Do you need a drawing tablet?

I was cleaning out my office today when I ran across the most unlikely of items—an original Koala Pad drawing tablet! According to Wikipedia, the Koala Pad was the first graphics tablet available for home computers. (That makes me sound older than I’d like but I’m only 34!)

Koala Pad
Click to enlarge

Today, I own a Wacom tablet and I love it. It offers a level of intuitive ease of use far beyond what a mouse can provide for certain operations. As a digital photographer, a graphics tablet might be an important piece of equipment but it depends a lot on your digital workflow.

If you don’t retouch any of your photos then you don’t need a tablet. If you only do basic operations like cropping, adjusting levels and curves, or converting to black and white then you also probably don’t need a tablet.

Where a tablet shines is in the ability to quickly and accurately create complex masking layers, burning and dodging, and masking adjustment layers so that the effect is localized to an area (an area that most likely isn’t a simple rectangle). If you do that sort of thing on a regular basis, I think you’ll find a good graphics tablet boosts your productivity significantly.

There are a lot of manufacturers out there but Wacom is the standard by which all others are judged. They have tablets for almost every budget with introductory models starting at around $100. Even a small 6×9 or 4×5 tablet can make a big difference when working on photographs.

Important things to look for in a tablet:

  • Compatibility with your graphics application (usually this means Photoshop)
  • Pressure sensitivity. The more levels the better but you want a minimum of 256. This lets the tablet sense how hard you are pressing which can intuitively translate into opacity or thickness in Photoshop.
  • At least two programmable buttons on the pen.
  • No batteries required. The pen should be powered by proximity to the tablet itself which is powered via your USB port.
  • And possibly the most important factor: it’s got to feel right. Do not under-estimate the importance of how it feels to write on the tablet. If it doesn’t feel natural, like you’re drawing on paper, you’re going to hate it pretty quickly.

By John Watson

John Watson is the original founder of Photodoto. If you're interested in what John has been up to, you can browse his personal blog.


  1. These are some great things to think about when considering a tablet for editing. I haven’t used one of the external tablets, but I do have a tablet PC that I use from time to time for editing. THAT’S where these things really come in handy, when you can draw directly on the photo. But as you’ve said, they’re really not as useful for simple operations — in fact, they’re probably an impediment.

  2. I too have a Wacom Graphire and highly recommend using a tablet if you do any amount of photoshopping. I find it amazingly useful when retouching and restoring scans of old photos. IMHO it works much better than a mouse, especially the pressure sensitive stylus tip. Now, I’ve got my eye on one of the new wide format Intuos tablets to go with my recent widescreen laptop.

  3. I bought a graphics tablet back in December and it’s been useful. It hasn’t made a whole lot of difference to my photography work but then I haven’t managed to get the pressure sensitivity working with the GIMP yet.

  4. Wow – I owned the same tablet years ago and loved it. I’m only 32, so don’t worry.

    As a Linux user, Wacom is really the only choice. My Graphire does a great job in all of the apps I work with (Inkscape and GIMP being the main two) and I only had to spend an hour (ugh) hunting down config settings for xorg.conf. 🙂

  5. i am in dire need of a graphics tablet.
    i use a windows and a mouse, but my art is always coming out to uneven and not relaxed.
    if there is a contest going on for this count me in!

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