The old expression is that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. The Wacom tablet experience might not be a brand new trick, but teaching it to an old, dyed-in-the-wool photographer can be a challenge. The pen-and-tablet Wacom system’s learning curve stems from its complete departure from the tool with which most of us were taught to interact with our computers—the mouse.
Welcome to Wacom
If you are a photographer familiar with Wacom, you’ll likely fall into one of the following categories:
- You have never tried a Wacom tablet.
- You have tried Wacom and have not touched your mouse since.
- You have tried Wacom and went back to the mouse.
- You balance life between Wacom and the mouse.
I fall into the fourth category.
Is the Wacom a superior interface to the mouse? This really depends on the artist. There are many photographers, and even graphic artists, who prefer the mouse to the tablet and pen. A preference for Wacom is based solely on the user experience.
Los Angeles-based photographer Niko Sonnberger tells me, “I got by for years without a Wacom. When I got one it just made my editing more fluid and precise.”
Photographer Niko Sonnberger does a lot of processing in the camera, but she relies on the Wacom for precise retouching and Photoshop work. Photograph © Niko Sonnberger
Wacom versus Mouse
“I don’t like painting with a brick,” says San Diego, CA-based photographer Amanda Dahlgren.
Years ago, the mouse quickly gained popularity as the world’s preferred computer interface and the world never looked back. The Wacom tablet allows you to do the same thing a mouse does, but with the feel of holding a pen over a piece of paper.
This is the biggest difference between mouse and pen—how you physically manipulate each one. Wacom allows you to control your computer and, through post-processing software, manipulate your digital images by virtually drawing on the Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet or, in the case of the Wacom Cintiq Displays, right on the screen.
Photographer and educator Amanda Dahlgren used a Wacom to do subtle blending of real estate text over her images of foreclosed homes in San Diego County for her series: Distressed. Photograph © Amanda Dahlgren
“In some of my personal projects I incorporate mixed media—pencils, acrylics and/or materials on prints. I appreciate that the Wacom tablet seamlessly mimics the traditional painting and illustrating style that I am accustomed to; but in a digital format. For a visual artist it’s an intuitive and natural tool,” says Dallas, Texas, and San Francisco-based commercial photographer Kris Davidson.
Commercial photographer and educator Kris Davidson uses a lot of mixed media in her personal projects and the Wacom works well for her intricate composites like this example from her Louisiana Dream series. Photograph © Kris Davidson
The second-largest difference between mouse and pen is that the Wacom pen allows you to vary the “pressure” of the cursor. New Jersey-based photographer Michele Cole says, “Once I got comfortable with the stylus, I found the pressure sensitivity was really close to the effect I get when I shade with pencil. I have traditional art training. The feature makes the layering of effects and editing softer, subtler, and quicker with fewer of the ‘defined’ edges that sometimes come from layering different opacities with a single size brush.” There are 2,048 levels of sensitivity built into the Wacom pen and, when you are using a brush or mask in Photoshop, you can vary the intensity of whatever action you are performing by varying the pressure you are applying to the pen onto the tablet. This can be a great tool for retouching, using the pen pressure to change the opacity of what you might be cloning, painting, dodging, or burning. There is much more versatility in this tool than merely adjusting line thickness.
Night photographer Troy Paiva, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been using Wacom since the 1990s “for everything. I even use it to surf the Web. Pressure sensitivity? The intuitiveness of holding a pen? Can’t be beat. No carpal tunnel issues either.”
Troy Paiva’s Lost America series of night photographs rely heavily on complicated light painting and a fair amount of post-production work. Paiva has been using Wacom tablets for over 20 years. “Big fan of that tool,” he says. Photograph © Troy Paiva
The third difference is the customizability of the Wacom tablet. The addition of clutched scroll wheels, side buttons, and other interfaces have made the mouse very capable, but the Wacom pen tablet, in addition to the pressure sensitivity and natural pen hold, adds a lot of customizable functions with fully programmable ExpressKeys™ and Touch Ring on the tablet, buttons on the pen itself, and on-screen controls.
With those differences separating the Wacom from the traditional mouse, what advantages does the Wacom convert experience?
1. Precision Boston-based photographer Douglas Levy says, “The largest advantage, even with the small tablet, is the precision. It's one of those things, like working on dual monitors, that once you integrate it into your workflow, you can't imagine living without it. It makes my mouse feel like I'm trying to perform precise surgery with mittens on.”
If you have ever zoomed in to an image at 100% or more for precise layering or dodging and burning, you might find that the precision of a mouse, especially an older trackball mouse, leaves a lot to be desired. When I dabbled in the “repainting” of aircraft for a flight simulator, there were times I was working at the pixel level. The Wacom’s precision made this process much easier for me.
Photographer Douglas Levy used the Wacom to highlight the vapor floating around his subject. This meant a lot of 5-10% opacity dodging and burning—often going over certain areas 3-4 times to build up the effect. Photograph © Douglas Levy.
2. Time Savings Once you get used to the Wacom, you will find that precision comes with speed. Photographers mention that a lot of the time savings is directly related to the precision of the pen. The mouse is not the most precise tool for everyone, so often, you’ll do an action with the mouse and have to undo and redo the action. An experienced hand using a Wacom pen can often get the action correct on the first pass. Wedding and portrait shooter Nicki Hufford, based in Warren, OH, finds the speed of the Wacom to be a huge advantage, “Using the tablet and short cuts has cut my editing time down probably by half!” she says.
