My Macbook Pro and Time Machine just crashed – Now what?!

I just lost everything on my new Macbook Pro. Something went bad on the motherboard, and when that happens on the new Macs with the “T2” chip, you lose everything on your hard drive. As if that weren’t bad enough, my Time Machine backup failed too. Thankfully, I had backup clones and was able to get everything back. But it wasn’t easy, so I decided to write a bit of a survival guide in case you ever have your Apple computer crash. And if you don’t have a robust backup strategy, pause here and read my previous article on how to create a “bulletproof” backup strategy. I’ve recently updated it and it is a critical guide for making sure you don’t lose important data…

It’s not an accident that I was ready. I’ve been scarred over the years. I can remember losing at least 5 complete hard drive failures. There was the time I sabotaged myself by putting a home-built computer into an enclosed desk drawer. It got too hot and literally cooked the hard drive until it failed. There was the time the File Allocation Table on my drive was corrupted. That’s the treasure map computers use to find all your data on a computer, so if the FAT goes, you’re pretty much done (Disk Warrior helped me save some of that data). I lost 2 or 3 hard drives to a bad enclosure in one of my RAID drives before I figured out the enclosure was faulty and frying the drives. And this past month, my new 2018 Macbook Pro died.

It all started to innocently. I was working on an important print job for a client. I had to reboot at one point because I hadn’t done so in a week. Seemed like no big deal. But then the screen stayed black, forever. The computer never booted up. After an hour trying to troubleshoot it by myself and with Apple Support on the phone, I took it to the Apple Store where one of the Geniuses basically confirmed my fear – the motherboard or video card had failed. Never mind that this meant I had just lost all my data on the hard drive (because I already knew that if the new T2 chip fails, you lose everything).

My more immediate concern was that I had to finish that print job. The gremlins in your computer love to wait until the worst possible time before taking down your computer. Mine went down right just hours before my family was arriving for the Thanksgiving weekend.  If all I had was a Time Machine backup, there is no way I would have finished that print job on time.


Using a bootable clone to keep working

I didn’t have time to fix my computer, but I was able to get a brand new one running with all my applications and files in 15 minutes using a bootable “clone”. I would have been up and running in 60 seconds, but I needed to update firmware settings and apply an OSX update to allow it to boot from the clone first (the latter isn’t something you’d normally need to do).

A clone is an exact copy of your hard drive and is a much more reliable backup than Time Machine (which is still a great system, but you should not rely on it as your only backup – its complete failure on me being a great example). I make clones an incredible software tool called “Carbon Copy Cloner” (CCC). If you don’t have it, I strongly recommend it. It’s the only piece of software that I think 100% of Mac users should own. It has a very clean interface, makes it simple to create bootable clones, can be scheduled to automatically update your clone backups, and the support is second to none. The company founder (Mike Bombich) often replies to support emails within an hour. And the quality of support is impeccable. He’s dug me out of problems that senior engineers at Apple struggled with.

I have several drives I use for cloning. That lets me save backups offsite where they are safe from fire or theft, as well as different points in time. They are all valuable to me, but one is especially important to me. My primary clone drive is a Sandisk Extreme Pro 2TB SSD, which is lightning fast for both backing up, tiny for travel, and the prices have recently become very attractive. Highly recommended. More importantly, it is lightning fast to work from. So booting from that SSD had me up and running in minutes.

Steps to boot from your clone:

  1. If you have a new (2018+) Macbook, make sure your computer is configured to allow you to boot from an external drive. On newer laptops where this is an option, booting from an external drive is disabled by default for security reasons. Hold -R while booting the computer to get into recovery mode, then click Utilities / Startup Security Utility. See Apple’s support page for more details on recovery mode.
  2. Hold down <option> while booting your Mac to choose which drive should be used to boot the computer (you can let go once you see the progress bar).
  3. If you have a WiFi available, you may want to connect to it when you see the list of drives. Newer Apple laptops now connect to the internet to verify the operating system is valid when installing (though you can disable/change this in the Start Security Utility mentioned in the first step).
  4. Click on the external drive and it should boot normally. Make sure your connection to the external boot drive is secure, because if it accidentally disconnects, your computer may become unstable and reboot.

A few troubleshooting tips:

  • If you have set a firmware password and have a problematic installation of OSX, you may get an error when you try to change the external boot settings. If you run into this, format the drive clean, install OSX, and then you can use the option to enable external booting. I’m not really sure while Apple ties the firmware password to the OS installation, but that’s how they’ve apparently designed it.
  • The first time you boot from an external drive (at least on newer Macs), expect to be prompted to apply a software update to boot from the drive. If you do not connect to WiFi, you may get a cryptic error that says “An error occurred installing the update“, so be sure to check WiFi (you may be able to work around this by changing the security settings in the same area you allow external booting in step #1 above).


When working from your clone, you may want to:

  • Open Time Machine and disable auto backups (to avoid updating your Time Machine with a clone which may be older than your latest Time Machine backup).
  • Update Photoshop’s preferences to use your internal drive as your  scratch disk for faster performance.

