Now that Adobe, Inc. has made its category-defining Photoshop bitmap image editor software and the rest of its professional-grade Creative Cloud (formerly Creative Suite) applications available as a subscription-only cloud service costing 50 bucks a month, many heretofore Photoshop and other Creative Suite module users are looking into more economical alternatives.
For some, that may be the Dalide brothers’ affordable $29.95 Pixelmator software, or Flying Meat Software’s even less costly $19.95 Acorn image editor app, perpetual licensing of either selling for more or less half of one month’s Photoshop Creative Cloud’s subscription cost. For many users, either Pixelmator or Acorn should be a perfectly adequate solution, as well as being faster and less ponderous than Photoshop.
However, if you need professional grade image creation/editing power, and can’t stomach that Photoshop monthly subscription tariff, there’s actually an even cheaper alternative.
Like, how does free grab you?
That would be the oddly-named GIMP (acronym for: GNU Image Manipulation Program), an open source, high-end image editing and creation alternative to Adobe’s Photoshop and its now open-ended, monthly wallet-siphoning distribution mode for tasks like photo retouching, image editing and composition, and image authoring.
Happily, the GIMP is no longer as challenging to install, learn and use as it once was for Mac user; since version 2.8.2, the program no longer requires support of Apple’s somewhat geeky X11 environment, with its distinct GUI for running Linux and UNIX applications. GIMP for OS X now demands only a simple drag and drop installation and you’re good to go. And with X11 finally out of the way, the GIMP gets a standard menu bar Aqua interface UI.
The latest GIMP revision is version 2.8.10, which supports 64 bit OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard and newer including OS X v10.9 Mavericks, as well as some other enhancements and bugfixes.
The biggest conceptual (and perhaps most controversial) change in GIMP 2.8.10 is that saving and exporting images now are clearly separated activities. Saving an image can only be done in the XCF format which is GIMP’s native file format, able to save all kinds of information necessary for works in progress. To export into other formats File->Export needs to be used. This distinction makes it clearer if all available information is stored in a file, or not. There are some optimizations for alternative workflows such as opening a jpg, polishing it, and quickly exporting back to the original file. This conceptual change has also allowed the GIMP’s developers to get rid of annoying dialogs that warned about the flattening of images when saving to non-layered formats, and ensures that your original image file remains unchanged unless you choose to overwrite it on Export.
GIMP 2.8 also introduces an optional single-window mode. You can toggle between the default multi-window mode and the new single-window mode through the Single-window mode checkbox in the Windows menu. In single-window mode, GIMP will put dockable dialogs and images in a single, tabbed image window. The single-window mode setting is preserved if you quit and start GIMP again. Single-window mode removes the necessity for users of having to deal with multiple windows.
GIMP 2.8 allows dockable dialogs in a dock window to be placed in multiple columns. To create a new column in a dock window, drag and drop a dockable dialog on the vertical edges of the dock window. This is an appealing feature for multi-monitor users where one screen can have a big dock window with all the dialogs and the tools, while all images are on other displays.
The docking bars have been removed and replaced with overlaid highlights. The dockable drag handle has been removed and the dockable menu button has been moved up to the tabs. A new Automatic tab style has been added which makes dockable tabs use the available space.
Text editing with the Text Tool is now performed on-canvas instead of in a separate window. The editing on-canvas is sophisticated; apart from the usual text formatting features like font family, style and size selectors, you get numeric control over baseline offset and kerning, as well as the ability to change text color for a selection. You can also use a combination of Alt and arrow keys to change baseline offset and kerning. Enhancements have also been made to the size entry widget, which is used for inputting most of the x, y, width, and height parameters. For example, in the scale dialog it is now possible to write ‘50%’ in the Width field to scale the image to 50% of the width. Expressions such as ’30in + 40px’ and ‘4 * 5.4in’ work, too.
