Wacom Tablet, this reason alone is more than enough to want to make the switch. The Intuos Pro line up has 3 different sizes: The Intuos Pro S (Small), M (Medium) and L (Large). This is a very good time for this article (as Wacom has just introduced new models in their Intuos Pro lineup. This also means you can find some very good deals on the older models that are still in the box but never sold. Check HERE and look around!
The smaller model is the previous model and nothing has changed. It sports 2048 levels of sensitivity and 6 “ExpressKeys” along with the Touch Ring.
The Medium and Large models have a brand new design for the Tablet and the Stylus. They both have an amazing 8192 levels of pressure sensitivity for both tip and eraser – a huge increase from the previous 2048. They both have 8 Express keys (More on that below).
The obvious benefit of pressure sensitivity is when using any type of brush tool. The less pressure you put on tip, the less that brush will be applied – whether it be the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom or any of the many tools in Photoshop that are brush based.
That isn’t the only thing that pressure controls, however. In Photoshop, you can totally customize brushes to do a whole host of different things and these actions all respond to pressure sensitivity when set up that way. Both Opacity and Flow can be set so the pressure controls the amount laid down. The size of the tip can be changed by applying more pressure.
Just think of the benefit of using a pressure sensitive brush when dodging and burning. You can even alter the color being applied based on how much pressure you apply while using the stylus.
2 Absolute Positioning
There is a misconception that there is a learning curve when using a Wacom tablet. I am not denying that you absolutely need to learn a new way of doing the things you've been doing for years. However, it should be thought of as “UNLEARNING” your previous mouse knowledge. I know that is basically the same but the two devices, in the end, do the same thing but just differently. The tablet happens to be much more efficient. Add to it that the mouse has been around since the 80's! It is time to ditch that relic and jump on board with something newer and faster!
Absolute Positioning means that where your pen tip is on the tablet, your pointer or selected tool on screen will be in that exact location. There are four little boundary marks on the tablets that represent the 4 corners of your screen. With a mouse, if you’re in the lower right corner, for example, and you want to go way up to the upper left corner, you drag your mouse across your work surface until you reach that point.
With a Wacom tablet and stylus, you simply lift the pen and place it in the corresponding place on the tablet and you are instantly in that new spot. It is very quick and intuitive. When anything creative is involved, the less the tools get in the way, the more focused you stay on what it is you are doing. This is something that needs to be used to realize just how nice it is. You’ll get around the screen much quicker and that time adds up.
3 No Batteries Required for Stylus
It is almost magical how this works but it does. The stylus basically has 4 buttons on it -The tip, the two buttons on the pen shaft (totally programmable) and the eraser (default and it too can be changed) on the end. Despite having these 4 buttons, the Wacom Stylus does not need any power. This is something you just enjoy and don’t ask how they do it!
4 Express Keys
To many users of the Wacom family of tablets, this feature alone makes the device an indispensable tool in the digital photography workflow. The Express keys are application independant which makes it super powerful and useful. If you are in Photoshop and want a quick way to make your brush smaller, larger, softer or harder, you can designate a key to be both the Control and Option Key (MAC) while moviing the stylus around to adjust these parameters. Super fast and super easy.
The stylus has two buttons right on the pen shaft itseld where your index finger has easy access to. In Photoshop, setting one of the keys up as STEP BACKWARD is an amazing and quick way to work. You can also set up one to be Alt/Opt so if you want to turn your brush into eraser, you can just hold one of the buttons and you can erase what you just did with brush without having to lift a finger.
In Finder (MAC) or Windows Explorer (PC), the operating system can also use these keys for whatever purpose you desire. This is one reason why the medium and large models are the best. They offer more keys than the small. I personally have the small as it fits my desk well and for digital photography, the small work area is more than enough but having those extra Express Keys is something I envy. The medium size is recommended for most users since it combines the best in customization and is still small enough to travel with in standard laptop sized slot.
There is also an option called the RADIAL MENU that you can assign to any Express key. It is an onscreen menu that pops up and you can program which options you want to be put on that “wheel.” A great example here is within Photoshop, you could assign the various adjustment layers to these 8 options within the wheel. You simply hit the ExpressKey on the tablet and the Radial Menu shows up and you can then click whatever is on that wheel such as creating a curves layer, levels, Hue/Sat, Black & White, etc. A really handy feature that adds many more shortcuts to your workflow.