Of course, booting from a clone isn’t a good long-term option. Once you’ve gotten through any critical work, you’ll need to repair or rebuild your main drive.


Repairing and Troubleshooting

If you’re just having problems with a few files (such as corrupt or missing data), it is best to simply copy it back from Time Machine or your clone (just navigate to the same folder on both your main drive and clone, and then copy from the clone to your main drive).


If it’s a more serious issue where you can’t boot your computer, that does not necessarily mean you’ve lost your data. So before you start using Time Machine or other backups, you should definitely see if there is some other issue you can resolve. I can’t possibly cover all the ways you can try to fix a Mac, but here are some very useful troubleshooting steps to consider:

  • Reset the SMC (System Management Controller): This is generally a safe thing to do and a good troubleshooting step if the machine won’t boot. The way to do it varies by computer, so see Apple’s instructions for resetting the SMC.
  • Reset PRAM / NVRAM: Like resetting the SMC, generally a good idea when having trouble booting. Hold <cmd><option><P><R> for 20 seconds while booting. See Apple’s instructions for more details.
  • Re-install OSX. Hold <cmd><R> while booting to get into recovery mode. You’ll need to be in an area where you can connect to WiFi. See Apple’s reinstall support page for more options and details.
  • Contact Apple or some other expert. Obvious enough, but it’s best to get an expert opinion before you assume you need to wipe your drive and start clean. I have 3 years of support through Apple Care and have found the phone support to be great. They call you, typically within about 2 minutes – so don’t bother with written support.
Other troubleshooting options that may be helpful to know:
  • Hold <T> while booting for “target disk mode“. This lets you make your laptop act like an external hard drive and access it from another computer (via Thunderbolt or USB). This is a great way to get access to recent files you may not have on your backup drives.
  • Hold <shift> while booting for “safe” mode. This may bypass some problems during normal boot.
  • <cmd>-V while booting for “verbose” mode. This shows details of boot activities and may help find the step where OSX is getting stuck during bootup. See Apple’s verbose article for more details.
  • Hold <D> while booting to launch diagnostics. I’ve never run into a situation where the computer was broken, but not so much that this utility would work – but it’s good to know it is an option to help look for hardware failures. See Apple’s diagnostics article for more details.
  • If your drive still physically functional but unusable due to corruption of the File Allocation Table, take a look at Disk Warrior to help reconstruct lost data.

But if the data has been truly lost, you’ll ultimately need to restore your system.

Restoring from Time Machine (full system restore)

If you need to restore everything, Time Machine is probably the first option to try because it is probably more current than your most recent clone (though if you clone nightly like I do, it may not be the same). To do a full restore from Time Machine:

  • Boot your computer into Recovery Mode by holding <cmd>-R while booting.
  • Choose “Restore from Time Machine Backup”. See Apple’s instructions for full restoration from Time Machine for screenshots and more details.

If it works, great, your done. If you’re unlucky like me, you might see an error that says “An error occurred while restoring from the backup. Restart your computer, and then try again.” This happened to me twice, right around 25% completion. Since restoring 2TB from Time Machine on a spinning drive takes about 24 hours, I lost 2 days waiting for this process. It’s not fun. Time Machine is supposed to check itself occasionally for errors before you need it, but failures like this can occur. My guess is that a single file was corrupted in the middle and Time Machine isn’t robust enough to keep working when it hits a problem like that. If you want to verify your Time Machine before your computer fails, hold down <option> and click the Time Machine icon to see a special “Verify Backups” option.

Even if the automated restoration fails, you can probably pull a lot of data from the various dated folders on your Time Machine, so be sure to keep the data until you’re back up and running. However, if it fails, you should probably move on to restoring from a clone backup.


Restoring from a CCC clone (full system copy)

To restore your entire hard drive from a clone, follow these steps.

  • Boot from your clone drive. You’ll need to be running from it to use CCC.
  • Re-format your internal drive via Disk Utility. Do not try to clone over a clean installation of OSX. I did this and it caused permissions issues that prevented use of File Vault, Safe Mode, or the ability to change the system’s firmware password.
  • Run CCC and create a new clone job to clone from the external clone disk back to the newly formatted internal drive. See CCC’s instructions for restoring your drive.


Restoring from a CCC clone (partial restore of just your data)

Alternatively, if you have a clean installation of OSX on your main drive (as I did after Apple fixed it), you can simply copy your data from your CCC clone to your main drive. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but I had already installed a fresh copy of OSX after my earlier restoration attempts failed, so I ultimately went this route to save a little time. This is also a good option to consider if you’re restoring your backup to a computer with a hard drive that isn’t large enough to hold your data, which may be the case if you are trying to restore to a temporary loaner computer.

To restore just your data from a clone:

  • Boot from your main drive normally
  • Launch the Migration Assistant (found under Applications/Utilities, or hit <cmd><space> to search for it).
  • Follow Apple’s instructions to complete. Just point to either the Time Machine or your CCC clone as the source, either is fine.
  • Note that you should carefully consider which data to import. You can’t go back and simply add data later (you have to remove your user account and start over if you want to use different options).

