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122. Free picture editing tools

By Andrew D. Wright

It's after the holidays, time to take a good look at all the snaps on your camera's memory card. Hmm, the lighting on that one's a bit dim, and all the red eyes in the family group photo make it look like someone disturbed a troop of raccoons having a midnight feed.

It would be nice to have a good graphics editing program but they can run into hundreds of dollars. Well, there are a couple of very good ones that are free to download, no strings attached. Tutorials showing how to use both programs are available online.

Paint.NET runs on Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and Windows Vista and requires Microsoft's .NET 2.0 framework, a free download available on Microsoft's website. It features all the usual graphics editing tools as well as a very effective array of filters for doing everything from making photos look like oil paintings or pencil sketches to advanced lighting effects.

GIMP has been the default graphics editing program on Linux computers for years. Windows and Macintosh OS X versions are also available.

GIMP, which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, uses different open windows for each function. There is a plugin called GIMPShop that integrates all the separate windows into one, similar to the way other graphics programs are organized. The Help files for GIMP are a separate download as well and are worth getting.

Number one on the to-do list when editing graphics is to make sure you have a master copy of the original tucked safely out of the way. Whenever you edit a graphic, edit a copy, never the original.

The Undo feature on a graphics editing program is your friend. It lets you try out different things to see what they look like without penalty. Only save a copy of the picture when you have changes you like.

Both of these graphics editing programs let you work with layers. Think of layers like plates of glass stacked up over your picture. You can not only work on one layer without changing the others, you can also do things like make layers partially transparent or almost invisible to add subtle effects to a graphic.

Add a raster layer when working with photos or pictures and make a vector layer when adding words to a picture. Vector graphics are good when dealing with simple shapes like letters or blocks of color like a product logo since they can be resized without distortion.

There are different formats for graphics. If you are working on a photo, the standard format is a .JPG file. This is a lossy compression format, which means the picture can be saved at a much smaller file size, but some picture detail will be lost. Typically using 10 per cent compression will give a copy close in appearance to the original.

Drawings and logos are often saved as .GIF files. The .GIF format only saves 256 different colors so is not suited to the amount of detail needed for a photograph, but is fine for simpler images.

Also in wide usage is the .PNG picture format. This allows saving full color information and uses a more efficient compression scheme than .GIF files do. Many websites use .PNG graphics where .GIF was used before and all modern web browsers support the format.

None of these formats saves layer information - all of them flatten the image down to one single layer. Each graphics program has its own file format that saves all the layer information for when you're working on a larger graphics project. GIMP has its .XCF format, Paint.NET uses a .PDN format. GIMP can also save to the widely supported .PSD Adobe PhotoShop format.


Paint.NET (free):


.NET 2.0 [Required for Paint.NET] (free):


GIMP (free):


GIMPShop plugin (free):


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Originally published 28 December 2007


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