5 Touch Ring
This could go along with the express keys since it is a way to get to certain features in an “Express” type manner but the unique design deserves its own section here. The middle of the touch ring is simply a toggle button. As you hit the button, the little light will move to one of 4 locations around the ring. These 4 areas each have their own programmed command – again application specific.
A great example here is in Photoshop where you can set it up so that you can fly through all of your layers just by touching the ring and going clockwise or counterclockwise to move up and down your layers. If you’re someone who works on complex composites (or you plan to because if you did you’d probably already have one of these) this is a great tool for you.
To move to another of the 4 corners accessed with the touch ring, simply tap the button in the center and it will toggle them in a clockwise direction.
As with the Express Keys, just touching them will activate the HEADS UP DISPLAY overlay on the screen that shows you and overlay of the buttons and what they do. (You can turn this off of course).
6 Pinch and Zoom – And the other great features of Multi Touch
We all have smartphones with multitouch screens. Since the first iPhone, these phones don’t come with any manual or instructions. Why? Because they are the most simple devices to use! The intuitive operation is amazingly simple. Want to open an app? Tap it and it opens. Want to make a photo bigger to see more detail? Pinch to Zoom. We have become totally accustomed with this in our daily lives. I have even found myself trying to pinch and zoom on a photo in a magazine – A PAPER MAGAZINE! The Wacom Tablets bring this level of simplicity to your computer.
There are many different options when setting up the touch preferences. If you’re using Photoshop and want to quickly make the image you are working on larger, simply pinch and zoom with two fingers. Wanna rotate the image? Put your thumb and index finger on pad with them spread apart a little and twist. Your image will rotate to the angle you want. This is very good when using the brush tool as it makes the image more like a piece of paper and if you’ve ever seen an artist work, they are constantly turning the paper. A right to left or up and down motion is much more natural and accurate while using a brush than having the display dictate to you what angle you will work on. You can then twish your pad on your desk or lap to match the screen and it feels so natural. This is a big benefit over the systems where you draw directly on the screen – you cannot rotate the display – well not easily!!
Hit Esc to exit the rotation tool when done.
There are other options you can customize. Swiping from left to right with 4 fingers can change your desktop (Mac OS), three fingers will allow you to drag whatever that is under the pointer, and on and on. You can set it up the way you want.
7 Ergonomics and Natural Feel
We have all used pens in our life, They fit in our hands naturally. The stylus is a pen. If you never learned to use a mouse and from the beginning used a stylus, it would be insane to then go to a mouse. Why? Because a pen in our hand is natural and in terms of ergonomics, it cannot be topped.
A mouse or trackpad is fine for general computing as the precision and the types of strokes required with photo editing aren't required. But with applications like Lightroom and Photoshop, you want that ability to have the free flowing feel with nice big, smooth strokes or really tiny and accurate detailing. The stylus is superior in this area. Once you get the feel of the keys along with the pen itself, you will fly through your files in no time.
8 You’ll look like a pro!
Finally, having a tablet and stylus on your desk not only gives you all the above mentioned benefits, it also gives your desk and YOU, the photographer, a professional look. I was on vacation once and walked into a photographer’s studio in a touristy area and saw this sleek setup with an iMac and a nice big tablet & stylus and thought “Wow – this person is a pro!” Ha! Ok – it may be a shallow reason and it's not just for looks of course but to a potential client, it says “This Is A PRO!!”
In all reality, the tools are just there to get us to the final result quicker, better and with technology out of the way. There is about a week of use time to get comfortable with these tablets for many people. You can ask anyone who uses one and has for even just 3-4 months what they think of it and most will tell you they could never go back to the “old way!”
If you feel your workflow could use a little boost and you want it to feel a little more organic, check out the Wacom line of tablets. There are other brands out there as well. I simply chose Wacom because they are by far the popular choice and have the most information available to us online along with their software support in the industry is huge (150+ Applications). Good luck and keep SHOOTING and EDITING 🙂