One advantage of this approach is that it allows you to bring in your old data and setup to a clean installation of OSX, which may help address some issues and let’s you slim things down if you don’t need to bring over all users or all their data.


Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. See my ethics statement for more information.

A Bulletproof Backup Plan for your Photos

As photographers, we just want to get out shooting and look over our work.  There’s nothing sexy about a backup strategy – it takes work, it costs money, and is one of those annoying things that are easy to keep putting off.  But if things don’t go according to plan, it’s the best investment we ever made.  To me, it just isn’t an option not to have a fool-proof backup.  Don’t believe me?  Then listen to this 4-year old:


Exactly.  No one wants their pictures to go away forever.


Important Considerations for backing up

To create a robust backup strategy, you first need to consider all the potential ways you can lose data. There is no single solution that will address all of these concerns, which is what makes this list so important to consider. You can lose your data because of:

  • Computer malfunction. This is probably the most common issue when a hard drive or critical component of a computer fails. Any recent backup should get you out of trouble here.
  • Outdated backups. If you only back up occasionally, you could easily lose days or weeks worth of work. This makes Time Machine and/or scheduled clone backups critical.
  • Accidental deletion, corruption, or manipulation of data (such as making a bad edit and accidentally saving the file). This is where you’ll want Time Machine or an older clone to restore an older version of any affected files. For this reason, it is important to have older copies of your backups, or even make duplicates of important images on your computer. And given a corrupted file might go unnoticed for months or years, I recommend keeping some very old backups or duplicating important files.
  • Fire or theft. This is important to consider because if it happens, you may lose your backup drives at the same time as your working drive. Putting your backup into a fire safe at home is a good idea, but home fires typically get hot enough to destroy drives stored in fire safes. So it is critical that you are either keeping backup drives offsite or using an online backup system to ensure that your data and backups are not always in the same place.


Consider RAID or SSDs to help avoid a crash in the first place

Having a solid backup strategy is critical, but the best scenario is to avoid ever needing to use it.  There are several steps you can take to avoid loss of your data in the first place.  I recommend using only high quality drives.  Modern SSD (solid state drives) are generally more reliable than hard drives with moving parts, and are lightning quick.  But they’re pretty pricy, so storing all your files on an SSD isn’t practical for most photographers.  But you can make cheaper spinning drives both faster and more reliable by using RAID (redundant array of independent disks) or Drobo (which achieves a similar result using a proprietary solution).

I use both SSD and a RAID.  The SSD is my boot and working drive, which gives me maximum speed for my work, and the RAID serves as storage for older work that I access only occasionally.  As a laptop user, an external working drive isn’t ideal.  But by using “smart previews” in Lightroom, I can do 95% of what I need to in Lightroom without even connecting the external drive!  My Pegasus R6 has six 1-terabyte drives configured in a RAID 6 configuration.  This means that I get 4TB of actual storage, the system runs super quick, and I can lose two drives without losing my data (or needing to restore from a backup drive).  It’s an awesome drive, but isn’t a fit for every budget.  RAID 10 or 5 also offer good speed and safety at a lower cost, and RAID 1 is cheaper yet (though disk speed is slower).

That said, RAID is not a backup strategy. It reduces the risk of hardware failure leading to data loss, but the whole RAID unit can fail and multiple drive failures are a very real risk too. And even if it is in perfect working condition, you can still have data loss or corruption, fires, and other problems that RAID cannot address. And both RAID and SSD cost more, so they aren’t an ideal solution for everyone.


How to deal with Data Loss or Corruption

One of the most insidious ways to lose images is through data corruption. You can lose or change important files in many ways:

  • Accidental deletion of important files or folders
  • Accidentally saving a bad copy of a file. When I prepare to print, I always make a copy first so that I don’t accidentally re-save the original as a flattened file.
  • Data corruption. With terabytes of data, there will inevitably be a few errors. A single bit gone bad can ruin one of your files. Sadly, Apple’s new APFS missed a critical opportunity to add checksums for all data (they did add it for the File Allocation Table, but falls well short of what I would consider ideal). You can get this by installing a 3rd party operating system called ZFS, but I’m not sure tinkering with the operating system is the best way to ensure increased reliability.

Unfortunately, you might notice any of these errors for weeks, months, or years until you try to open the affected file. There are a few ways you can help monitor for changes. You should occasionally use Lightroom’s DNG validation  if you work with DNG files (however, this won’t check your layered TIF/PSD files). And you might consider a more complete solution to check all files such as Digital Lloyd’s Integrity Checker. If you use the latter and extension panels like Lumenzia, make sure you don’t let it write checksum files into the extension panel folder (as adding files to an extension panel’s folder will cause a failure of the digital signature). Of course, neither of these help you detect accidental changes or deletion, just corruption of the data.

Whether or not you use the above tools to help find data corruption, you still need to have something to restore when you find problems. So for that reason, it is critical that you have some older backups. I don’t consider Time Machine a good option here because it isn’t 100% reliable and likely you may not be able to go back far enough in time to get to a good copy of your file.

