A lot of photographers will spend heaps of cash on high end cameras, performance lenses, tonnes of filters and other fancey accessories. All of these will of course make a big difference in one way or another to your pictures at the capture stage, although with lenses often being in the $500+ range and filters being $100+, building your gear bag can be a serious investment.
The thing is, a large amount of the look of a final finished photo comes in the editing stage. Weather the changes are very subtle, just adding some sharpening and colour or full on HDR etc, post processing plays a big part.
For most of us, we limit ourselves to the combination of a decent Laptop and a copy of Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, but there are a number of other gadgets and accessories out there that can really change the way we work with pictures and interact with our computers other than a standard mouse of trackpad.
For example this........................
This particular tablet and pen combo is made by WACOM (Link). The WACOM Intuos 4 to be specific. I picked it up on Ebay for $140 which I think is an absolute steal given how I think it completely changes the way I work and edit my images.
So how does it work?
Fundamentally we have a pen, and a tablet. Running the pen across the tablet works in exactly the same way moving your mouse would. Taping the pen on the pad works the same as a left click, and pressing the little button on the pen is the same as right clicking, easy. The pen is very nicely weighted and using it feels much like drawing on real paper. Also the new tablets, and certainly the one I own, have almost no noticeable blatancy or cursor drag which makes using is ultra responsive.
The nibs on the pen are also interchangeable. There are a whole bunch of different types, although broadly speaking they fall into either "flex", "felt" or "regular". As far as I can tell, these are designed to feel to the user, like different types of real life pens as they brush across the pad. The pen is sensitive enough to be able to detect different levels of force, I think over 2000 different levels in higher end models, which when used in Lightroom or Photoshop, can adjust brush input levels and other things when editing.
There are a also a whole bunch of handy buttons on the tablet, which can be mapped to do all sorts of things, from opening new web-browsers, to creating new radial or graduated filters in Lightroom. The little wheel on the left works just like the wheel on one of the old Ipod Classics, and can be used to adjust sliders and other settings on the fly.
My current hotkey set up for Lightroom is: 1. Library Mode
2. Develop Mode
3. Lights on/ off
4. Switch Monitors
5. New Graduated Filter
6. New Radial Filter
7. New Brush
8. Fullscreen Mode on/ off
These little buttons are also "smart" buttons, meaning that as you change between programs, the functions of the buttons will change. Although most software has hotkeys on the keyboard, these smart buttons can be set up to do all sorts of complex stuff.
Why is it so good?
Using this thing is completely different from using a track pad, or mouse. Its a very tactile process which is incredibly responsive, you feel much more connected when using the tablet over a mouse, and I think its because for most of us, using a pen is almost second nature. I have also found that using the pen is far more accurate than a track pad, and "painting" using brushed and other tools feel very natural as well compared to using a mouse. Being able to brush in things like exposure or saturation where the rate of application is varied by pressure feels more natural, almost like painting.
The tablets come in three sizes generally. The working sizes of the touch pad is approximately; Small 6.2" x 3.9" , Medium 8.5 x 5.3" and Large 12.5 x 8.5". Even high end media laptops such as the Macbook Pro series don't have touch pads the size of even the smallest tablets. This large working area also helps with the accuracy and feel of using the pen. My medium tablet is around 2/3 the size of my screen, meaning a small movement with the pen is not to far of a 1:1 movement of the cursor on the screen.
So to wrap it up. I think that all of us as photographers can get very wrapped up in our camera gear, but sometime we can make pretty reasonably priced purchases which can totally change the way we edit our pictures. May be worth thinking about one of these things if you have a coupe of hundred bucks lyign around!!
All the best.