by Jennifer Niester

For years, I have loved Adobe Photoshop—its posterizing, sharpening, layering canvas made up for my cheap camera and hurried snapshots of questionable composition. However, as my careers changed and my daring downloading faded, I was left with a choice—spend hundreds of dollars or edit my pictures elsewhere. I've been getting by with Picasa—it removes the red eye, crops, edits blemishes, and adjusts color and lighting. Then someone told me about GIMP, a freeware competitor of Adobe Photoshop, available for download at

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program and is part of a movement called the GNU project. GNU's goal is to develop software, called open-source software, that is free to download, share, use, and develop. GIMP has evolved over time because of its GNU General Public License, which allows anyone to view the software's code to make changes or develop new features. I could download GIMP, rewrite the programming language, and then release my own version. Not that I would want to. I just want to play with pictures.

When I open GIMP, it looks very similar to the default set-up of Adobe Photoshop: a floating palette of tools on the left, the canvas in the middle, and the layers and current tools options on the right (i.e. if the brush tool is selected, an array of brush options appears). I begin with my most common task, cropping. The process is the same as Photoshop—either use the Selection Box tool and then choose crop from the menu, or use the Crop tool to save a precious few clicks. From there I go on to the other common tasks: layering, erasing, cloning (a common way to rid yourself of blemishes and wrinkles), trying out fun filters, and viewing my history of changes.

Moving from Photoshop to GIMP, you'll have to learn new pathways for all these common tasks, as the menu is not an exact mirror. However, my training in Photoshop easily translated to GIMP, and I'm sure vice versa would be true. GIMP could easily be a gateway program to professional-level designing and photo editing.

Even if you have no desire to be a professional, a few simple edits can make a big impact on the quality of an image. Above are two images—the raw photograph taken from my cell phone and the same image after a few simple edits on GIMP. The first issue I noticed after downloading the photograph from my cell phone was the color quality, too dark with a purple overcast. So I went to the color menu and raised both the brightness and the contrast. Next, under the same menu, I adjusted the color balance to lessen the presence of Magenta. Suddenly the image was brighter and the sky was bluer. Next, I decided what portion of the image I like best, selected it, and cropped it. The difference between the two photographs speaks for itself.

While GIMP's name might predict a limping, lesser version of Photoshop, overall I am impressed. The program actually runs faster than Photoshop, as it is leaner, requiring less RAM from the computer. Plus, you won't find a message like this on "In the free software world, there is generally no distinction between users and developers. As in a friendly neighborhood, everybody pitches in to help their neighbors."

The friendly neighborhood of GIMP is the perfect playground for photographers or designers wanting to experiment, and though not the industry standard, would be a money-saving substitute for strapped-for-cash professionals.

© Jennifer Niester, 2010