I recommend two different solutions to this problem. First, occasionally create a clone and store it at an offsite location. This adds cost, as you are tying up an extra hard drive. But I consider it a worthwhile investment, and spinning hard drives are relatively cheap these days. Second, make duplicates of your most important images. I occasionally export all my layered 5-star files from Lightroom to another folder on my computer. This takes up more space, but gives me a lot of peace of mind that I’m not going to lose my best work to data corruption.


Use Time Machine to backup your latest data

You don’t want to lose even a day or week of work, so a real-time backup is important. OSX users have it made.  “Time machine” is practically a dream.  Just hook up a sufficiently large drive and set it to backup all your data. It automatically backs up your data in the background, and gives you the ability to go back in time to restore older versions of your file (within certain limits) For security, I have mine set to be encrypted (just like my primary drive). I don’t have any specific recommendations for PC users, so please comment below if you have a recommendation for others.

That said, Time Machine alone is not a complete backup strategy. There are many conditions in which it can fail. When my computer recently crashed, I discovered that my Time machine was corrupt. Thankfully, I had a “clone” in addition to Time Machine. Not only did this help me restore data that Time Machine failed to protect, but it let me keep working. You can boot from a clone, whereas you may well need to wait 24 hours or more to restore your data from a Time Machine.


Create bootable clones so you can get back to work right away

If your income depends on your photography, a bootable backup is critical. An exact duplicate of your hard drive is known as a “clone”. Clones offer several advantages over just using Time machine:

  • Time Machine can be flaky. Clones are much more reliable.
  • Creating multiple backups is a good idea in case one of them fails. While you can create multiple identical Time Machines, a clone should be part of your mix. I would consider 1 Time Machine and 1 Clone (or just multiple clones with at least 1 being kept very up to date) to be the absolutely minimum for a reliable backup plan.
  • You can boot your computer from a clone. This lets you keep working, rather than forcing you to wait for a Time Machine to complete a lengthy restoration before getting back to work.

I personally use Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) to backup my Mac.   I keep at least 2-3 fairly recent clones in addition to my Time Machine backup, but 1 is enough if you are concerned with cost.  My extra clones give me a little extra peace of mine, and I keep more frequent clones in a fire safe at home.  And the older clones give me the ability to go back in time in case my more recent backups are just copies duplicates of a file that’s been corrupted, mangled, or deleted. My current cloning strategy includes:

  • Daily clones of my boot drive. This is critical to keep working. I have an old RAID drive that CCC clones to nightly whenever my computer is connected.
  • Weekly clones of my data drive. This larger drive is too big to backup nightly, and I don’t update it as frequently – so weekly updates are good enough. I still have the Time Machine keeping things up to date on a daily basis.
  • Occasional manual clones of both the boot and main drive. For convenience, I typically partition one large drive and clone both my boot and data drives to a single physical clone. I keep these clones in a fire safe and at multiple offsite locations. This is my best protection against fire or data corruption that could simultaneous wipe out both my working drives and recent backups.


How to create a bootable clone

I make clones an incredible software tool called “Carbon Copy Cloner” (CCC). If you don’t have it, I strongly recommend it. It’s the only piece of software that I think 100% of Mac users should own. It has a very clean interface, makes it simple to create bootable clones, can be scheduled to automatically update your clone backups, and the support is second to none. The company founder (Mike Bombich) often replies personally to support emails within an hour. And the quality of support is impeccable. They’ve dug me out of problems that senior engineers at Apple struggled with. For PC users, check out Acronis for making clones.

Steps to create a bootable clone with CCC:

  1. Click on “source” and set it to your internal hard drive. Leave it on “copy all files”
  2. Click on “destination” and set it to the external drive you are going to use for the clone. You can leave “Safetynet On” if you have a large clone drive, or turn it off if you have limited space or want to keep the clone identical (safety net is a bit like a trash can for the clone to help avoid truly deleting files unless there is no other option). You should start with a clean drive the first time, and follow these guidelines ( from CCC if you are going to encrypt the drive with file vault.
  3. If you want to keep the clone up to date, click on the schedule and update it as you like.
  4. There is no need to mess with the advanced options in general, but I have the following modifications from defaults: “find and replace corrupted files” once a month and I uncheck the option to protect root level items (which gives CCC permission to delete content unique to the destination to free up space). Neither of these is terribly important.
  5. Save the task.
  6. Click the “clone” button in the bottom right.
  7. Anytime you want to update the clone, just connect it to your computer and click “clone” again in this task, or let the schedule take care of it for you.


Test that your clone is truly bootable

Just because you create a clone does not mean that it will boot up. It is important to use software like CCC to do it the right way, and just as important to do a test boot once in a while to make sure you are making clones that are truly going to let you boot when you need them. It only takes 5 minutes to test that your clone works as expected.

