GIMP - Power and Pitfalls

The GIMPGIMP (an unflattering acronym that stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free program for image editing and creation. Think of it as the open source rural cousin of Adobe Photoshop: strong from heavy lifting, lacking in some graces and prone to falling over.

GIMP has been around for 13 years and is currently up to version 2.6.7, with installers available for Windows, Mac OS X, and instructions for the various flavors of Linux. For this review I installed 2.6.7 on a machine running Windows Vista Business.

Like a lot of open source applications, GIMP's development is targetted at achieving functionality rather than at satisfying a particular market or type of user. As a result, what, and who, GIMP is useful for springs incidentally from what the developers have and have not currently implemented.

First in line for GIMP should be sophisticated photography hobbyists who want to move beyond the basic editing options provided by Windows Photo Gallery, iPhoto and Picasa. GIMP can perform all the steps in a standard digital photography workflow - levels, curves, color balance, noise reduction, sharpening, etc. There is a hiccup though - GIMP cannot read camera raw files. But there is a free plug-in (with GIMP there is *always* a plug-in) called Ufraw, which will let you import raw files and adjust their exposure and white balance along the way.

Here is where the professional photographers step off, at least for now: GIMP currently supports only 8 bit image channels. Ufraw can produce the 16 bit per channel TIFF files that are part of the normal professional workflow, but if you open them in GIMP it will warn you that it will truncate the data to 8 bits. However, 16 and even 32 bit channels are in the works for version 2.8, so the pros can check back later.

What else doesn't GIMP do? GIMP does not do CMYK, so graphic designers and print professionals can go join the pro photographers in the waiting room. There is a plug-in, naturally, that will generate four color separations, but GIMP, unlike Photoshop, cannot edit CMYK images.

Lastly, but importantly, I have to say that I find GIMP's handling and rendering of text clunky and almost primitive given its age. The graphic designers have already left, but web designers might want to go, too, and check out Inkscape, Adobe Illustrator's own open source cousin.

Who else does that leave? GIMP supports graphic tablets and has powerful brush tools, so illustrators and artists who spent all their money on their Wacom Cintiq tablets should take GIMP for a spin before going into the red for Photoshop.

Having said that, I would like to point out that GIMP may not be ready for professional use. During my review GIMP locked up on me three times, requiring me to use the Task Manager to kill it off, one plug-in crashed and portions of the main image window were not refreshing regularly. Save often!

For the power hobbyist with patience, GIMP is the best point of entry for sophisticated image editing. The thriving community that has grown up around GIMP over the years has created a wealth of documentation, tutorials (video as well as written) and forums to help them get the most out of the program. Professionals will want to wait for a few more versions before joining in.


Price - Free!
Lots of plug-ins
Graphic Tablet support
Strong community
Plenty of documentation and tutorials


Image channels are limited to 8 bit
No CMYK mode
Text handling is clunky
Interface can be unsupportive
Prone to crashing

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