On Computers

How to Get Started in Graphics Manipulation

Jack Imsdahl, a.k.a; daWabbit, jack@oncomputers.info

Written 10 December 2002, Aired 05 January 2003

The editing and manipulation of images is one of the most useful things you can do with your PC. It's also very enjoyable and rewarding.

A fair number of folks I've spoken with are sufficiently put off by the costs of high-end graphics manipulation software to be afraid to give graphics a whirl. So, being a freeware junkie, I thought I'd share with you ways to get into decent and decently performing graphics software without laying out any serious amount of money, or none at all!. Of course, once someone really gets into graphics work of any real substance, they want and need programs like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro. But until then, you can do just fine by following the tips below.

Very often, when buying a digital camera, scanner or some other imaging device, one is given software for image manipulation with it. Generally, I have been less than satisfied with these various programs, though it must be said I have by no means seen and tested them all. My experience is that many of these have been problematic at best and always slow to load and perform. Generally, they are hobbled versions of larger proprietary programs intended to sell you the full version and, to be frank, my experiences tell me you can do better in almost every case.

(A few words about scanning images into your system for manipulation. I have found most graphics programs are capable of accepting images directly from most scanners. However, this has proven slow and cumbersome for me. As an alternative, I've created a folder (shared by our entire network, if you're interested in such a detail) into which we put ALL scanned images using the scanning software that came with the scanner, as well as images downloaded from our camera. This has proven fastest and, as long as we remember to change the image name straight away we start working with it, we avoid having to repeat scans because the original lies there as a backup.)

Microsoft Paint

Paint already comes with Windows. It's up there under Start/Programs/Accessories, if you haven't already found it.

Lots of folks disparage Paint. While it's true Paint isn't the most powerful imaging program around and it doesn't deal with very many image formats or at extremely high resolutions, it is as good as any of the smaller freeware editors. It also has the advantage of running stably and trouble-free.

You can actually do quite a bit in Paint. The help files are genuinely helpful and instructive (a relative rarity, that) meaning you can use them to learn how to get the effects you want. Cropping images, adding text, etc. are sometimes even best done in Paint. Lots of times, though I'll have Image forge and Photoshop open as I work, I'll drop into Paint to perform some small chore that's within it's capabilities. Paint has a rather small “footprint” in your computer's memory, so you can open it and execute a task without taxing a system that may already be performing near it's limits.

There used to be a help site called “Service911.com” that had a really decent and comprehensive tutorial on how to begin using Paint and get the best performance out of it. As with so many others, that site is long gone and I'm unaware of any good tutorials specifically geared toward getting the most out of Paint, though there may be some out there for you to find. Still, if you open Paint and simply start messing around, you'll find all it's features rapidly and easily enough. 

Image Forge

Cursor Arts Company publishes Image Forge in several versions. The most basic is given away as freeware. You can download it at http://www.cursorarts.com . You'll have to look about a bit for it, as the focus of the site is (not surprisingly) to sell the “higher” versions. Be persistent and you'll find it. The download is not particularly large and the installation is trouble-free on every Windows machine I've tried it on (perhaps a hundred and maybe a few more than that).

We have Image Forge on every computer running Windows that we own. It's that handy. On this box, I have Image Forge Pro, which costs something like $35 (I forget the exact sum) and on the other Windows computers (since we purchased only one license for the Pro version) we have the freeware version. The freeware version of Image Forge is not seriously hobbled in any way and will continue to run forever, even if you never choose to upgrade it with a paid version. (They don't nag you with ads, either, which is unusually nice and tasteful of them.) True, it lacks some of the special effects available in the higher versions, but it is a much more comprehensive image editor than Paint. It handles more image formats than Paint, too. While the free version of Image Forge is not able to deal with the exceptionally high resolutions some graphics work demands, it is quite a decent program. This is the editor we use the most in our business and our personal work. Image Forge also is rather efficient in it's use of system resources and is a good choice for someone running Windows 9x and not possessing much memory or disk space. Here, we do a lot of the “quick and dirty” graphics work in it. It opens rapidly and is exceptionally stable in operation.