Steps to boot from your clone:

  1. If you have a new (2018+) Macbook, make sure your computer is configured to allow you to boot from an external drive. On newer laptops where this is an option, booting from an external drive is disabled by default for security reasons. Hold -R while booting the computer to get into recovery mode, then click Utilities / Startup Security Utility. See Apple’s support page for more details on recovery mode.***
  2. Hold down <option> while booting your Mac to choose which drive should be used to boot the computer (you can let go once you see the progress bar).
  3. If you have a WiFi available, you may want to connect to it when you see the list of drives. Newer Apple laptops now connect to the internet to verify the operating system is valid when installing (though you can disable/change this in the Start Security Utility mentioned in the first step).
  4. Click on the external drive and it should boot normally. Make sure your connection to the external boot drive is secure, because if it accidentally disconnects, your computer may become unstable and reboot.

If you feel like you are confused as to whether your computer is booting from your internal drive or the clone, try this: after you create the clone, change the wallpaper on your desktop. When you restart, you should see the old wallpaper if you are really booting from your clone.


Online backups

No matter how many backups you have, you can still lose them all at the same time to a fire or theft.  I consider offsite clones to be sufficient, but you might want to consider an online backup service. With this, your data is sent over the internet to a remote service, so it is offsite as quickly as the data can be uploaded.

While I have tried many different options, I have thus far been let down by all of them. CrashPlan no longer offers home plans (and had serious “de-duplication” issues with large backups anyhow). Online SOS told me they were raising my annual price from about $150 to about $1500 due to the size of my data (and that was years ago when I had much less data). Carbonite does not work with File Vault encryption, and I discovered a shocking security flaw with it (and their response was truly underwhelming when I notified them). I have not tried BackBlaze, but have generally heard good things about it (other than a recent issue where some users are saying they get strange prompts for system passwords – the screenshots I’ve seen give me pause about whether this is well-designed software). You may want to look at PC Magazine’s recommendations. If you use an online backup that you consider reliable, reasonably priced, and has a security-focus with support for File Vault, please comment below. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend any of them at this time. Fortunately, you don’t need one if you follow the steps outlined above.

If you are going to use an online backup, I recommend you don’t try to back up everything. That’s a recipe for uploads that never finish. Instead, configure it to backup folders with information that is critical and new. Your offsite clones should be enough to back up your photos from 2 years ago that you probably aren’t updating very often.


How to Process Better Photos with a Pen Tablet

My favorite piece of gear for getting better results in Photoshop is a pen tablet (often called a “Wacom” tablet, after the most commonly used brand). They allow you to work more quickly, accurately, and comfortably. Most marketing and reviews of them tend to focus on a bunch of confusing features and benefits. Almost none of that matters for photography. What matters is that you’re holding a pen, which is a much more natural way to interact with Photoshop for many uses. In this article, you’ll learn why this is so important, how to pick the right pen tablet, and how to set it up for optimal results.


Why pen tablets are so important for photography

What makes a pen tablet so great? Simple, it let’s you work in the most natural way possible. Specifically, I’m referring to the way you interact with Photoshop on local areas of your image. This includes painting on a layer mask (such as for exposure blending with luminosity masks), dodging and burning, any sort of cloning and healing, etc in Photoshop. Serious use of adjustment brushes in Lightroom would be another great opportunity to use a pen. Before we get to why a pen tablet is so ideal, let’s quickly explore the limitations of the alternatives – namely using a track pad or mouse. For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the act of painting on a layer mask, as the challenges are generally the same for dodging and cloning.

A track pad is the default for any laptop user – and a horrible way to paint, brush or clone. There are few primary ways you could paint on a layer mask.

  • Option #1 is to press down with your pointer finger hard enough to click and then drag it around. After just a few minutes of doing this, you’ll probably have a sore finger.
  • Option #2 is to click with your pointer finger in one hand and then touch and drag your pointer finger from the other hand. This avoids a lot of the finger pain, but is pretty awkward – especially since you will have to start your fingers in close proximity on the track pad, as most computers are designed to ignore inputs that are too far apart on the track pad (probably part of how they ignore accidental clicks with your palm while using your finger).
  • Option #3 is to click with your pointer finger and then lightly touch and drag your middle finger with the same hand. It’s easier to move that second finger when you aren’t pressing hard, but you are similarly going to find your knuckle getting sore quickly.

Even if you don’t mind the pain and awkwardness above, there is a much more serious issue with the track pad. It’s very inaccurate. The first two options use your elbow much more than your fingers. And the third relies too much on your wrist and first knuckle.

Using a mouse avoids the physical pain, but runs into the same accuracy problems. With a mouse, your fingers are mostly just clicking. The movement of the cursor comes from bending your elbow, which is a pretty poor way to make fine movements. If you were using a pen and paper, this would be roughly like clenching your fist around the pen and then trying to sign your name by only moving your elbow and shoulder. That’s going to be a pretty ugly signature.

Which is why a tablet is such a beautiful thing. Painting on a layer mask is much like signing your name – it is much easier to do when holding something like a pen – which is exactly what a pen gives you. This creates a natural way to interact with the computer that won’t make your hand sore, and will give you much more precision. There are many other features you’ll learn about when you review the options for pen tablets, but the thing that matters  most is that you are holding a pen.


