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Photoshop Alternative: The GIMP

By now, everyone knows that Adobe Photoshop is the best tool for image manipulation and photo retouching, but it is good to periodically look at some of the alternatives. This month, I look at one such alternative, the Open Source program called The GIMP.

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. Since it is an Open Source program, it is constantly being updated by a variety of programmers and developers. It is available as a free download from The GIMP runs on UNIX, Linux, and a version is available for Windows. Some enterprising people have gotten it working on MacOS X, and an official MacOS X version is forthcoming. The one I used for this article is version 1.2 for Windows running in Windows 98.

The GIMP has a full set of image tools including Paint Brush, Rubber Stamp, Air Brush, Pencil, Bezier Curves, Dodge & Burn, Sharpen & Blur, Text and Gradients (Fig 1). There are a wide assortment of predefined brushes, many simulating natural media, and some that are just plain goofy (Fig 2). The GIMP has robust support for layers with most of the various compositing modes from Photoshop and some new ones like Addition and Subtraction (Fig 3). It does lack some of Photoshop’s higher-end tools like Layer Masks and Layer Effects. Almost all of the items that Photoshop has in its menus are accessed in The GIMP by right-clicking on the image to bring up a copious cascading menu (Fig 4). This is how you find the filters, selection tools and image modes.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Like Photoshop, The GIMP is expandable with plugins, over one hundred are already available. The plugins are smaller programs that run within The GIMP to accomplish a specific task. Plugins can render clouds or a page curl effect, blur and image or distort it like it is being seen through glass. The program is fully scriptable, allowing unattended batch processing of images.

The GIMP supports a wide variety of file formats and is useful has a file conversion utility. The GIMP’s native file format is XCF, which allows the saving of layers in the image. It will even open Photoshop’s PSD files, preserving the layer information. It can also be used to make animated GIFs. The program sports high quality anti-aliasing and full alpha channel support.

The interface of The GIMP is not as refined as Photoshop’s or most commercial image editors, but it is very usable. Tips pop up when your cursor lingers over a tool, and there is a complete Help system. The program even greets you with a “Tip of the Day” whenever you launch it (Fig 5).

Fig. 5

The GIMP for Windows is still very much a work in progress and is not as stable as the Linux version. The program may not be completely reliable when run in Windows, but it is an intriguing look into where Open Source software can take us. Long just the province of hardcore geek tools, the Open Source movement has finally delivered a program with more mass appeal.

All in all, The GIMP is a great, free competitor to Adobe’s flagship Photoshop. It’s not completely there for Windows or Mac users, but if you are running Linux, The GIMP is a great choice.

Paul Vaughn is a freelance graphic artist, writer and web designer. Mr. Vaughn like free software, it’s great to see people contributing to the betterment of our community. Color versions of the examples can be seen at Email Paul Vaughn at

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