The Biggest Impact Any One Tool Can Make?

When people ask me what the one thing they can do to make editing their photographs better I always have to answer that there is no magical silver bullet that will make everything perfect. It is like searching for the fountain of youth. It doesn't exist, and while you are out there searching for it, you will be missing all the important things in life that you could be experiencing. 

However, I do think the one thing that impacted the way I work the most switching to using a Wacom Pen Tablet instead of a mouse (or the painful crab claw click on the laptop)

How did it change the way I work?

It seemed to make interacting with the photographs more direct than when working with a mouse. 

I realized that by using a large soft round brush and layer masks I could tonally balance a print like I was accustomed to doing in the darkroom. Using the motions for burning and dodging that I learned in the darkroom now with natural sketching motion on the computer.

I am by no means an accomplished draftsman nor very skilled at life drawing, painting or sketching. It is just that the motions are very much like those you make when you're a four year old coloring inside (and outside) the lines, but now you are interacting with a display and watching your adjustments build in real time.

How is that any more different than using a mouse?

  • The gesture with the mouse is not a natural one. Draw a circle with a pen and paper, and try to do the same with a mouse, then sign your name with a pen and then try to do the same with a mouse.
  • The point of contact with a stylus can be precisely controlled and is much finer than the size and ability to accurately position a mouse (or your finger on the touch pad on your laptop).

So which pen tablet is the best?

Here's the beauty of it all: On a functional level it doesn't really matter. I have worked with the Wacom Intuos 3, 4, 5Pro, Bamboo and the new (confusingly named) Intuos Pen and Touch series. They all function basically the same, despite sometimes having different levels of sensitivity (I don't use or worry about the programmable express keys or the zoom or multi-function wheel).

  • For the 98% purposes photographers are concerned with, the most basic, and smallest model will be sufficient.
  • If you are able to afford a larger model, one with higher levels of pressure sensitivity, or a more comfortable stylus then a Medium Intuos 5 or Pro might be a better option, especially if you are working with it several hours a day.

My Personal Intuos 4

How large of a working area do I need?

I have both an Large Intuos 3, and a Medium Intuos 4 and a Small Bamboo for travel. If you look at the wear marks on any of the tablets, you can see how much of the area I am actaully ever really using—usually only about 2x3-inches, and that is with a 30-inch main display and 19-inch secondary display.

When I am traveling I do take a small bamboo tablet. It is inexpensive enough that if it gets lost, stolen or broken it doesn't break the bank to replace and it is functional enough for the little bit of work I might need to do when I'm on the road. It works well enough for short use, but I wouldn't want to spend many days of long hours of editing and retouching with it. 

There are now a few other brands that are making pen tablets, but i don't have any personal experience with them. I am not one that likes to buy new equipment to just give it a try, and from what I have seen of nearly all the other brands (other than Wacom) is that they all seem to need a AAA battery to allow the pen to work. That might be a deal breaker for you. It is for me...