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A Review of 'The Book of GIMP'

I run Linux and of course I use GIMP. But mostly I've used GIMP for resizing images for the web, which I've come to realize is somewhat akin to shooting flies with a canon. So when I was approached about writing a review of 'The Book of GIMP: A Complete Guide to Nearly Everything', I agreed, thinking I might learn a thing or two. Turns out there is a whole lot about GIMP that I didn't know, that I really needed to know to get the most out of using GIMP. If you don't know GIMP as well as you'd like to, read 'The Book of GIMP'.

Written February 2013. Updated March 2015.

After switching from Windows to Linux, it was a pleasant surprise to realize that most of the free and open source alternatives to the proprietary image editing programs that I had previously used were not merely "as good as" but actually better than what I had used "before Linux".

The one critical component missing from my open source digital darkroom has been the ability to do high bit depth image processing with masks and layers (Cinepaint never worked out for me as a general editing tool). So I was thrilled (understatement) to learn that GIMP 2.9 from git supports 16-bit integer and 32-bit floating point image processing and is also easy to build on Linux.

Despite using GIMP for years for simple tasks like resizing images for the web, I've never been comfortable with GIMP's interface, and I've never used any of GIMP's advanced image editing capabilities. So when Jessica from No Starch Press approached me about writing a review of 'The Book of GIMP: A Complete Guide to Nearly Everything', I said yes, hoping to learn more about using GIMP.

'The Book of GIMP' is huge

My original simple-minded plan was to read 'The Book of GIMP: A Complete Guide to Nearly Everything' from cover to cover and then write a book review. However, 'The Book of GIMP' is huge, 656 pages huge. If I wait until I finish reading the entire book before writing a review, by then the second edition will be out. So I decided to write an "as I read it" review.

First a note or two about the actual book. I'm old-fashioned enough that I like real books that you can hold in your hands, with paper pages to turn. But I don't like cheaply-made stinky books (you know what I mean). The Book of GIMP is not cheaply made. It has decent quality paper, very readable text, and the illustrations are in color and nicely printed. It's quite pleasant to handle, albeit surprisingly heavy even given its 656 pages.

I checked out the index at the back of 'The Book of GIMP' and it's considerably more complete than I expected it would be. Qua book, the only complaint that I would make is that the headings and subheadings could be a font-size or two more distinct from one another. As it is, I find myself reading right past a change in topic without realizing what happened until the content itself makes me take a second look.

PDF or Paper

Despite having a preference for reading real books as opposed to their digital counterparts, I try to not purchase real books to have around the house (that's what libraries are for), preferring electronic books because they take up a lot less shelf space (small joke) and don't need dusting. Sometimes I make an exception and I think the Book of GIMP might be one of those exceptions. The PDF version is available for a lower price that the paper book (and if you buy the paper book, you also get the PDF). But I only use one monitor, and even at 21" across the diagonal, my display screen is not big enough to use GIMP and read a PDF at the same time. The 'Book of GIMP' is meant to be read while simultaneously using GIMP to practice what you read about, as you read it. So having the paper book open to one side of my workspace is a lot more convenient than trying to read the PDF while working with GIMP. If I had a dual monitor set-up (or a really big single monitor), I'd probably opt for just the PDF.

Chapter 1 was a real eye-opener

To be honest, I never much liked the GIMP interface until I read Chapter 1 of 'The Book of GIMP'. Having learned the basics of navigating my way around the GIMP windows, dockers, flyouts, and dialogs, now I find the GIMP interface to be comfortable, convenient, and intuitive.

So what did I learn from Chapter 1 that made me completely change my mind about the GIMP interface, from "this is not at all intuitive" to "this is convenient and incredibly well thought out"? Well, here goes, and any GIMP experts out there, please don't laugh too hard at my previous state of ignorance:

  1. I didn't know you could customize the toolbox. To the right is a screenshot of my newly customized toolbox. I'm still working on getting it perfect, but what I have now is working pretty well. Everything — all the tools and all the dockers that I actually use — are in one box that I put to the left side of my screen, leaving a big empty space to the right for the image window.
  2. I never noticed the little "flyout" arrows, and so of course I didn't know that some of those arrows provide options for customizing the dockers.
  3. I use the histogram constantly while image editing and I didn't know the histogram can be a docker — much more convenient than opening it from the image menu and then closing it again to get it out of the way.
  4. I didn't know you could open an image by dragging and dropping it from a file manager to the GIMP toolbox. I did some experimenting and found that the same process works when dragging an image from digiKam to the toolbox and from Geeqie to the toolbox. It also works when you want to open an image with Geeqie, Cinepaint, Photivo, and Darktable — just drag from one application to the next. If you've never taken advantage of this drag and drop functionality, you can't appreciate how convenient it is.
  5. I was vaguely aware that GIMP provides keyboard shortcuts, but I'd never bothered to learn or use any of them except cntl-S (save an image, which works in just about every Linux application). I've already incorporated cntl-O (open an image), cntl-J (shrink-wrap an image), cntl-E (export an image), and F11 (go to full screen with an image) into my workflow, and I'm confident there are other shortcuts that will also prove useful.
  6. I didn't know there was a docker for showing RGB values at four different points on the image. This is a functionality that no image editor should be without, as it allows you to color-balance an image using levels and it also allows you to change the overall image contrast while keeping any given spot on the image at its existing value. (I was intending to request that this functionality be added to GIMP, not knowing it was already in place.)
  7. There are several different methods for zooming in and out on an image in GIMP, and the only ones I knew about were the dropdown menus. But you can hover your mouse inside the status bar dropdown menu and scroll to resize — quick, convenient, easy, intuitive.
  8. I did not realize that GIMP is set up so you can access everything from everywhere, including closing the menu bar at the top of the image and right-clicking on the image itself to access the image menus.
  9. I knew you could use a tablet with GIMP, and I purchased a tablet not too long ago, but found it awkward and rarely used it. Chapter 1 of 'The Book of GIMP' explains the basics of using a tablet and I decided it was time to start using mine. After a bit of practice, I got the hang of it and really like it.
  10. The GIMP slider interface for resizing brushes was driving me nuts ("that's not a drive, it's a short putt", says my husband). It's pretty obvious that the sliders work in two different modes: an upward-pointing arrow for making large changes and a sideways-pointing arrow for small changes. But despite a fair amount of jabbing at the sliders I never figured out how to reliably get the mode that I wanted. The answer is simple: Put the mouse in the top half of the slider for making large changes with the upward-pointing arrow. Put the mouse in the bottom half of the slider for making small changes with the sideways-pointing arrow. It works really well.

