Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Work environment and hotkeys

Having a proper work environment affects your workflow greatly. It's necessary to optimize and maximize the worktime while minimizing the downtime, well, because you get to draw more with the saved time.

Well, besides the obvious perk, you also get to draw more comfortably. It's important to minimize your body motion so you'll be able to sit and draw for longer.

But there's a problem. You can't have a full control over Photoshop or Painter just by using a tablet. You need a keyboard access to use extra features.

Keyboard in this case is the worst offender. Not only are you required to take your attention off the monitor to perform certain actions, you are sometimes required to leave your pen to use your right hand for assisted hotkeys.

Now, you've seen many professionals work like this before. An extra window opened to assist close-up painting view. This is an 'okay' way of working, but this seriously limits access to your full monitor resolution. Many professionals work like this because the keyboard access is terribly interruptive to use.

What if you can zoom in and out freely with zero hassle? What if you can change your brush size without any trouble? Then you'll be able to fly across the screen drawing while using the full screen of your monitor. (Also you don't have to worry about painting the dreaded window edges.)

Well, there is a way.

This is my current setup. This is the conclusion I've reached after nearly 15 years of digital painting.

You'll immediately notice the main guy there, Wacom Intuos 2. I bought it back in 2003 and been using it since. It's got battle scars and it's halfway to falling apart, but it still works superbly.

But there's something else on the left. It looks like something off a sci-fi film...

It's none other than Belkin's n52te.

This was designed actually to be a gaming product, but is surprisingly a match made in heaven for digital painting.

This neat little guy has everything. Macro, multiple short-cuts, key repeats and so on.

The unit even has a built-in memory so once I save the setting, I can take this anywhere without installing the driver.

Now, let's take a look at how I have the keys set up.

So this is the gist of it.

I have all the primary functions for photoshop mapped to the unit. This way, unless I'm saving a new file, I never have to leave my both hands off the pen and the Belkin.

Zoom can be done via the wheel, brush sizes by the D-pad, and I even got 'd' key for quick picking the color black.

I actually mislabeled the 'TAB'. It should be the 'F' key which puts Photoshop into a full-screen mode where you no longer have to worry about the canvas stopping at the edge of the window.

This is the setup screen for the Belkin. You'll need this for setting up all your macros, but you only need to install this software on one computer. As said above, the setting is saved inside the unit itself and you can take it anywhere.

Also the unit can save up to 3 different settings, so you can have different settings for photoshop, painter, and whatever you use.

Now, at this point you may be going, 'Hey! I've seen what the latest Wacom products can do! You don't need that fancy Belkin to use hotkeys!'

Well, kinda right, but I've also used them and I found them to be lacky in general.

Let me begin with my past findings on this whole hotkey dealio.

My first love affair with hotkeys began when I first bought Intuos2 and this thing came included with it.

This shit was so cash. I could use the Intuos' dual mouse support function and use it on my left hand. Of course, the restriction was that I had to keep this mouse inside the Intuos canvas, but just the fact that I never needed to press the keyboard gave me a feeling of freedom I never felt in my previous Wacom purchases (Intuos 1 and Graphire 1).

That affair ended abruptly when Wacom updated their drivers and ended the dual mouse support. I'm pretty sure that was in order to push their Intuos 3 sales which had embedded keys on the tablet.

After going through the tech support, finding and using outdated drivers, the affair lasted just slightly longer. Ultimately though, it had to end as the keys got so sticky, and the rubber padding got so old, it was no longer usable.

So there began my journey finding new devices to accompany my left hand while my right hand remained on the pen.

My first stop was this:

You've seen one of these. Right after my 4D mouse died, I started using an external keypad. Of course they don't work on Photoshop as is, so you'll need a keyboard intercepting program to assign macros. Those programs are hard to find, and the keypad itself is not worth using.
Using this for nearly a year, I almost gave myself a carpal tunnel's syndrome. It was painful and I had to rest like 2 hours for each hour I painted with it. Pressing each button millions of times is just painful.

So I thought Cintiq 20USX (or whatever it's called) was going to provide me the keys I wanted plus the tactile feedback only pen and paper could provide me.

Of course, I was wrong. Cintiq sucked (more on that in the future), so I sold it and decided looking further.

There were few other options I considered and I just knew they were not the answer - like Intuos3, which is almost identical to Cintiq in the way the buttons function.

Just off the top of my head I can recognize the problems that comes with it.

-One touchstrip on each side. You need at least 2 to zoom in/out and resize brush.
Also the touchstrip isn't accurate enough. You'll find yourself overshooting zooms all the time and are forced to tap the opposite side just to get the right zoom.

-The buttons take some force to press (since they're identical to Cintiq, I know). It's not that big of a deal, but when you have to press them thousands of times to either zoom or change brush size, it just makes your finger sore (like the keypad).

-Not enough buttons on each sides. So there's 4 buttons and 1 touchstrip. 2 buttons are already taken, and you're left with 2 extra to map frequently used functions such as undo, save, shift key, free transform and etc. This forces you to lift your hands off the Intuos and use the other side or a keyboard. Optimization is effectly reduced once that happens. Cintiq's got more buttons, but they just HAD to put 2 extra keys on an island location. Jesus.

-Not ergonomic enough. At least with Cintiq, you could wrap your hand around the monitor (to reach the touchstrip on the back). Not only do you have to keep both hands in close proximity, You must keep your palm on the edge frame of the tablet.

And then Intuos4 came out, and being a long-time tablet user, the problems were really obvious.

Okay, they got a bit smarter with their buttons, but they made other terrible choices.

-Only vertical button rows. Horizontal buttons are often good for symmetric functions such as opacity changes, or brush hardness changes. They require two buttons to be used.
Also all the buttons are designed in same fashion, thus it'll be difficult to tell which buttons you're pressing just by feeling them with your finger.

-LCD screen. It's not much a con than it is excessive. Once you get used to the hotkeys, you don't look at your tablet anymore. A sticky note is often enough until you memorize the hotkeys - not that it'd take a lot to remember with only 8 buttons, though.

-The biggest problem of all, is the circular touchstrip. It's just asking for trouble.
One, nobody's going to use the full strip, circling it around with their fingers. That requires wrist action, which is a big motion when you're sitting there painting for 10 hours straight. I never used Intuos4, but I bet you my left kneecap that everyone just uses the left side of the ring repeatedly.
Two, it's still got one strip. You can change the strip function by pressing the middle button, but that's adding an extra step. Being able to zoom in and out while resizing brush is a godsend, and you can't do stuff like that with this strip. Each time you press the center button is a second wasted.

Again, I never used Intuos4, but I've used a lot of their products to know what works and what doesn't. Let me know if I'm wrong on any accounts.

So after browsing through for days and on, I found Belkin. Ironically though, I spent the next 6 months still using the painful keypad. Even more ironically, this device is terrible for games - the very thing this product is made for. First of all, you can't use this for multiplayer games as you need to chat. It's a nightmare switching your hand between Belkin and the keyboard. You can't use this for every other game either because the device isn't precise/accurate enough for games (You can set the macro to press the button multiple times, but they sometimes press less times than you inputted or just stops repeating sometimes).

But strangely, it works for digital painting - beautifully.

So this is how I work. Belkin on my left hand, digitizer on my right hand and monitor ahead straight. Keyboard only comes to play when I need to 'save as' and I get to 'save' a lot of time that way.

Haha, oh, puns.