Caption by: Paul Monckton
In a world where image editing has become almost synonymous with Adobe's Photoshop, it's easy to forget that other options exist. GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) has been a favourite among Linux users for many years and can fulfill the image editing needs of a large number of users — if not, perhaps, professionals. GIMP includes several sophisticated tools and is extensible via scripting and plug-ins. It’s also free to use and because it’s made available under the GPL, it’s a truly cross-platform product.
The list of additions and improvements in version 2.4 is very long indeed. Many enhancements have been made to the interface, new tools have been added and existing ones have been upgraded. There are also whole areas of functionality included which make the program useful to groups of users who would have previously had to buy expensive alternatives.
True to its heritage, GIMP has always had a somewhat ‘Linuxy’ look. Although this isn’t important to its core functionality, it may have served to put many potential users off when compared to some commercial offerings. GIMP 2.4 has a new icon theme that adheres to the Tango style guidelines for a consistent look across all platforms.
One of the most requested features in GIMP was the ability to create brushes of any size on the fly. Previous versions of the program required you to predefine each and every brush size as a new brush before use, but now you can increase or reduce the size of any brush while you’re using it, via the keyboard or an external control device.
Web designers will love the new rounded corners available to rectangular selections — ‘cool’ buttons are now much quicker to create. In fact, the selection tools have been completely overhauled; for example, you can now resize a selection once you've created it. The selection tools have also been given some significant usability tweaks, making them more consistent and easier to grasp.
A new Foreground Select Tool allows you to cut out images from the background quickly and easily. It’s similar to the Extract tool in Photoshop and very useful, although not quite as quick and easy to use as Photoshop’s new Quick Select tool.
Also new is the perspective clone tool. This lets you copy a portion of an image while automatically maintaining the correct perspective, so the copy looks right in its new location. Objects appear smaller as they move into the distance, and the perspective clone will take care of that for you automatically — when copying an element from the foreground of an image to the background, for example.
Small changes to commonly-used tools can have a big impact on productivity. GIMP 2.4’s new crop tool is now much easier to use than before and has additional functions such as a built in grid overlay. It’s much easier to move and resize your crop accurately before committing to your edit and you can overlay grids in formats such as the Rule of Thirds or Golden Sections which automatically adjust while you’re selecting your crop.
There has also been some reorganisation of the menus. Many commonly used colour-related controls were previously found nested below a global Tools menu, which meant frequent navigation into a sub-menu. These have now been given their own top-level Colours menu. This may seem like a small change, but the sheer frequency of visits to Colours means that this is a worthwhile time-saving addition. It’s also nice to see the British spelling of 'colour' appear by default.
Colour management is a major new addition to GIMP 2.4.
One of the most significant additions to GIMP (or possibly the most confusing and pointless, depending on who you are), is colour management. This allows the program to maintain colour accuracy across input devices such as cameras and scanners, proofing devices like monitors, and output media such as printers or web pages.
Colour fidelity is acheived via colour profiles embedded in images and associated with hardware devices. With these profiles, GIMP can make the colours you see on-screen faithfully represent what your camera captured, and also ensure that print-outs provide the closest possible match. Without colour management, getting your prints to match your display is a matter of trial and error — mostly error.
Printing has also been made easier thanks to a new print preview dialogue box that allows you to control much more easily how your image is to be positioned and scaled on the page. GIMP 2.2 gave you very little control in this area.
What's still missing?
Although new features are being added all the time, GIMP still has a way to go. Some filters still don’t adjust the image in real-time — for example, adjustments made using the levels control don’t show up until the mouse button is released. This means you have to make repeated adjustments where other applications, notably Photoshop, let you see image change as you move a slider, leaving you to release it only when you've achieved the desired effect.
GIMP isn’t always as intuitive as it could be, either. The new colour-management functions are undoubtedly useful, but some of them, such as the soft proof mode, are very well hidden.
Despite all its new colour-management features and the ability to preview CMYK output, GIMP still can’t edit CMYK documents or work in the CMYK colour space. This severely limits its usefulness for those working in professional print environments. GIMP is also restricted to 8-bit images, so fans of RAW image processing and High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography will have to look elsewhere.
GIMP is a relatively complex program and there is, thankfully, a wealth of help and documentation available both online and within the program itself. Unfortunately, the help files must be downloaded separately and they’re not currently up-to-date with the latest version, so you may find that new features are not yet documented.
Although GIMP won’t cost you a penny in cold, hard cash, it may cost you a little time and effort to master it. However, the program is improving all the time and the current release is a sophisticated package that's well worth considering before you part with any money for a similar tool.
Caption by: Paul Monckton