The freeware version of Image Forge is likely to be all the editor many users will ever need. Certainly, Otter and I got along using only it for several years. It does have the drawback of not being able to work with a few popular and useful graphics formats, such as .tif and .png, but this can be gotten around easily enough by using other formats.

The G.I.M.P. for Windows

If you've read about Linux, you've likely read about “The GIMP”. (It stands for ‘Graphics Image Manipulation Program' in the curiously humorous naming style of Linux and Open Source developers.) What a lot of folks don't know is that this program is available in a Windows port, too. The GIMP is Open Source/Free Software, meaning you can not only download and use it for free, but you can have access to the source code and hack on that to change it in any way you wish, should you be so inclined, as long as you return any changes you've made to the general code base. You can read about the software license(s) involved here, at the Free Software Foundation; http://www.gnu.org and find the actual program here; http://www.gimp.org/~tml/gimp/win32/

The GIMP is an exceptionally full-featured graphics manipulation program. It takes up a fair amount of space on your hard drive and requires a bit more of the user to install because certain extra libraries must also be installed. However, anyone willing to read the directions can perform the installation flawlessly and without spending the entire evening doing it, so don't be put off. Just be aware that this is a bit more than “click and go” software. You're going to have to read a bit to get it installed properly. In addition, the GIMP has licensing issues regarding .gif images because the company holding the intellectual property rights to this format has not released it to the Open Source community. These issues are detailed on the pages at the url listed above, as are workarounds.

The GIMP requires a bit more of a computer to run on than some of you may possess. It will not run at a resolution less than 1024x768, so if your monitor or graphics adapter cannot manage this, the GIMP is not for you. I also recommend a minimum of 16 MB memory on the video card, with 32 MB being better yet. This is also one of those programs where the more RAM installed on your computer, the better. High-end graphics require more computer, regardless of the software used, though this varies from program to program.

While GIMP is a very competent program, the GIMP web site makes no bones about it not being a “Photoshop killer”. It is a work in progress. Make no mistake about that. It may cause you problems or it may run just fine. In my experience, it has caused very few problems, but it is not quite ready for prime time and you need to be aware of that.

There are a wide variety of plug-ins and special function add-ons for the GIMP, though by no means as many as for, say, Photoshop. However, if you can use it, the GIMP provides a good, free, introduction into really capable, higher-end graphics manipulation. 


There are tons of smaller freeware graphics manipulation programs out there. I use several on a daily basis, such as “Easy Thumbnails v2.53”, available at http://www.fookes.com/

A tour of the freeware section at WebAttack.com; http://www.webattack.com/ will reveal a lot of smaller, more specialized tools for this sort of work-all available at no cost. Things like batch format converters and such are really handy to have and are available there. In all likelihood, you won't use them too much, but when you need them, they're indispensable and save much labor.

Once you've really gotten into graphics, you may decide you need to go shell out the price of one of the really major graphics programs. I did, eventually acquiring several. But you may never have to, if you give the above ideas a shot. There's no way to tell until you try.

At least by that time you will know more about what you need, what you will use and what to look for in the programs you buy. Remember; it's not about getting things for free so much as it is about getting what you need without paying too much for something you may not use fully.


Jack, daWabbit

Post script: 7-Jan-03

During the Show, last Sunday, in the chat room, an embarrassingly large number of folks asked me why I had not mentioned the IrfanView32 graphics program. I even got a couple e-mails about it. So, I thought I owed you all an explanation.

The easy explanation is, quite simply, that the application would not run here when I tried it (years ago) and since I had a decent set of tools working for me, I hadn't given any thought to it since.

A bit of asking around, a visit to the IrfanView32 web site located at; http://www.irfanview.com/english.htm and I have found this application has an excellent reputation. It's popular, apparently trouble-free and reliable. People new to graphics work of any sort gave it especially high marks.

I'm preparing to install the program now. No, I won't be reviewing it here. But I've obviously missed a trick on this account and I wish to see if this application will be of use to us. From all I've heard, you would do well to check it out, also.

Thanks for the tip!


© 2002 - 2004 by Jack Imsdahl

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