Wacom features you can ignore

Of course, when you look at buying a “Wacom tablet”, you’ll run into a long list of options and features. In general, none of them probably matter for general photography (though they may if you have very specific needs, and certainly can be important for digital art beyond photography). Here’s a quick rundown of the options you’ll run into:

  • Brand. Even though I keep saying “Wacom“, there are many other companies out there and there is probably nothing that’s particularly special about Wacom’s pen. That said, I haven’t tried other options. Wacom is the market leader and they make great tablets, so that’s what I use and recommend. Nothing wrong with looking elsewhere, and you may save a little money. If I were to consider using other brands of tablets, my primary concern would be how reliable their support and drivers are.
  • Size. Bigger tablets are generally more expensive and promoted as “better” because they allow for more precision by mapping the screen to a larger area. That may be true for digital illustrators, but I don’t think it matters that much for photographers. In fact, I think it may be the opposite. If you get a large tablet, you are probably going to start using your elbow a bit to get around it. I find the medium and small tablet sizes are very natural. I prefer a small tablet for traveling with my laptop, and believe the medium size is ideal for use at home with a desktop computer or when you’ve docked your laptop. The reason I like the medium size at home is because I use the tablet as a mouse pad, which I’ll get to in the next section.
  • Pressure sensitivity. While there is merit to the ideal that a more sensitive pen tip allows you better control over flow, size, opacity or whatever you assign to pen pressure – I have always found the most basic levels of sensitivity more than enough for photography. This is another feature that probably matters much more if you are a digital illustrator.
  • Buttons. Most tablets come with a number of programmable buttons on both the tablet itself and the pen. You can set them to various functions, such as to map them to important keyboard shortcuts, adjust your pen size, etc. Personally, I don’t bother because then you have to memorize which unmarked button does what. But certainly these programmable buttons appeal to some users.
  • Eraser. Most pens have a tip on one end and an “eraser” on the other. This allows you to flip the pen around to switch between painting and erasing. I find it faster and easier to simply click <B> and <E> with my left hand to switch between brushing and erasing while using the pen in my right hand.
  • Touch. This is redundant if you have a laptop with a track pad. If you don’t, the general idea is that it gives you a track pad-like interface as an alternative to the pen. Most users I’ve spoken with struggle with this interface. You move the cursor around by hovering your finger just above the tablet surface, but not too far above and not in direct contact unless you want to “click”. It tends to create a lot of frustration and accidental clicks. The next section covers a better solution for this.


Which pen tablet to buy?

Given the above considerations and the quality of the market leader, I would recommend any small or medium-sized tablet from Wacom. I recommend this medium-sized tablet (which is slightly older and will save you some money) or the small Bluetooth tablet (which is even cheaper and perfect for travel with a laptop). If you want to save even more, consider a refurbished model or buying one off Craigslist. As we covered above, any of these tablets are great – but a medium tablet may be ideal for home use and a small one ideal for travel. You can use the small one as a mouse pad at home as well if you’re trying to use a single tablet for both home and travel.

It’s worth noting one potential “gotcha” with the Bluetooth model. I have seen it occasionally lag a bit over Bluetooth. I haven’t seen this since I updated to the latest drivers, but if you run into it, there is a simple workaround: connect it via USB. I realize that this workaround defeats the purpose of Bluetooth, but it’s worth knowing if you run into it. My experience lately suggests this may no longer be an issue. I have occasionally seen Bluetooth itself (unrelated to the tablet) get bogged down when using wireless mouse and speakers, as it seems to hit the maximum bandwidth for Bluetooth, at least on my older 2016 MacBook Pro. So if you see any lag, try updating your drivers and shutting down any wireless music or high-bandwidth activity on Bluetooth to troubleshoot.


Common Challenges with Pen Tablets and How to Easily Deal with Them

The biggest challenge new users have with pen tablets is that they aren’t the best choice to replace the mouse or track pad for everything. Try dragging and dropping files with a pen or the tablet’s touch feature and you’ll probably find it frustrating and a good way to accidentally make big mistakes. The solution is very simple: use the pen AND a mouse or trackpad. Don’t try to do everything with just one device. None of them are ideal for everything a photographer does. There are a couple of great ways to use two input devices.

If you are using a laptop (undocked), you can easily switch between using the track pad on your laptop and the pen tablet off to the side.

If you are using a desktop or a docked laptop, then you probably don’t have a track pad. The easiest solution is to use a mouse. You can use a mouse right on top of the pen tablet. Wacom used to sell their own mouse that interfaced with their tablets, but these days you need to get a 3rd party mouse. Any mouse will do, because the tablet will ignore it (though you may want to disable any touch features in the tablet’s settings to avoid accidentally doing something with your hand as you use the mouse).

I use and love the Logitech MX Anywhere 2 mouse. It’s a Bluetooth-enabled mouse so you don’t have to deal with any wires. I find that it has zero lag and is just as reliable as a wired mouse, even when I use it right on top of my tablet. Even better, its rechargeable battery seems to last for nearly a month, even if you never turn it off (which I never bother to do). All you need to do is connect a USB cable to it once in a while to charge it, which you can do easily do when you’re done with the computer for the day or even just plug-in and use like a wired mouse for a short while as you work.