Hard to believe, but the first chapter of 'The Book of GIMP' covers a lot more than what I listed above. It's a complete crash course in using GIMP.

Who should read 'The Book of GIMP'?

According to the introduction, 'The Book of GIMP' was written by two individuals, both of whom are intimately familiar with how GIMP works and one of whom teaches classes in how to use GIMP. There are two quite different areas of expertise being presented in the book: how to perform various editing tasks and how to use GIMP to perform these editing tasks. The two topics are conceptually separate but impossible to separate in practice. So on the one hand, those of you who've been using GIMP to its full potential over the years might not learn much from 'The Book of GIMP'. On the other hand, if you are a beginner in the digital darkroom, or if you have years of experience in the digital darkroom using some other image editor but you are not experienced at using GIMP, then based on the first couple of chapters I'd say 'The Book of GIMP' is an excellent resource.

I can't say that reading 'The Book of GIMP' has been fun in any ordinary sense of the word. In the first chapter the authors cover a lot of ground very quickly, and in places there are somewhat abrupt changes in topic. More to the point, mastering basic skills, and/or mastering how to accomplish basic tasks with a new image editor, means W.O.R.K. I ended up reading the first chapter three times through, each time working on acquiring a new set of skills (setting up the workspace, practicing keyboard shortcuts, using a tablet, etc). It was well worth the effort.

'The Book of GIMP' and GIMP 2.9 from git

'The Book of GIMP' is written for GIMP 2.8. The authors intended to wait until GIMP 3.0 (2.10?) was released, but that has taken longer than expected (and will be well worth the wait, in my humble opinion). Everything I've read so far also applies to GIMP 2.9 from git.

As I was still missing that one critical tool from my open source digital darkroom — 16-bit image editing with masks and layers — from my point of view the timing of the release of 'The Book of GIMP' couldn't be better. On the one hand, GIMP from git is perfectly useable right now for high bit depth image processing with masks and layers, as long as you keep in mind that it is a development branch and not everything has been ported over to use high bit depth processing. On the other hand, I've used GIMP for years without figuring out on my own that the GIMP interface is customizable, comfortable and convenient, and on that basis alone I'd recommend 'The Book of GIMP'.

As the point of reading any book about any image editing program is the making of finished pictures, here is my very first photograph processed (for real, rather than for testing) using GIMP 2.9 from git. Armed with my new-found understanding of the GIMP interface, editing this picture using GIMP 2.9's high bit depth image processing was quite enjoyable:

Rapidly departing storm clouds. Camera raw file interpolated with dcraw-DCB, then processed at 32-bit floating point with masks and layers using GIMP 2.9 from git.

Addendum: I continue to peruse 'The Book of GIMP' from time to time, but not in a fashion that lends itself to adding to this review. Part of the problem is that 'The Book of GIMP' has two somewhat conflicting goals: Show people who are new to image editing how to use GIMP, and show people who are experienced at image editing but new to GIMP how to use GIMP. Either way, there's a lot to show, much of which won't be of interest to most GIMP users, most of the time (nobody uses GIMP to do everything that can be done using GIMP).

So after making my way through the first couple of chapters, mostly I find myself using 'The Book of GIMP' as a reference book, for when I can't find something that I'm sure must be in GIMP somewhere. However, the paper book isn't all that convenient for searching. I would greatly prefer an HTML or similar format that allowed searching for several words and phrases at once (for example, "selection" and "alpha channel", when the question is "how do I save a selection as an alpha channel?").

It should be noted that my "complaint" about size and searchability would apply to any book with comprehensive coverage of what can be done using GIMP. Perhaps an electronic version of the 'The Book of GIMP' make text searching easier, so I guess I should install some appropriate software and find out (yes, I'm behind the times when it comes to reading e-books).

I did find something in 'The Book of GIMP' that I wish had been written a bit different: GIMP's 'Grain extract' and 'Grain merge' layer blend modes are useful for a wide variety of editing tasks that can't be accomplished otherwise (they aren't just about adding grain to an image), and 'The Book of GIMP' doesn't really do justice to these two blend modes. Neither will I, but if you search the internet you'll find a whole lot of tutorials on using the 'Grain extract' and 'Grain merge' layer blend modes. Please note that this is one tiny complaint about a book that provides excellent coverage of just about anything and everything you can do using GIMP.