Photographer Nicki Hufford does heavy retouching in this image using her Wacom tablet. In fact, she is so comfortable with the Wacom that she does not use a regular mouse at all. Photograph © Nicki Hufford
3. Natural Without a doubt, the mouse has evolved ergonomically, but a lot of us grew up with pen and paper. Writing is not new to many of us, but interacting with a computer as if you were writing may be. For Tarrytown, NY-based photographer Jesse Rinka, there are benefits with the pen experience. “Not only are there time-saving benefits, but also physical benefits. My arm and hand are much more comfortable over longer periods of time, which allows me to be more productive,” says Rinka.
Portrait and wedding photographer Jesse Rinka uses the Wacom’s accuracy to assist with detailed skin retouching and corrections as well as background compositing. The speed of Wacom saves Rinka time when it comes to working with textured overlays. Photograph © Jesse Rinka
There is definitely a learning curve to Wacom. Holding a pen might be as natural as anything in life for those who grew up writing, but using a pen to move a cursor on a screen is, at times, a bridge too far for some users. Here are some tips and insight to help you get started.
1. Customize the ExpressKeys Dual-based in Northern Utah and Southern California, photographer Weston Fuller started using the Wacom while working on his MFA thesis project. He says: “The ability to customize pen pressure and create shortcut buttons to access your most frequently used tools, helping to streamline your workflow for efficiency, will have you paying off the small investment in no time.”
Photographer Weston Fuller’s conceptual composites beg for precision and exactness that he extracts from the Wacom pen. He relates the pen and tablet experience to combining digital photography with the historical art processes of brushes, pens, and pencils. Photograph © Weston Fuller
2. Use both hands Douglas Levy shares his ambidextrous experience: “Take advantage of both hands! This one was probably the most light bulb moment for me—I'm right-handed, and after setting the buttons on the pen to change brush size, I realized my left hand wasn't doing anything. I then set my regular desktop keyboard to move my most commonly used Photoshop shortcuts to the left-hand side of the keyboard for maximum comfort and time savings.” Toronto-based photographer Lori Waltenbury found the Wacom gave her relief from wrist pain and adds, “It may seem minor, but the less friction while running my hand around my tablet also makes long editing sessions much more manageable.”
Wedding and portrait photographer Lori Waltenbury uses the Wacom saves her time and gives her more precise control over detailed skin and hair edits as well as selections. Photograph © Lori Waltenbury
3. Practice Photographer Andrea Millette teaches photography at Antonelli College, in Cincinnati. The class Advanced Computer Applications for Photographers uses Wacom exclusively. Bringing newbies into the Wacom experience, Andrea recommends opening a blank Photoshop document and using the brush tool to do “‘finger painting’ like you did when you were a kid.” Use the pen, or with the Intuos Pro pen and touch tablets, you can use your fingers.
Photographer and educator Andrea Millette teaches college photography classes that use the Wacom tablet exclusively. Her photography is primarily shot on film and scanned digitally. The Wacom’s interface allows her to make quick work of the removal of dust spots and other spot healing work. Photograph © Andrea Millette
4. Size is an option Wacom tablets come in different sizes. I started with a medium, but now use a small. For my workflow, I would rather work in a smaller area than a larger. Some artists prefer the larger tablets, and many swear by them. With the Wacom, the tablet surface is virtually the computer screen. Move your pen to the upper left corner of the tablet and the cursor on the screen goes to the upper left corner of the screen. For me, I want to be able to go “coast-to-coast” without moving my hand very far. The tradeoff is that I need to be more precise with my placement, since my virtual screen covers a smaller area.
Your intrepid scribe is not big on involved post-processing, but uses the Wacom for quick and easy removal of dust, masking of hot pixels, and other tasks where the Wacom’s interface is more accurate than a mouse. The original image was covered with sensor dust after the camera was used to document a 3,000-mile road trip. Photograph © Todd Vorenkamp
5. Do not give up on it The Wacom takes some getting used to, and it is easy to run back to the mouse when the experience feels too foreign. Chicago-based photographer and educator Tim Arroyo talks about teaching students Photoshop with the Wacom at the Harrington College of Design: “For those students who never sketched with a pencil on paper, they find it a bit challenging to use the pen. Some even find it challenging to hold the pen! … Others keep lifting the pen as they would with a mouse if the cord got caught up. It's kind of funny to watch them, as here is an object shaped like a pen, but used to navigate their cursor. Some of those starting out will get frustrated in how uncomfortable the pen makes them, and they put the pen down and grab their mouse, so they will never use the tablet again. My advice is to not give up on it. It's not a steep learning curve, because it is so natural, but it will still require a bit of getting used to. I also promise them, that once they get the feel for it, they will never use a mouse again...in Photoshop at least.” Arroyo finds the Wacom to be “a natural extension of my hand, so I find myself in tune with my images.”
Educator and photographer Tim Arroyo is known for his intricate combinations of photographs and photo illustrations. To create this art, Arroyo relies solely on the Wacom’s ability to add light and heavy-handed touches. Photograph © Tim Arroyo
This article is directed to those photographers considering a Wacom for their workflow or just starting out with one. Experienced Wacom users should feel free to help those who are just starting out by adding their tips and experiences in the comments section below. Than