How to Setup a Wacom tablet

As noted above, I don’t use any of the buttons on either the pen or tablet. Which means you can just plug-in the Wacom to your computer and install the latest drivers from Wacom as needed. You probably don’t need to configure anything. However, there are some configuration settings to consider in Wacom’s options:

  • Set one of the buttons in the pen or tablet section to “precision mode” (I use the main button on the pen for this). This allows you to temporarily move the pen in smaller and more precise amounts by clicking and holding the button for precision mode. This is very helpful for working on critical edges in an image, when you want to be more accurate without zooming into the image, or if you have shaky hands and want to achieve more steady results. Look under “tablet / precision mode” to make your favorite button.
  • Set one of the buttons in the pen or tablet section to “right-click” (I use the secondary button on the pen for this). This allows you to get a right-click with the pen, which is great for opening up options you’d normally get by clicking layers, etc – or to change brush settings when right-clicking on the image. There is an “options” button at the bottom of the Wacom’s setting screen that allows you to affect how the right-click works by choosing between “hover click” or “click & tap”. The default hover click will activate the right-click when you press the button. If you find that you are struggling to right-click where you want on the screen, try switching to “click & tap”. With this setting, you will get a right-click when you hold the assigned button and then touch the pen to the tablet, which allows you to be more precise (since you’ll probably wiggle the pen a bit while clicking a button on it). If you assign one of the button on the tablet to right click, this probably doesn’t matter as much as if you are using a button on the pen itself.
  • Tip feel. This allows you to control the pen pressure mapping. The default middle position is pretty good, but you may wish to slide right toward “firm” if you want to have to push harder to get to maximum size, flow, or whatever you map to pen pressure. I like setting it a couple notches to the right, as I find that I accidentally hit maximum pressure too easily otherwise.
  • Other programmable keys. You may wish to consider keyboard/modifier to set a button to shift, alt, or control. There are also many other programmable options for zooming, ink, toggling two monitors, etc. It may be worth exploring if you are looking for an alternative to using keyboard shortcuts. Personally, I skip all of this, as I find it more complicated than helpful.
  • Note that you will probably list of Applications at the top of the Wacom settings. I really don’t understand Wacom’s logic here, as they add applications like Photoshop automatically when you use the pen in that application – and yet you can set all the buttons under “all other” to set the pen behavior that is used in all versions of Photoshop, etc. When I set the keys with Photoshop as the selected application, it still seems to use “all other”. I view this as a bug, but the bottom line is that I just click on “all other” (or “all” if no applications have been picked up) and set everything there, rather than trying to set the buttons for Photoshop.

If you are using a brand other than Wacom, I would follow similar considerations to configure your device.

As for optimal brush settings in Photoshop, I use the same flow, opacity, and other controls with the pen as I do with the mouse or track pad. There are a few additional controls worth setting if you want to take advantage of the pressure sensitivity.

  • Select the tool icon “always use pressure for size”. If you want the size of the brush to grow as you press harder. You can also go into the brush settings for Shape Dynamics and set the control drop down under size jitter to “pen pressure”. It’s the same thing. Toggling this will work in addition to any of the following settings, so disable them if you only want to change size.
  • Open brush settings / transfer if you want to control flow or opacity via pen pressure. Set the corresponding “control” drop down to “pen pressure”. Unlike the main flow and opacity controls, I don’t find a lot of difference in choosing between these and tend to use pen pressure for just opacity. Note that you can play with the “minimum” here and the “tip feel” in the Wacom settings to get the best balance for how you like to press on the pen, as they work together. Whatever value you use here is limited by the normal flow and opacity settings in the main toolbar (ie, using 50% minimum opacity means you’d never get less than whatever main opacity value you set in the toolbar, no matter how lightly you press on the pen).

If you are a Mac user with OSX Mavericks or later, you may need to give system permissions to allow the driver to work as expected. If you aren’t prompted to give permission, you can look under System Settings / Security & Privacy / Privacy  and look for Wacom permissions (click the lock icon at the bottom left of the Privacy screen to be able update settings).


Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. See my ethics statement for more information.

How to Create Beautiful Portraits with Luminosity Masks

A great question I hear pretty often is whether luminosity masks can be used to enhance portraits. Luminosity masks tend to have an association with landscape photography (and they are awesome for it), but they can be a great tool for any type of photography. In fact, any time you use a mask or selection in Photoshop, it’s worth considering whether a luminosity mask or selection might get the job done faster or with more natural results.

Luminosity masks are great for a range of family, wedding, sports, composite and other portrait images such as:

  • Restoring sunset color (as you’ll learn in the tutorial video below). This is a great way to create unique shots that keep the beauty of the moment, without blown white skies. Multi-processing and exposure blending with luminosity masks help bring out extreme detail that RAW processing software struggles to restore in a natural way.
  • Dodging and burning. I’ve used luminosity masks to help deal with less than ideal light on fast-moving toddlers, as well as on photos of weightlifters to help accentuate their muscles by dodging highlights and burning shadows. Luminosity masks help make this work both faster and more accurate. In the tutorial below, I show how to tame some distracting highlights by dodging with BlendIf (a form of luminosity masking built into Lumenzia).
  • Color grading. The techniques I showed on landscapes for color grading with BlendIf (which is really just a simple form of luminosity masking) can be applied just as well to portraits. When you want more control, use similar techniques with luminosity masks instead of BlendIf.
  • Targeted adjustment of skin tones. By cleaning targeting your subject, you can adjust tone or color for perfect results, without affecting the background or clothes.
  • The possibilities are nearly endless. If want to adjust some part of a portrait that is differentiated from its surrounding pixels by brightness (luminosity) or color, a luminosity mask is a great tool to help do the job.


