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!)
Today, I own a Wacom Graphire 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 6x9 or 4x5 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.