Why All Photographers Should Have a Drawing Tablet

“But I’m a photographer, not an illustrator.  Why do I need a drawing tablet?”

Driving home from our most recent horse show, I began making a mental to-do list in response to the requests we’d gotten from our photo customers at the show.  There were a number of people that had requested we edit photos–whether it be for background replacements, ear fixes, or even removal of that unsightly RESTROOMS sign whose position in a number of our photos was unfortunate and unavoidable.  As I was making my list, it suddenly occurred to me that I would be in a lot of trouble if I were ever without my drawing tablet.

You see, I am a graphic designer.  I spent four years in college and my family spent a great deal of money so that I could become a graphic designer.  I purchased a drawing tablet because, for a graphic designer, it is a necessity–or so I was told.  In reality, the only time I ever seemed to use that tablet was for creating floral ornaments in Illustrator or for drawing the nifty little cartoon I left in the back of my final portfolio for my professor to find at the conclusion of my second year.  It seemed to have few applicable uses other than to impress my classmates–for a few minutes, anyway.  Nowadays, however, I find myself reaching for that sturdy little black board more often than not–and its uses are becoming more and more obvious every day.

Correcting manes and tails (or hair!)

Honestly, I don’t know how people with just a mouse do it.  When I am doing a background replacement, it would take me ages to cut out a horse’s mane or tail with enough detail to look as though the photo was unaltered.  And, if I didn’t want to take the time to cut out each and every strand, instead opting to cut at a straight line and then extend the color of the tail with the brush tool in Photoshop, it would take me just as long to finish the task.  With a mouse, in order to create the realistic impression that a horse’s tail thins out at the bottom, the user would have to manually adjust the opacity of the brush for each series of brush strokes.  This means starting at 100% opacity where the tail is thickest, moving to 75% or 50% when it is beginning to thin out, and progressively going lower until the desired look is achieved.  I can’t even imagine trying to use a trackpad.

No thank you!

But…with my trusty little Wacom tablet, I can tell Photoshop to base the opacity and stroke thickness on the amount of pressure I use when drawing with the pen.  It’s just like using a real pencil.  You press more lightly to achieve lighter strokes, and press harder to achieve darker strokes.  Using the pen also allows for a lot more control when it comes to directing each section of hair to the right place.

Using a tablet yields more realistic hair and fur.
Using a tablet yields more realistic hair and fur.

More control when editing in confined spaces

Let’s face it–you have that perfect shot lined up and ready to go–and the horse won’t put his ears up.  You spend a good half hour crinkling plastic, flashing a pocket mirror, switching your cigarette lighter on and off, but to no avail.  What do you do?  You can’t in good conscience continue to stand there, charging your client hourly, until the horse decides to help out.  Nor can you spend so much time waiting on one exhibitor’s horse at that show and miss photographing all the others as a result.  This is where Photoshop comes in.  You simply find a set of “good” ears, and place them on top of the “bad” ears.  But to be able to clone out the “bad” ears well enough that the client can’t tell they were ever there takes some finagling, and your mouse (or, heaven forbid, trackpad) are difficult to maneuver, even when zoomed in.

Thankfully, you just purchased that new Wacom and are ready to learn how to use it.

Shrink your brush size, reduce the hardness percentage of your brush, and check pressure sensitivity.  You’re golden!

Using a mouse to correct small spaces such as those around the ears can prove difficult and time consuming.
Relying on a mouse to correct small spaces such as those around the ears can prove difficult and time consuming.

Digitally sign your work

Just try writing your signature with a mouse.  I won’t need to explain.

Having the ability to sign your work adds a personal touch and can increase the value of your piece.
Having the ability to sign your work adds a personal touch and can increase the value of your piece.

Using a pen is more comfortable

I know from personal experience that after a while it becomes painful to keep clicking a mouse button.  For me, using the pen feels more natural, and is comfortable enough to use that I can continue to edit photos for several hours without taking much of a break.  If you are prone to repetitive motion injuries, consider purchasing a tablet.  While it is suffice to say that making the same motions repeatedly with a pen could also cause repetitive motion injuries, I find that having the ability to rotate between a mouse, a trackpad, and a pen has helped my hands remain pain-free.

Rotating between a mouse and a pen can help alleviate repetitive motion pain.
Rotating between a mouse and a pen can help alleviate repetitive motion pain.

How do you use your drawing tablet?  How often do you use it?  Tell us about it!  Leave a comment!

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