A completely new Cage transform tool has been added, implementing an innovative approach to free transformation and making it possible to easily warp parts of objects using an adjustable user-defined polygonal frame.
A new experimental widget has been added to meet the requirements of graphic tablets users. The widget combines a slider, a label and a numeric value control which simplifies adjusting a value using a stylus, better visualizes the current value, and provides a more compact UI. It is now used in the Tools Options dockable dialog for opacity control and most options of brush based tools.
Another useful feature for users of advanced input devices such as graphic tablets is a completely new dialog for input device configuration which allows configuring per-device pressure curves to compensate for hardware differences and personal per-pen preferences.
Minor Changes in GIMP 2.8.10 include:
- Keyboard shortcuts Ctrl+E and Ctrl+Shift+E have been repurposed for the image export mechanisms, new keyboard shortcuts have been setup for ‘Shrink Wrap’ and ‘Fit in Window’, namely Ctrl+J and Ctrl+Shift+J respectively.
- Added ‘WindowsHide docks’ menu item that does what ‘Tab’ does and also displays its state, which is now persistent across sessions, too.
- Added infrastructure allowing user to embed user interface elements on the canvas. This is currently used for text styles in the text tool, and (experimentally) when a color correction tool is invoked while the canvas is in full-screen mode.
- The ability to make dock window titles manageable, only showing the active dockable in the dock window title.
- The layer modes have been rearranged into more logical and useful groups based on the effect they have on compositing of a layer. Layer modes that make the composite lighter are in one group, layer modes that make the composite darker in another group, and so forth.
- You can now Alt+Click on layers in the Layers dialog to create a selection from it. Add, subtract and intersect modifiers Ctrl, Shift and Ctrl+Shift keys work too. This makes it easy to compose contents of a layer based on the contents of other layers, without detours.
- New docks are created at the pointer position.
- Removed Toolbox from list of Recently Closed Docks, handle that directly in the Windows menu.
- Allow closing the toolbox without closing the whole application.
- Default to non-fixed-aspect in Canvas Size dialog.
- In the Preferences dialog, only have one setting for the window hint for both the toolbox and the docks.
- Support arbitrary affine transforms of brushes.
- Got rid of the Tools dockable and move toolbox configuration to Preferences.
- It is now possible to change the language in Preferences.
- Added ‘Lock content’ button to the layers, channels and paths dialogs, made the lock buttons more compact.
- Allow renaming list items with F2.
- Allow binding arbitrary actions to extra mouse buttons.
- The brush dynamics engine has been expanded considerably, making brushes rotatable and almost all aspects of the brush engine drivable by a multitude of inputs, all of them configurable with their own response curve.
If you’re intrigued by the GIMP, and would like some help climbing the user learning curve and to learn how to get the best out of this powerful application, check out my review of Olivier Lecarme and Karine Delvare’s The Book of GIMP from No Starch Press. Subtitled “A Complete Guide To Nearly Everything,” the GIMP book is packed with 679 pages of tutorial and reference information for GIMP users.
It’s not an inexpensive volume—list-priced at $50.00—but that amount represents just one month’s Adobe Creative Cloud subscription fee and gives you a book that’s yours to keep forever that will facilitate getting the most out of what is a very powerful graphics program, albeit one that has a reputation for being challenging to master.
You can download the GIMP for free.
And finally, if the GIMP sounds good but you would prefer a less demanding user experience, you can get GIMP technology in another Open Source image editor application called Seashore built for Mac OS X’s Cocoa framework. Seashore features gradients, textures and anti-aliasing for both text and brush strokes, and supports multiple layers and alpha channel editing. It is based around the GIMP’s technology and uses the same native file format.
However, unlike the GIMP, Seashore aims to serve the basic image editing needs of most computer users, not to provide a replacement for professional image editing products, and Seashore has a new Cocoa UI that will fit right in on OS X. It even supports OS X 10.4 Tiger on my old Pismo PowerBooks.
For more information on Seashore, visit Sourceforge.net.