Of Mice & Tablets

A graphic pen and tablet can make a difference in the digital darkroom

Of Mice & Tablets

How do you work with images in the computer? I’m not asking what program you use, what file formats are preferred or even if you use Mac vs. Windows. Nor am I wondering what workflow you choose or if you have a certain style of image processing.

How do you work the image with that very important piece of equipment—the digital input device? Now, is that a bit of silly jargon or what? Yet there’s no adequate term that covers a mouse, a trackball, a touchpad or a pen used with a graphic tablet.

Your choice of digital input device is crucial because it affects how easily you can work an image in Photoshop or any other image-processing software. It can be frustrating to try to select the edge of a lake when the selection tool wants to wander over the rocks and bushes. It can be annoying when using an adjustment layer to control the tonality of the sky when you have to constantly redo small bits of the layer mask. Or on a very basic level, using a mouse may hurt your wrist and forearm.

I’ve long used a mouse for my work. I’ve gone through progressive technologies as they have become more accurate and smoother to use. I love the wireless, optical (no-ball) mouse designs from Logitech and other manufacturers. Wireless is great because there are no cords that catch on desk corners or desktop stuff, and optical allows for smooth movement of your cursor.

The mid-priced mouse models are well worth the price over the least expensive because they have smoother and faster cursor movement. And for Mac users, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a two-button mouse. Photoshop, among other programs, has many context-sensitive menus that are quickly accessed with a right-click.

I know a number of people who have used trackballs for controlling the cursor, but it’s rare among Photoshop users. The trackball just seems to be too difficult to control for this purpose. On the other hand, it’s a welcome change for people experiencing pain when using a mouse.

Touchpads and similar devices on laptops work in a pinch, but they really aren’t designed for the kind of work one normally does with a photograph. The mouse is still better and there are many small, portable mouse models that even have retractable cords.

So is the mouse the best digital input device? (Maybe we should use an acronym like DID or some odd contraction like “diginvice,”—just kidding, those would be too silly.) I know many photographers who love using a graphics tablet (pen and tablet). I had tried them off and on over the years, but kept returning to the mouse. There’s a small learning curve to the tablet, and it adds something extra to the desk space, it wasn’t like my mouse…well, those were my excuses, anyway.

Wacom, a leader in graphics tablets, sent us a small tablet to try out. One of my staff challenged me with, “I think you should be the one to use this. You talk a lot about Photoshop and have even recommended tablets, but you don’t use one regularly.”

True. What could I say? I really did need to explore what a tablet could do, so I took the tablet and forced myself to use it.

Guess what? I liked it! I wasn’t even using a big, sophisticated tablet either. I tried the Wacom Graphire4 4×5-inch tablet and pen (which costs less than $100 and includes a mouse as well). This particular unit comes with a clear plastic removable cover so you can insert a photograph if you’d like to customize the tablet. I found that to be distracting, and I preferred the simple gray tone that it comes with (though it could be fun to create a unique, personalized background with gradients). The accompanying mouse didn’t do much for me since it must be used on the tablet. My regular mouse gave me more freedom of movement.

I think one thing that kept me from using the tablet in the past was that I regularly use a number of keyboard commands that require two hands (such as Ctrl/Cmd U for saturation), forcing me to put down the tablet to use the keyboard. This new tablet adds two programmable buttons at the top, however, that can be used exactly as you might use Ctrl/Cmd or Alt/Option or Shift and so forth. This made for a much more functional tablet for me.

Using the tablet and pen themselves is intuitive, as you’re simply holding the pen like any other pen and the tablet like a tablet of paper. You then virtually draw with the pen on the tablet (the pen is wireless) and the cursor on your computer screen follows along. The pen has buttons that can act like a mouse click (right or left) or you can tap the tablet with the pen tip for a click.

Now, here’s where the learning curve comes in. It takes a little practice to match the movement of the pen on the tablet with what you’re seeing on the screen (a more expensive “tablet” from Wacom called the Cintiq actually has an LCD screen in it so you’re really drawing on the photo). Truthfully, I found it a little disconcerting at first watching the screen while my pen did something unwatched on the tablet. Of course, anyone spending a lot of time on a keyboard knows that this sort of thing becomes second nature with practice, and this is also true with a tablet.

Many photographers prefer a larger tablet, but I found this small tablet worked well for me. It also was easier to park on my crowded desk when not in use. It made using any brush tool a pleasure (that includes the actual brush for use on a layer mask as well as the healing brush, cloning tool and eraser), plus, making selections was far easier. I find the freehand lasso tool very hard to use with a mouse, yet it was quite manageable with the pen and tablet.

In addition, you can customize your pen for certain operations, from how the buttons work to the distance above the tablet that the pen will be noticed. One great function of a graphics tablet is pressure sensitivity—the pen will change the software tool’s effect depending on how much pressure applied (you can adjust how much pressure you need to do this). This is useful when working a layer mask or doing repair work with the cloning tool. For erasing, you can select the eraser tool in your image-processing program or just turn the Graphire pen over and use the other end just like an eraser.

This tablet, like just about everything else digital today, comes with software. Frankly, I’ve never been that impressed with the software packaged with digital products; it’s usually older versions or greatly eviscerated software. You don’t get any earth-shaking new software with the Graphire4 either, though there are some fun additions, including a set of Nik Color Efex filters (that work well with a pen and tablet) and an older version of Corel Painter Essentials software that will introduce you to a new way of dealing with photos.

I admit that I enjoy working with a tablet now. I don’t use it all the time (my mouse habits are still too ingrained, and anyway, I don’t find it useful for word processing, though I know some people do). But when working with adjustment layers and layer masks (which I do a lot), I find it very helpful and more comfortable the more I use it.

For more information about Wacom, call (800) 922-9348 or check out their Website at www.wacom.com (and for those of you who wonder how to pronounce the brand, it’s wah-com).

OP editor Rob Sheppard’s latest book is Adobe Camera Raw for Digital Photographers Only. His new Website, www.robsheppardphoto.com, features photo tips and more.