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.

XP, USB Drives and Mapped Network Drives

For more than a year I’ve been coming across a problem with Windows XP, USB drives and mapped network drives. Each computer here has four mapped network drives, which are assigned the letters F:, G:, H: and I:. When I plug in a USB key Windows tries to assign F:, fails and gives up. Disconnecting the network drive and reinserting the key (or going into device manager and hitting ‘populate’) was the only way to fix it, and this was tiresome. However, it’s one of those problems that you forget about as soon as you’ve solved it.

I finally remembered to look up a solution today, and there isn’t one. The official Microsoft response says that you should use as high letters as possible for mapped network drives. I’ve moved them to W: onwards, and the USB key can now happily use F:.

The problem apparently occurs with all types of removable media, so hopefully somebody will find this useful.

WordPress 2.0 is coming…

The WordPress blogging software that powers this site is very, very close to reaching version 2.0. Apparently release candidate 3 was released yesterday, and they’re looking at today or tomorrow for the final build. It’s looking very swish, with advanced caching features as well as WYSIWYG post creation and viewing. Not much difference for readers, other than the inevitable b0rkage as some plugins get scared and flee the server, but it’s exciting for geeks like me 🙂

Paint.NET

Almost forgot to mention Paint.NET, a freeware (and open-source) photo editing package that’s pretty impressive. It’s designed to be a replacement for the standard Windows Paint package, and to be as easy to use. I’ve been testing the betas for a month or two, and version 2.5 final was just released. It’s actually faster for editing than ACDSee, which I’ve been using for years. Features include layers, undo history, alpha transparency, the standard photo manipulation tools like resize/levels/crop, and magic wand/selection tools. Worth a look.

DigiGuide

I know it only happens every November, but it always seems time to renew my DigiGuide subscription. I don’t begrudge the £8.99 really – I use the program most days and it’s far cheaper than getting the Radio Times every week – but I’d prefer it if the annual subscription didn’t come round so damn often!

Large Edit: Just followed my own Radio Times link and discovered they have an online digiguide style service, for free! They’ll even remind you by text that a programme is starting…dammit dammit dammit. I’m going to pretend I didn’t find that.

Microsoft News

Can’t view my website atm, so emailing this entry in (update: fixed the layout).

Microsoft is making a few announcements this week – Scoble‘s been dropping hints for ages now – and it’ll be interesting to see what’s coming. A couple of early titbits:

Just downloading the new Microsoft Max which is a photo sharing application built to show off MS’s upcoming features. It’s downloading the WinFX Framework Beta, so is clearly pretty cutting-edge! Update: It may have downloaded it, but the install never finishes for me…Shall give it another try later.

Also check out Microsoft Gadgets which launched today. It looks a lot like the MacOSX widgets, or Konfabulator, but should be pretty cool if they implement it well.

eBay + Skype

eBay just announced that they’ve bought Skype for $2.6billion. Interesting. I can’t immediately see the potential here; what will eBay do with a voice communications program, I wonder? All I can think is that perhaps eBay are working towards a software program to help people trade online? Selling through eBay, support phone lines via Skype? Guessing games are fun 🙂 However, if you mix the names up you get SkyBay, which sounds like a great name for a flying car. I hope they’re making a flying car.

Slide.com Bar Issue

If you picked up the slide.com bar I mentioned the other day, I recommend you don’t create any high-traffic channels. I subscribed to the Flickr Central RSS feed on Wednesday, and spent the last two days wondering why my connection was so slow. Turned out Slide was permanently downloading. I like the idea of the bar, but it gets boring if you don’t have a good supply of new images – a bandwidth limiting option would be a good addition, I think. I’ve emailed the suggestion to them, and will let you know if I get anything back.

Opera to go Ad-free?

There are rumours that Opera is to go ad-free in the near future. Despite having bought a license, I really hope this is the case. I far prefer Opera to Firefox, which I find clunky and inelegant, and was very happy when version 7 came out with much needed improvements to the rendering engine. Version 8 is even better imho, and I’ve been using it happily for months. I’d say that anybody using an alternative browser is looking for the most productive software, and aren’t wedded to one application. Opera’s major disadvantage are the adverts in the free version, and despite their being fairly unobtrusive it’s understandable how people could be put off. I honestly think people would prefer Opera to Firefox (with the below caveats) and anything that would attract people can only be a good thing. Removing the ads is undoubtedly the move that would catapult Opera into becoming a major competitior, although the following would help too:

  • Get Gmail working fully. It doesn’t currently support the HTML editor or new windows for composing emails (which breaks mailto links).
  • Maybe allow third-party toolbars. People can currently customise everything about the browser except for this.
  • Promote the User Javascript (equivalent to Greasemonkey) feature more – perhaps make up some great extensions to demonstrate what can be done.