This page last updated: March 2018
A graphics tablet is almost compulsory for anyone who edits images, in my opinion. You might think you’re coping perfectly well with your mouse, but once you’ve experienced the beautiful ease and precision of a pen in your hand, a mouse feels so awkward by comparison!
If you don’t know what a graphics tablet is, or if you’ve never seen one in action, check out my little video about how I use mine. I bet you’ll find plenty more on YouTube, too.
I originally switched to a tablet on the advice of an Occupational Therapist, because of hand and arm pain I was suffering. I swear, it was like magic – the pain disappeared almost overnight.
For the first couple of weeks, I felt clumsy with the pen. It slowed my work down, and I was a bit frustrated. The same happens to most people – sometimes the clumsy feeling only lasts a couple of hours, sometimes a couple of days, and sometimes a couple of weeks for dullards like me. But I promise you, if you persevere through that brief frustrating period, you’ll come out the other side in mad passionate love with your tablet. Your Photoshop work will be faster and more accurate.
Choosing the right size
Before looking at products and prices, you need to decide on a tablet size. You don’t want to feel the sting of buyer’s remorse if you buy too small, or too big.
Based on my own experience, I recommend a one-third rule. That is, don’t buy a tablet that is smaller than approximately one-third of the size of your screen. (I’m referring to diagonal measurement, which is the common way of categorising screen size.)
So, if you have a screen which is around the 17/18/19 inch size, a 6 inch tablet is perfect. It might even be ok on a 20 or 21 inch screen. But if your screen is up there in the 22/23/24 inch category, I recommend going for an 8 inch tablet instead.
And if you have a whopping 27 or 30 inch screen, or if you have dual screens, then you should choose a tablet that’s 10 inches, or even larger.
Why avoid a tablet that’s too small? Well, it’s about the precision. I’ve found that if my tablet’s diagonal is smaller than one-third of my screen’s diagonal, I start to lose the pixel-by-pixel precision for my editing work.
However, I hasten to point out that many people are using tablets that are smaller than one-third. One person told me that they used a 6 inch tablet on their 27 inch iMac, and were perfectly satisfied with it. Admittedly, my retouching and restoration work requires very precise pixel manipulation, so it’s possible that my personal experience is not relevant to the broader photographic community. Or maybe I just have an unsteadier hand than most people!
If you’re a member of a photographic forum or club, I encourage you to ask other people about what tablet-to-screen size ratio they use, to help your decision.
The opposite problem
Finally, I must mention that it is possible to buy too big. Based on everything I just said above, you might assume that if big is good, then even bigger must be even better! However, it isn’t necessarily so. If your tablet is too big, your forearm swings around like a windscreen wiper trying to get from one side of the screen to the other, and it’s uncomfortable.
Mind you, any decent tablet will allow you to reduce its effective area in the Control Panel, so you can prevent discomfort easily.
But in my opinion, you don’t need your tablet to be any larger than half the size of your screen.
Pen or Pen & Touch
Touch screens are ubiquitous now, and many graphics tablets have touch as well as pen functionality, so you can use them with your fingers for regular web browsing and stuff.
Personally, touch functionality is not important to me. I own a tablet for precise work in Photoshop, and that’s all. It would irritate me if my pointer moved every time I brushed the tablet with my hand. I will go for pen-only tablets for as long as they exist.
But the dual functionality might suit you well. Among the links I list below, you’ll find both pen-only and pen-and-touch tablets available.
Wacom: the market leader
Without a doubt, Wacom rules the roost in the world of graphics tablets. They have a great range of high quality devices for all needs and budgets.
The basic, affordable ones
In a nutshell, the basic tablets are mouse replacements. If you (like me) want a tablet which simply sits beside your keyboard and does everything your mouse would normally do, you can get one of these very affordable devices. They don’t have the extra buttons and features of higher-level tablets (which I’ll discuss later) but they’re wonderful.
- Wacom Graphire – 6 inch
- Intuos Small – 7 inch
- Intuos Pen & Touch Small – 7 inch
- Intuos Pen & Touch Medium – 10 inch
Important disclosure: I am an Amazon Associate. Therefore, many links in this section are to Amazon pages. While I am immensely grateful to anyone who purchases via my links, I urge you not to abandon normal shopping prudence. If you find an item cheaper elsewhere, definitely go for it.
The clever ones
The Intuos Pro line is a step up, and perform not only the functions of your mouse, but also partially of your keyboard. That’s because they have customisable buttons which you can set up to perform common tasks (eg add new layer, or whatever). I’m not saying you can throw your keyboard away, of course, but it is possible to set up your Intuos Pro to reduce some keyboard time.
In addition, these tablets usually come with quite a range of software, prominent among which is Photoshop Elements (usually a version or two older than the current version, but impressive nonetheless). If you’re just starting out in this industry, buying a tablet and getting a great editing program for free is not a silly idea at all.
So, here are your choices:
The amazing ones
The Cintiq tablets are a tablet and a screen combined, and they’re really expensive. Drool over this beauty:
If you are professional enough, and cashed-up enough, to be considering one of these, then you’re probably not reading little ol’ Damien’s website, to be honest. If you get one, enjoy it! And know that I’m very jealous 🙂
Just because Wacom are the most established manufacturer of tablets, doesn’t mean they’re the only one. When you look around, you can find plenty of other brands.
Other brands will almost certainly be cheaper. Does that mean they’re no good? Of course not. Sure, they probably won’t come with all the bonus software, nor have programmable buttons or other fancy functions; and they mightn’t last as many years either. But don’t disregard them entirely – a simple device at a cheap price might be perfect for your immediate needs.
Before I got my Wacom, I had a cheap obscure little tablet that didn’t cost me very much, and did a fine job for my editing. If my wonderfully artistic sister-in-law hadn’t given me the Wacom as a hand-me-down gift, I might still be using my no-name tablet very happily to this day.
Of course I can’t possibly give you informed advice about tablets I’ve never heard of, so please do your own research as best you can.
Remember, you probably won’t love it right away. But stick with it, and you’ll adore it before too long, I promise. You’ll wonder why you persevered with a mouse for so many years!