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GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Package) - Introduction
Category: Graphics editor
Level: Intermediate - Advanced
When you are accustomed to dealing with graphics editing packages with names like Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Image Editor, a software package called The Gimp doesn't exactly leave you with the impression that it is designed for image editing.
But ask any longtime Linux/Unix user and they will tell you that The Gimp, despite it's rather odd sounding name, is on par with some of the most powerful commercially available image editors on the market today, and that unlike Photoshop which retails for approximately $600 for the full version, The Gimp has a version for windows that is readily available as a free download.
Originally designed for use on Linux/Unix systems, the Gimp is user supported software, meaning that many of the people using the Gimp software also contribute to writing the software. As a result this impressive, powerful image editor is absolutely free and now has a version available that will run on Microsoft Windows. This is not a time limited demo but truly free software; something that is sure to shock and amaze even the most jaded of users when they see the list of features available in The Gimp.
Testing Hardware and Program Requirements
I tested the Gimp on two very different machines to get an idea of it's capabilities as well as its ability to operate on widely varying machines. The primary test machine was powered by an AMD Athlon 64 3400+ processor running at 2.2 ghz and backed with 1 gigabyte of ram with Windows XP Professional. The secondary testing platform was powered by an 800mhz Intel processor with only 256 megabytes of memory running under Windows 98.
According to the makers of the Gimp it will supposedly run on any machine using Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows NT4, Windows 2000 or Windows XP in as little as 128 megabytes of RAM. My own testing seemed to bear this out, while certainly far less responsive when run on the less powerful 800mhz machine the software was stable and usable even with a minimum of 256 megabytes of ram available on the much slower 800mhz processor.
The first thing you will notice about The Gimp is the fact that you actually have to download and install two different packages, rather than just one, in order to use the software. While this is old hat to most users of linux/unix based systems it is not a common thing to most windows users who are accustomed to only having one package they need to download and install. However it should be noted that the automated installers available on The Gimp's website making installing the software quite easy, once you get over the hurdle of realizing you need to download and install both packages rather than just one.
If you're a novice at image editing or have never used any sort of high end image editing software before the first time you start The Gimp might be a bit of a shock. Your first look at the user interface will probably leave you feeling rather intimidated to say the least. The Gimp is a very powerful image editing suite with a huge list of features, and its menu's reflect this fact in no uncertain terms. For those familiar with similar packages like Adobe Photoshop the Gimp will be far less intimidating, though it will take a bit of getting used to before you really feel comfortable with it's interface.
However even the novice user should not let the Gimp's rather intimidating interface scare them away. Yes, this software is going to take a while to learn how to use, but its features and benefits will certainly make it worth your time, particularly if you have need of any of its more advanced features. Take some time reading through the online documentation to get started. While previous releases of the Gimp had documentation that left a lot to be desired, the documentation for this latest version is actually fairly well written. It doesn't assume the user is an expert in image editing and actually takes the time to explain certain concepts of image editing in what is mostly a clear and concisely written format.
Should you find the online documentation insufficient there are more than a few books available for the Gimp as well, to further expand your knowledge of this rather remarkable program. While many people might balk at the notion of buying a manual for the software separately, keep in mind that purchasing an equivalent program like Adobe Photoshop will cost you approximately $600 in US currency. The Gimp is available as a free download and has a variety of well written, comprehensive books that you can buy online or at your local book store to help you get the most from the program. Since these books are available usually ranging in price from $25 to $50, your looking at saving yourself on average $550 to $575 as opposed to purchasing a full retail version of Photoshop. This rather substantial savings will certainly be attractive to most even if they are not overly impressed with The Gimp's interface at first glance.
Curiously enough the Gimp's biggest strength, the fact that it has a ton of available features, is also its biggest weakness. The user interface can be confusing at times especially for the novice user. In a few places the menu options can seem somewhat redundant and confusing. One notable example of this is using the Gimp's image rotate feature. To rotate an image exactly 90 degrees or 180 degrees the menu item is found under Image/Transform/Rotate. However if you wish to rotate a selected portion of an image by varying degrees you'll find that option in the menu under Tools/Transform/Rotate. This will no doubt seem strange to Photoshop users who are accustomed to having these options available simply by right clicking on the image selection.
