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).


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Greg Benz Photography