Learning The GIMP

I’ve been doing some freelance photoshopping work this week. Just your basic stuff – extracting objects from their backgrounds – but I always enjoy image editing and it’s been a good refresher course in various techniques. I learnt Photoshop years ago using a dodgy copy, but as I don’t use pirated software any more I’ve been trying The GIMP.

The GIMP is an open-source, freeware image-editing program that, while not as powerful as the newer versions of Photoshop, supports reasonably advanced features such as paths, channels etc.. It’s powerful, but the learning curve is steep. A major roadblock is the interface: designed for Linux and ported to Windows, every panel is a separate window, and it’s confusing as hell at first glance. A project called GIMPShop attempts to adapt the GIMP into the Photoshop interface, but it’s only partially successful and tends to lag behind the latest GIMP releases, so I prefer to stick with the ‘official’ release. The lack of native Windows integration means the dialogs and controls are unfamiliar, all of which takes time to pick up. But I’ve been meaning to learn The GIMP properly for ages, and this was a great opportunity to finally get to grips with it.

I generally find open-source software to be extremely impressive, but full of small bugs. The GIMP (on Windows) is the same. There are no show-stoppers, just things you have to work around. Tools such as the eraser would occasionally just stop working, and a reset of the ‘tool options’ would fix the problem, despite apparently not changing anything (I am aware that my understanding of the software is limited, though, and I could just be missing something). There were a couple of problems with the window system not re-drawing properly on zooms, or after switching to other programs, but, again, nothing that didn’t have a workaround, even if it was just restarting the program. I suspect these were to do with the linux windows-system port rather than the GIMP itself. Whether there are more or fewer bugs than commercial software I don’t know – my instinct says commercial software like Photoshop just has the edge, bug-wise – but at least open-source software can be patched daily, or a skilled programmer could even do it themselves.

Other than the tool-reset issue, image-editing was a breeze. I was processing a few hundred images, and was able to set keyboard shortcuts I could whip through with my left hand, keeping my right on the mouse at all times. This sped things up tremendously. The GIMP saved into native .psd format without issue (I downloaded the 30-day demo of Photoshop CS3 just to check). The image selection tools were effective, consistent and fast; paths as wonderful / irritating to configure as ever. It didn’t blink at importing twenty 2mb layers in one go, nor resizing all of them simultaneously.

The million-windows problem, by the way, is the first use I’ve found for Microsoft’s multiple desktop powertoy – switching between a GIMP and regular desktop was very convenient.

The best discovery came late in the process, when a startup tip informed me of the eraser’s un-delete function. Press Alt with the eraser and it’ll put back anything you erased, no matter when you erased it. So if you realise at the end of an edit that your first magic-wand selection accidentally removed more of the object than intended, you can put it back without having to go through 25 undo-levels and repeat all your work. Photoshop probably does this too, but it’s a feature I hadn’t seen before and was really, really helpful.

Broadly, I was impressed. There was nothing in my Photoshop skillset The GIMP couldn’t replicate, and I didn’t have any more problems than the average with any new program. When you consider the hundreds of pounds even older versions of Photoshop still cost, that’s remarkable. I’ll have to investigate the many online tutorials, as I’m sure there’s plenty left to learn.