Farewell Photoshop... Hello GIMP
Why I’ll never use Adobe’s premium photo software again (and what to use instead)
For a number of years, like many other people I used Adobe’s Photoshop. This is excellent imaging software that has improved with each release, adding ever more features along the way. Unfortunately features haven’t been the only thing to increase, so too has the price.
What if I told you there’s a fantastic alternative available, and it won’t cost you a single penny. That software is called GIMP. This unusual acronym stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program (GNU is a collection of free software).
Step by step
In this article I’m going demonstrate just a few of the many tools available. The aim is to give you a good starting point from which you can further build your knowledge. I find the easiest way to learn is through practice. So let’s do precisely that. We’ll keep things simple using step by step guidelines that are easy to follow.
At the end of this short tutorial you’ll be able to import photos into GIMP and superimpose parts of them on top of each other. This should provide you with a spring board into how image manipulation works, allowing you to then dive off into more advanced areas.
Along the way, you’ll learn useful tools such as Scale Image (to change the size of your pictures), Fuzzy Select (interesting name, but a very useful tool for quickly selecting parts of your image that share the same colour), the Move Tool (for positioning images exactly where you want them), and more…
So without further ado, let’s manipulate those images.
Download the software
First, assuming you haven’t got it already, go to GIMPs website to get the software. You can find it here.
On GIMP’s website, you probably want to choose the option to download the software directly (unless you’re a fan of BitTorent). Once downloaded, install the program on to your computer and open it up.
It’s not as hard as it looks, honest
At first glance things may appear a little daunting, especially if you haven’t used any kind of image editing software before. But, fear not, just follow along and you’ll soon start to find your way around.
Let’s go grab our first photo. To help you follow along, you can download both of the images we’re going to be using by clicking on the following links (or feel free to use your own).
To open a photo in GIMP, click “File” at the top left of the screen and select “Open” from the drop down menu. Navigate to wherever you just saved the “Background” image above. Select it and click “Open”.
Don’t forget to save your work!
Helpful hint. It’s good practice to get in the habit of regularly saving your work. So let’s start right now. Click “File”, then “Save As…” Give your image a name. Let’s go with “Stunning Photography” and click “Save”, as shown below.
It’s all a question of scale
The photo is slightly larger than we want, so we need to resize it. Click “Image” on the top menu bar and select “Scale Image”. In the window that opens, change the width to 1920 pixels (px). Leave everything else as is and click “Scale” (like in the screenshot below).
Quick tip. I’ve chosen 1920 pixels (for the photo width) as this is the width of a Full HD image. This is a particularly handy size if you’re going to use your images in any video editing software.
Helpful hint. Resizing an image is one of the most simple, but also one of the most useful, things you can do in image editing software. Often, when you take a photograph on any current camera (or even a mobile phone, come to that), the image will be enormous. This is due to the high resolution today’s technology is capable of capturing images, which is great if you want to blow up your photo to the size of a poster, but complete overkill for most other purposes. The “Scale Image” tool in GIMP allows you to easily reduce the size of your photos. As an added bonus, the file size will be much smaller too.
Quick tip. A peek at the top bar in GIMP will reveal the size of the image you’re working with in pixels.
Okay, now let’s add our second image. Again click “File” and “Open”. This time locate the “Person” photo you saved earlier and click “Open”.
You’ll notice the image has opened in a new tab within GIMP (Our background photo remains in the background in the first tab. You can easily switch between them by clicking the appropriate tab). We’re going to remove the white background from our person photo and make it transparent. This will allow us to add just the person (and no visible background) to our background image.
Note. If you ever want to remove the background from a photo it really helps if that background is a single colour. It’s no coincidence Hollywood has been using green screen for years (filming actors in front of a green-coloured screen so that later they can easily remove the green background and superimpose the characters into the movie).
Build those layers
Before we remove our image’s background, it helps to understand a little about layers. Most imaging software builds up the final image through use of layers. Without getting bogged down in too much detail, think of them like sheets of acetate placed on top of one another. You can see through any parts that are transparent to the layer below. As you will see shortly, this allows us to manipulate images in all sorts of interesting ways.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s make our first change to a layer. If you look in the right hand column, you will see the Layers panel (pictured in the following screenshot). Make sure this tab is selected by clicking on it.
You will see we have a layer called “person.jpg”. If there was more than one, you would click on the layer you want to edit to select it (this is known as the active layer). As we only have a single layer in our image, it will already be selected (as shown in the image below). Right-click on “person.jpg” and select “Add Alpha Channel” from the menu that pops up. By doing this we have added transparency to the layer, which will enable us to make its background disappear momentarily.
The top left panel in GIMP contains our tools. We are going to click the “Fuzzy Select Tool” (see below).
With this selected, single click on the photo’s white background to select it. You’ll know it’s selected by the moving dotted line that appears around the person.
Quick tip. These little black lines are more commonly known as marching ants! (shown in the following image).
You may notice the small area of white between the person’s legs has not been selected. This is because its not joined to the rest of the white background. We need to select this too, so hold down the “Shift” key on your keyboard and single click on this area as well. The ants should now be happily marching around the background’s entire perimeter!
