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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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