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Why You Need a Graphics Tablet for Photoshop

A woman working with a drawing tablet at a computer.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

A graphics tablet is a computer peripheral that enables you to use a pen or stylus to interact with your computer. They closely mimic pen and paper, making them useful for digital and comic book artists, photographers, designers, or anyone who does any kind of digital art, drawing, or painting.

If you spend a lot of time working in Photoshop or another graphics app, a drawing tablet is almost certainly for you.

Which Type of Drawing Tablet Is Right for You?

Graphics tablets are distinct from tablet computers like the iPad (although you can use an iPad as a graphics tablet for a Mac) and Microsoft Surface Pro. Those are also computers, whereas graphics tablets are just peripherals for a computer. If you already use a tablet to do your Photoshop work, you probably don’t need a graphics tablet.

There are two kinds of graphics tablets: those with a screen and those without.

A digital artist working on a large Wacom tablet.
Tinxi/Shutterstock

Graphics tablets with screens have built-in external monitors that hook up to your computer. You can then draw or paint directly on the screen and in Photoshop.

Sadly, graphics tablets with screens are almost exclusively professional products. Even an entry-level model, like the Wacom One, will set you back a few hundred dollars. The monstrous Wacom Cintiq Pro 32 costs more than three grand. Unless you’re doing special effects for a Marvel movie, one of those would be overkill.

A woman looking at a computer screen while drawing on a digital tablet.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

Graphics tablets without screens are more common and affordable. They’re basically large, pressure-sensitive trackpads that you control with a special stylus. It can take a few days to get used to drawing while looking at your computer screen, but it’s more natural than you might think.

High-quality entry models, like the One by Wacom (which is different from the Wacom One), start at around $60.

Much Easier Motor Control

One stickman drawn with a Mac's trackpad and another drawn with a Wacom tablet.

The big advantage of a graphics tablet over a mouse, or, even worse, a trackpad, is how much control you have. In the image above, we quickly sketched two stickmen using a Mac’s trackpad (left) and a Wacom tablet (right). The Wacom stickman is significantly better looking and took us about a quarter of the time it took to draw the other one.

With a graphics tablet, it’s significantly easier to work with natural, flowing lines. You can draw neat circles, accurately trace the outline of a model you want to cut out of the background, and generally just work as you would if you were using a pen and paper. If you’ve ever tried to sign your name using a trackpad or mouse instead of a pen, you’ve experienced the difference.

"Harry" written once using a trackpad and once using a Wacom tablet.

Dynamic, Natural Controls

While being able to draw and trace more accurately is nice, it’s only half the story. Graphics tablets are also pressure-sensitive and, sometimes, they’re tilt-sensitive, too. This means Photoshop can tell the difference between a light sketched line and a heavy-handed mark.

Six squiggled lines created with the same brush in Photoshop using different pressure.

You can customize exactly how Photoshop uses this information. Most artists set it up so that lighter pressure results in softer, less opaque, thinner lines, and firmer pressure creates harder, darker, thicker lines. In the image above, we used the same brush in Photoshop but applied different pressure to create each line.

You can also set up tilt sensitivity to control whatever you like; however, it’s most useful when you use a shaped brush. That way, you can control the angle of the brush by rotating the stylus.

To make the most of a graphics tablet, you have to configure things on a tool-by-tool and app-by-app basis. Assuming you’ve installed all the required drivers and tablet software, you can set up a pressure-controlled brush in Photoshop.

First, open Photoshop and press B to grab the brush tool. Then, either go to Window > Brush Settings or click the Brush Settings icon in the toolbar.

The Photoshop "Brush Settings" menu.

The “Brush Settings” panel is where you control everything a brush can do. There are a lot of options here, but we’ll keep things basic and create a soft, round brush that’s small. It will be low opacity when you draw lightly and bigger and darker when you press harder.

Under “Brush Tip Shape,” set the “Hardness” to 0 percent, “Spacing” to 1 percent, and “Size” to around 45 px. This will give you a nice soft, medium-sized brush.

Set "Size" to around 45 px.

Under “Shape Dynamics,” set the “Size Jitter Control” to “Pen Pressure.” Now, the brush is smaller the softer you press. If you want, you can also set a “Minimum Diameter” to make sure your brush doesn’t get too small.

Click "Shape Dynamics," and then select "Pen Pressure."

Under “Transfer,” set the “Opacity Jitter Control” to “Pen Pressure.” Now, as well as being smaller, the brush will also be lighter the softer you press. You can set a minimum here, too.

Click "Transfer," and set the "Opacity Jitter Control" to "Pen Pressure."

When you have some time, dig through the “Brush Settings” panel and take a look at what you can control with “Pen Pressure,” “Pen Tilt,” and “Pen Angle.” There’s a lot!

A Faster Workflow

Photoshop is a huge app and doing certain things can take some time. A graphics tablet can speed things up, especially when doing the stuff we mentioned above, like:

  • Drawing or painting: You won’t have to “Undo” nearly as much.
  • Using pressure sensitivity and tilt to control your brush: You won’t have to constantly reconfigure the size, opacity, or flow.

But there’s more to it than that. Most graphics tablets have some combination of the following:

  • Buttons on the stylus: You can use these to quickly undo an action or press keyboard modifiers.
  • Customizable hotkeys: You can configure these for the tools, actions, and keyboard shortcuts you use the most.
  • A control ring or slider: To quickly adjust size, opacity, flow, rotation, and more.
  • Touch gestures: To zoom or pan.

With a well-configured graphics tablet, you’ll seldom need to touch your keyboard or dive into a submenu. You’ll never have to control anything with your trackpad or mouse, either.

By keeping everything within easy reach, you’ll be able to work much faster. Plus, you won’t have to interrupt your workflow to hunt down an option.

Which Graphics Tablet Should You Buy?

Graphics tablets are a fairly niche market, so there aren’t many companies making them—and even fewer that are making good ones. Wacom is the gold standard, and its tablets are adored by digital artists everywhere.

We recommend you buy the Wacom graphics tablet that best suits your budget. The One starts at $60, and they go up from there. The Wacom Intuos S ($80) offers some serious bang for your buck.

Unless you work with a giant monitor, size matters less than you might think. We’ve used both a medium and small tablet, but on a 15-inch MacBook’s screen, the medium tablet’s drawing area was too big. For most people, a small tablet will be perfect.

More levels of sensitivity and customizable keys are better, but only to a point. If you’re just starting out, the difference between 4,000 and 8,000 levels of pressure sensitivity won’t be noticeable. Similarly, Bluetooth is nice to have, but far from a necessity.

Really, even the most basic graphics tablet will make creating digital art, editing photographs, designing a typeface, or anything else you need to do in a graphics app a thousand times easier. Grab one now!

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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