Quick tip. You can also use the “Rectangle Select Tool”, “Ellipse Select Tool” and “Free Select Tool” to select areas of the active layer in an image, though this is a more manual process.
Let’s be completely transparent
Finally the time has come. Now we get to make things magically disappear. All that’s needed is to simply press the “Delete” key on your keyboard, and, hey presto, the background is no longer visible. GIMP shows transparency as a grey chequered grid, like in the screenshot below.
Quick tip. If you ever make a selection and when you press the delete key nothing seems to happen (or the background changes to another colour), make sure you have added the alpha channel to your layer. Transparency will NOT work without it.
Time for some special effects
Its time to superimpose the person on to our background. Click and hold on the person thumbnail tab at the top of the screen.
Then drag this on to the background thumbnail tab (as shown in the image on the left) and hover the cursor there until GIMP displays the full background image.
IMPORTANT. Do NOT let go of your mouse just yet. Continue to drag the person thumbnail on to the background image itself (demonstrated in the screenshot below).
It’s okay to let go now. You’ve probably ended up with the person floating oddly in mid-air. Not to worry, let’s fix that. To do this, select the “Move Tool” from the tools panel, as shown below.
Look back in the layers panel. You will see our background image now contains two layers, as we have a new one called “Dropped Buffer” (pictured in the following image).
This isn’t very helpful, so lets give it the more meaningful description “person”.
To do so, simply double-click on the text and type the new word, then press “Enter” on your keyboard, as shown to the right.
Finally, click on the background layer to view how your picture looks.
Save and save again
Hopefully you’ve been saving your work all along (just in case – we are dealing with computers, after all!) If not, time to save it now. By default, GIMP saves in its native xcf file type. This is great for ongoing projects where you need to come back and work on them some more, as, besides the image itself, it stores lots of other information about your work; things such as layers you’ve created and effects you’ve applied. Not be a big deal in a simple two layer picture like the one we’ve put together here, but imagine you’ve spent countless hours constructing something complex. You wouldn’t want to lose all that data and be left with just the image.
Yet, for the purpose of sharing your finished work, an xcf file is definitely not what we want. To share our photo with the world we want a more common file type. GIMP can save images in lots of different formats, but probably the most widely used is JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group), which is what most mobile phones use to save your photos in the first place.
So, if you’re happy with the results of your work, to save your finished image as a jpeg, click “File”, then select “Export As…” (pictured below).
Choose the folder you would like to save your image in and give your picture a name, such as “Stunning Photography” in the example above. Now expand the “Select File Type (By Extension)” by clicking the little + sign next to it (also shown above) and selecting “JPEG image”, then click “Export”.
A little compression goes a long way
Because we’re saving our image as a jpeg, we now have the option to set the compression (how small the size of the file will be). By default, GIMP will save your photo at 100% (the best quality), but you can adjust the slider (displayed in the following image) to whatever you like.
Quick tip. The lower the number on the “Quality” slider, the smaller the image file size, but remember the image will not look as good. As a rule of thumb, you can usually lower the quality to around 80% before you start to notice any significant difference in the appearance of your image – feel free to experiment.
To save your jpeg, click “Export”.
Helpful hint. At the end of each session, save your work as a GIMP xcf file, then, when you’ve finished the entire picture, save it as a jpeg as well. It’s always a good idea to keep your xcf file in case you ever want to return to your project and make any changes later on.
And here’s the final image.
Pat yourself on the back for a job well done
That’s it for our little tutorial. You’ve now taken your first steps into the fun-filled world of image manipulation. I hope this has whet your appetite and you’re keen to take things further. To discover more cool things you can do in GIMP, check out the video below.
One last helpful hint. You can alter the layout in GIMP to suit your preference. Panels can be detached and re-ordered to aid your own work flow. Note. If at any stage you change the interface and get in a pickle, you can set it back to the default layout as follows.
Click the “Edit” menu → “Preferences” → “Window Management” → and click the button for “Reset Saved Window Positions to Default Values”. Click “OK” to close the Preferences dialog and restart GIMP. Everything should be back to normal.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is GIMP safe to download and install?
Yes, definitely. GIMP is Open Source Software. In a nutshell, this means the source code (the lines of code that make up the program itself) is freely available for developers (and anyone who is interested) to view. You could argue that it’s actually safer than commercial software that you buy, as only the company who sells the proprietary software can see the code, and – while it should be safe enough, especially when purchased through a reputable supplier – it could potentially be doing anything behind the scenes.
Can I open Photoshop files in GIMP?
Yes and No. GIMP can open and export to PSD (PhotoShop Document) files, but it isn’t fully compatible with them. Some files will open, while GIMP may need to convert others to be able to open them (in which case, they might not open in Photoshop afterwards), but some files may not open at all. You can read more about it here.
Can I use GIMP on Windows, Mac and Linux?
Yes, GIMP is cross-platform and available for all of these operating systems.
Where can I find more GIMP tutorials?
The official GIMP website offers a range of tutorials. Continue your journey here.
There is also a very good YouTube channel that covers a whole host of GIMP’s features (though many of the tutorials are advanced). Check it out here.