The other major disadvantage I found while testing the software was the fact that it loads itself as several different dialog boxes as opposed to a single windowed application. Thus each dialog, the toolbar, the image window, etc. must be minimized or restored separately. While some might consider this an advantage since it does allow you to easily move/resize these components while working with images, for my purposes it is actually quite a disadvantage. I do a great deal of website development work and as a result I often have several different software packages open at once. I'm constantly flipping back and forth between my image editor, my html editor and other software packages that I use to flesh out a website. Not being able to easily switch between these applications quickly and easily by clicking on a single window on the taskbar is something I consider to be a disadvantage.
Behold, the power of layers
The Gimp has so many features available that discussing them all even briefly would result in a review that is far too long to contemplate. I did however wish to take just a moment or two and discuss what I consider to be one of the most useful features offered by the Gimp, one that is not found in many other image editing programs. It's a feature called layers.
So what is a layer, and why are they so useful? Perhaps one of the best examples I can think of for explaining the use of layers and channels is in a very common task performed by most professional photographers and image editors, removing an effect known as red eye from a photograph.
We've all seen an otherwise gorgeous photograph ruined by red-eye, that curious effect where the pupil of the eye appears to be red rather than black when the photo is taken with a camera using a flash. So what causes the dreaded red eye effect? It is caused by the intense light of the flash actually reflecting off of the back of the retina of your photographic subject. In human beings the effect can be quite dramatic, but it is even more pronounced in many animals. Many animals, including dogs and cats, actually have a special layer on the back of their retinas called tapetum lucidum. This special reflective layer is actually designed to reflect light, it reflects any incoming light outward so that the animal's eye has a second chance to process that available light. While this gives the animal in question much better night vision it also makes any flash photography of these animals difficult even under the best conditions.
Many modern cameras are equipped with a red eye reduction feature, which does help to lessen the effect of red eye. The camera will actually flash twice each time a picture is taken, once right before the shutter is opened and once as the shutter on the camera opens to take the picture. The first flash causes the subjects pupils to contract, smaller pupil's means less light reflected from the subject's retina and thus less red eye. But while this feature will serve to lessen the red eye effect they won't really eliminate it, particularly when you are photographing a subject in low-light conditions.
Many lower end software packages have automated features that will allow you to remove red eye from a photograph, but these automated features work with a varying degree of success and what will often happen is that the color of the iris of the eyes will be somewhat distorted.
I've run into this problem quite often myself, my youngest daughter's eyes are amazingly blue, a light shade of blue that reminds one of the sky or perhaps light reflected from a sheet of ice. Unfortunately this color rarely if ever shows up in the myriad of photographs I take of her because of the red eye effect. A lesser image editing program allows me to go in and black out the pupils of her eyes to remove the red glare, but the stunning blue color of her irises is often lessened as a result.
However using a professional image editing package like the Gimp I can load her photograph and use one of its selection tools to select an area around her eyes, the copy just that area to a second layer. This new layer contains only the portion of the image that I have copied, and it allows me to manipulate just that portion of the image while being able to see the rest of the photograph on the layer underneath to get an idea as to the overall effect on the entire finished product. It's like having just that part of the image on top of the other separated by a pane of clear glass. I can erase everything from this top layer except the pupils and irises of her eyes, adjust the color of that layer until the blue matches her natural iris color perfectly, then black out the pupils and merge this layer with the one underneath it.
This allows me pinpoint, precise control that is simply impossible without the layers feature, and while the Gimp is not the only software package on the market with this capability it is the only free software I know of that has this feature available.
If you're a weekend shutter bug who just wants a simple red eye removal feature or a program that will quickly and easily add effects to your photographs (such as making them look aged) The Gimp is probably not your best choice in image editing software. Its high learning curve simply makes it an unattractive choice for your application.
However if you are a professional or semi-professional photographer or a serious photography nut who needs a powerful image editing program the Gimp is certainly worth the time it takes to download and install. While its user interface is still not as polished as a professional package like Adobe Photoshop, it certainly rivals Photoshop in both power and flexibility, and for a free software package that is really saying quite a lot.
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