Here’s a quick demonstration of just one way you can use luminosity masks on portraits, to help restore a colorful sunset:


The basic workflow is:

  • Shoot in RAW and expose to the right. This is critical. If you blow the highlights in the sky, then there is nothing to recover. Bracketing your shots isn’t typically an option because your subject is often moving. Even if that isn’t the case, shooting on a tripod and bracketing the images is a quick way to lose the energy you need in the shoot to capture your subject at their best. So it pays to learn how to nail exposure to get the detail you need in one shot.
  • Multi-process the RAW file. This means creating virtual copies so that you can use one set of Lightroom settings for the sky, an another virtual copy processed for your subject. This is something I cover in great detail in my Exposure Blending Master Course. Once you’ve done this, you now have a perfect sky and a perfect subject (something that is nearly impossible to do with one version in any RAW editor) and just need to blend them together to get the best of both.
  • Export the different versions to Photoshop and blend them together with luminosity masks. As you see in the video, you should put the sky image on top, add a black mask, create a luminosity selection targeting the sky, and then paint white on the black mask to reveal the sky. The luminosity selection acts like a stencil to help you paint in the sky layer just where you need it. In Lumenzia, click a preview button (such as L2-L5) and then “Sel” to create the luminosity selection.
  • Once you’ve blended, you can then do any extra processing you would normally do (such as dodging and burning or adding a vignette).

New in Lightroom 2018: HDR Panoramas in a single step

Adobe just released a bunch of updates to Lightroom Classic CC v8.0. This includes improved high ISO noise reduction, improved negative dehaze (which adds haze), and my favorite: the ability to create HDR panoramas in a single step.

This creates enormous time savings. Previously, I showed how to stitch a multiple exposure panorama in Lightroom using the legacy Merge to HDR and Panorama tools. When I did the first tutorial using the old method (on a 2016 Macbook Pro), it took about 45 minutes to complete the entire 9-step process (8 HDR merges and then 1 panorama combining them).

When I did this updated tutorial with the new HDR Panorama method (on a 2018 Macbook Pro), it took a bit under 5 minutes to complete the process and only required my response 1 time. That’s incredible. I can’t say how much of the improvement is based on my laptop upgrade, but I can definitely say that the new Lightroom process is dramatically faster. The ability to tell Lightroom what to do once instead of “nine” times is a game-changer all by itself.

In the following tutorial, I’ll show you how you can merge your source images into a DNG. Once you create that DNG, you can then edit it like any other RAW file in Lightroom and Photoshop. In other words, you don’t have to learn anything new other than the incredibly simple steps I show in the tutorial. And I’ve got a written summary of the full process below.


Camera Workflow (not shown in the video):

  1. Set your camera on a tripod (ideally using a nodal slide if you any part of your image is within about 10 feet of the camera).
  2. For each camera position in the tripod, shoot the same bracket sequence (ie, if you use +/- 1 stop like I did, do the same for each camera position in the panorama). Your brackets should be no more than 2 stops apart, and the darkest and lightest frame should be selected to deal with the darkest shadow and brightest highlight you wish to retain across the entire panorama (because you should use the same bracketing sequence for all camera positions).

Merge to HDR Panorama in Lightroom:

  1. Select all of the images you wish to merge by or -clicking on the files in the Library. You can use images you have already adjusted, but I just use the unadjusted RAW since anything you do to it before the merge is ignored.
  2. Right-click and choose Photo Merge / HDR Panorama.
  3. Select spherical or cylindrical projection, whichever looks best for your image (spherical is typically best for a multi-row pano, and cylindrical for a single row).
  4. Turn on “auto-crop”. (or leave it off if you want to keep more of the image, but you will need to clone or use Content Aware Fill in Photoshop to deal with blank pixels at the edges).
  5. Adjust the Boundary Warp to get the best image (generally you should slide to the left for less distortion, to the right for less cropping of the image).
  6. You can toggle “auto-settings” on or off, as you can make any desired changes in the Develop module later.
  7. Turn on “Create Stack” if you wish to keep the source images and conveniently hide them behind the final DNG file in the Library.
  8. Click Merge.

After the merge is complete, you will now have a new DNG file which you may continue to edit like any other RAW file in Lightroom or Photoshop. If you’d like to learn the techniques I use to edit images like this using luminosity masks, be sure to check out my Exposure Blending Master Course.


For a full details on other improvements in Lightroom v8, see the Lightroom release notes.

See licensing for Commercial and Creative Commons (Non-Commercial, Attribution) Licensing terms.
Join my affiliate program.
See my ethics and privacy statement.