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The photo.net guide to Wacom Tablets

by Richard Harris, 2004

For any application that requires some form of drawing on a computer a digitising tablet is a considerably more ergonomic and comfortable option than a mouse. As anyone who has ever tried it, drawing with a mouse is not exactly the last word in ease of use or accuracy.

Whilst not an essential tool for the photographer, many do use Wacom tablets, especially if they need to do any extensive retouching or masking in their work. For simple retouching with the clone tool or rubber stamp it is certainly helpful to use a tablet, and for creating complex masks it is essential to use one in my opinion.

As someone who worked for many years as a commercial illustrator before becoming a professional photographer I have a great deal of familiarity with Wacom tablets. There is already information on them on the net in general, but not really geared towards the photographer. As a result I thought that a guide might be useful to those who might be thinking of buying one for photographic applications.

Which tablet should I get?

There is only one brand to consider in my opinion: Wacom. They do have competitors, who offer attractively sized tablets at much cheaper prices, but as with most things there are some serious pitfalls with the cheaper products. Firstly Many have batteries in the pens which makes them large and uncomfortable, whereas the Wacom products do not use batteries but draw their power from the USB port. Secondly, and far more importantly, the hardware is only half the story. Whilst the other brands tablets may work reasonably well and look good in terms of size, the software drivers are a crucial part of the product and this is where Wacom really shine.

Here is a screenshot of the Wacom Intuos control panel:

As you should be able to see there are a lot of options on offer and these give you a great deal of control on the tablet's response and behaviour, more on this later.

The next issue that faces the potential purchaser is which model and size of tablet to get? In my opinion for most photo retouching tasks the smallest 4x5 Graphire is more than adequate in most cases. The Graphire is Wacom's middle range (the cheapest range, the Volito, should be avoided as they have crippled drivers). The Graphire tablets share most of the features of the more expensive Intuos range, and crucially the drivers are the same for both models.

tablets.jpg (26804 bytes)

The main differences between the Graphire and Intuos ranges are that the Intuos pens have 1024 levels of sensitivity instead of the Graphire's 512 levels. In practice you really will never notice this difference, even when doing critical work. The Intuos line also offers some programmable buttons on the tablet itself, which is a nice feature but hardly a deal breaker. The Graphire does offer some very good programmable options on the pen's buttons so it does have some similar functionality. The final major difference between the two models is that the Intuos line also offers tilt sensitivity, which means that your strokes can respond to the angle at which you hold your pen. This can be useful for some types of linework, brushwork or airbrush simulation, but for photo retouching it is unlikely to be a real necessity so I would only recommend this for illustration work.

Size-wise, bigger is not always better. For a single monitor computer and normal photo editing (retouching and mask painting) a 4x5 is plenty. A tablet is not really akin to a sheet of paper, and you can easily overcome the small size of a 4x5 tablet by simply zooming in to your image, which will mean you can use longer strokes from your pen for greater precision. I have completed very detailed professional illustration work using a 4x5 Graphire with no difficulty whatsoever, and although I do usually use a 6x8 Intuos for most of my work nowadays I would have no qualms returning to the smaller tablet if I had to.

The only times I would recommend going for a larger tablet would be for those who work with two monitors (my main reason for moving up a size); or if you draw with very large strokes - some traditionally trained artists for instance are taught to draw from the shoulder which requires long sweeping strokes. If like most people you draw from the wrist then you will find a larger tablet very hard to use because you will not have the necessary control over your strokes, and your lines will wobble over the long distances needed to draw them.

For multiple monitors, or displays at very high resolutions the smaller tablets might struggle since their own resolution is being stretched. A 6x8 would be a better choice in those circumstances. The good news is that Wacom have recently introduced a Graphire version of the 6x8 which is considerably cheaper than its Intuos counterpart.

There is also a very expensive range of tablets called Cintiq which feature an LCD screen which you draw on directly. Whilst this idea sounds nice, the truth is that you get used to looking at the screen while drawing on a standard tablet quite quickly, and though it sounds difficult it soon becomes second nature - so in my opinion the Cintiq is an unnecessary luxury.


There is a range of accessories for the Intuos tablets, ranging from different pen types to spare nibs. The range of extra pens includes an airbrush pen and a stroke pen. The airbrush is a fairly good simulation of the real thing and includes a flow control as well as tilt and angle sensitivity; however as Photoshop's own airbrush simulation isn't all that realistic (it isn't directional like a real airbrush) you would need to use Corel Painter to get the most out of the Intuos airbrush.

The stroke pen is a nice accessory, it has a longer nib and responds more like a brush than a pen, but unfortunately Wacom decided not to give it any buttons, which makes it annoying to use. You can also get a very similar response from the standard Intuos pen by careful adjustment of the Tip Feel dialog in the Wacom control panel.

Most models also come bundled with a Wacom mouse, which is cordless and only works on the tablet itself. I'm sure they're very precise, however they're no substitute for an optical mouse and having to use them on the tablet is a little cumbersome.

Driver options

If we take a closer look at the Wacom driver, there are a couple of features worth looking at in a little more detail:

The mapping options let you set how the tablet relates to your display and offer a lot of flexibility. Here you can set the tablet to cover all or just a portion of your screen area; this is very useful if for example you have a small tablet and dual monitors since you can set the tablet to only cover one (or even one and a half) of the monitors. I would also strongly recommend that you set the aspect to "proportional" rather than "to fit": whilst the first option may waste a little of your tablet's real estate, the second will cause your strokes to be distorted - a circle becomes an ellipse - and precision goes out of the window.

- The tablet buttons tab lets you assign functions to the buttons along the top of the Intuos model tablets. Wacom have assigned some by default but these can be customised to your own requirements. You can use these to call up favourite tools or presets, run actions, move back or forward in the history palette or call up menu items. Although useful I personally don't use them as much as the pop-up menu on the pen itself, simply because the pop-up menu is just that much faster, so I prefer to put my most used shortcuts there.

The pop-up menu tab lets you create a custom menu to assign to one of the pen's buttons. This is a very useful feature and there is no limit to what can be placed there. The pens in the Intuos and Graphire ranges both support this, and as the pens have two buttons you can assign something such as Enter, Alt or Right-Click to one of them and the pop-up menu to the other. I have all my most used commands placed here: from calling up specific brush presets that I've created, or toggling Photoshop palettes on or off, to selecting different tools and blending modes for painting.

As you can see, the drivers offer a lot of power and flexibility, and as I mentioned at the start of this article this is a big part of what you are paying for. I think that most competing products fall way short in this crucial area and as a result they don't have the usability of the Wacom tablets. Since the Graphire tablets offer most of the functionality of the more expensive Intuos range whilst being very reasonably priced they also offer a great option for those on a budget.

The Graphire 4x5 tablet has a list price of $99 and the Intuos2 4x5 lists for $199. Both should be available from Adorama.

© Copyright 2004 Richard Harris  All Rights Reserved

Article created 2004