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GIMP Tutorial: Simple Photo Editing for the Complete Idiot

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Learn how to do some basic photo editing using the GIMP software with this guide for beginners.

Learn how to do some basic photo editing using the GIMP software with this guide for beginners.

GIMP Is a Free, Open-Source, and Powerful Photo Editing Program

Perhaps you've heard what a great, free photo editing program GIMP is. If you haven't, let me clue you in. GIMP's toolbox rivals Photoshop's, and it is truly quite similar in function. If you want to move beyond that cheesy software that came with your camera, but you're not ready to spend the money for Photoshop, GIMP is a good next step.

Use This Guide to Get Started With GIMP

If you've taken the plunge and downloaded and installed the software on your system, and you have absolutely no idea what to do with it now, you've come to the right place. We're going to take it slow and easy and start at the beginning.

  1. Opening Your Photo
  2. Cropping: Simple Crop
  3. Cropping: Crop Tool
  4. Making Color Corrections and Light Adjustments
  5. Using Unsharp Mask to Brighten Your Photo
  6. Choosing a File Format

For this tutorial, I'm using GIMP 2.6. That's important, because the menus change with each new version and features are added removed or modified.

Tip: Always Save a Copy of Your Photos First

Before you start, it's a good idea to make a copy of your photos, just in case something goes horribly wrong. If you have several photos you want to edit, the easiest way is to put them in a folder together, then make a copy of that folder. Make sure to name it something easily distinguishable from the original folder.

Choose "Edit with Gimp" to open your photo.

Choose "Edit with Gimp" to open your photo.

1. Opening Your Photo

Now, just open your working folder and right-click on the photo you want to edit. On the menu that pops up, select "Edit with Gimp," and your photo opens. I've noticed that, if I have another window open on my desktop, sometimes GIMP will open behind that window, so if you don't see your photo pop up, try minimizing any other windows you have open.

2. Cropping: Simple Crop

If you want to crop your photo, you can do a simple crop by clicking on the rectangle tool at the top, left of the toolbox, then dragging to draw a rectangle around the area you want to keep. If you want the cropped image to be a perfect square, you can hold down the shift key while dragging. Once the selection is made, go to "Image > Crop to Selection."

3. Cropping: Crop Tool

If you need to have more control over what size your cropped photo is, you can use the cropping tool. That's the tool that looks like an X-acto knife. If you click it, you get some boxes at the bottom of the toolbox you can fill in to choose how you want to crop; leave those as they are for now.

Drag to draw the rectangle for your crop, just as you did before. Then go to the bottom of the toolbox. To crop by size, just type in the measurements you want your finished photo to be.

Type in the measurements you want for your finished photo.

Type in the measurements you want for your finished photo.

The default measurement unit is in pixels, so if you want inches or some other unit of measure, be sure to change it. After you put numbers in the boxes, it may change the aspect ratio of the box (change the width or height).

On this photo of Booker T and the Drive-By Truckers, I wanted to get rid of everything else and just have a portrait of Booker T. Jones.

On this photo of Booker T and the Drive-By Truckers, I wanted to get rid of everything else and just have a portrait of Booker T. Jones.

You can make adjustments to the numbers or move the box around if you need to. When you have the box where you want it, then hit enter and your rectangle will change to the designated size. When you have the rectangle positioned the way you want it, click inside of it and your photo will be cropped.

This is the cropped photo of Booker T. Jones.

This is the cropped photo of Booker T. Jones.

4. Making Color Corrections and Light Adjustments

In the menu at the top of the new window, look at the options under "Colors." I like to start with "Curves." So, select "Curves," and you'll see a diagonal line on a graph. If you use your mouse to pull on the end of the line at the bottom, left of the graph, it will adjust the darkness of the darkest part of your photo, making it darker or lighter. The top, right end of the line has a similar effect on the lightest part of the picture.

You can pull the center of the line up or down, creating a curve, to adjust the mid-tones. Make sure that the preview box is checked so you can see how you are changing your photo while you work.

Try the other options under "Colors," like "Color Balance" and "Brightness-Contrast." Do some experimenting with those tools to see what they do. Each time you get some changes made that you're sure you want to keep, save your photo; that way, if you mess up, you can always go back to that last saved version.

Adjust the mid-tones by pulling the line up or down.

Adjust the mid-tones by pulling the line up or down.

When you get everything the way you want it, click OK. If the picture gets all messed up, no worries—just click cancel to close the curves message window and start over.

How to Undo

Any time you mess up in GIMP, you can hold down the Ctrl key and hit z; that will undo your last action. GIMP allows you to undo many steps.

The photo on the right has had unsharp mask applied to it.

The photo on the right has had unsharp mask applied to it.

5. Using Unsharp Mask to Brighten Your Photo

Another favorite tool of mine that is a super easy way to enhance a photo is called unsharp mask. It's under "Filters > Enhance > Unsharp Mask," all the way at the bottom of the menu.

There are three different sliders you can adjust while you're previewing your image. You'll just want to move them a little at a time—too much and the image will look fake. The effect should be subtle, but it can really add sparkle.

6. Choosing a File Format

GIMP will save the photo in the same format it was in when you opened it; for instance, a jpeg will automatically be saved as a jpeg. If you want the photo saved in a different format than it was before, do a Save As... and either change the extension in the name (the letters that come after the period, such as .jpeg or .tiff) or select a file type by clicking on the + button next to "select file type" in the message window and choosing from the list.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

New Guestbook Comments

Jonna Oney on July 25, 2018:

this was so helpful. Thank you!

David C. Ruffo on July 10, 2018:

using GIMP can I rotate an image to the right or left?

shewins (author) on November 07, 2013:

@PNWtravels: I hope you try it, thanks for reading.

Vicki Green from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA on November 05, 2013:

I'd never heard of Gimp, but have been considering trying a new photo editing program so this was very helpful information.

shewins (author) on July 13, 2013:

@takkhisa: I own Photoshop 5, I've been in print graphics for over 20 years. I started using Gimp because I was using Ubuntu on an old computer at home. I love that it's free, and it's really a great option.

Takkhis on July 13, 2013:

I always use new version of Photoshop and I am quite satisfied with it. Anyway, I may try this someday, thanks for the info :)

Mommy-Bear on July 01, 2013:

I have an old version of Photoshop but don't really the cost of the upgrade. i have downloaded Gimp as a replacement and with the intention of teaching the kids how to use it but alas so far it has dumbfounded me but I am now inspired to go take another look. Thanks

RoSelou on June 29, 2013:

I will be using gimp now, thanks for the tutorial

triley76 on June 19, 2013:

I've heard of Gimp, but never have used it ... because I've never come across such a simple, helpful tutorial like this ... thanks!

dudokdudok on June 15, 2013:

Never knew about Gimp. Going to download it immediatelly. Thank yo for sharing! Lovely lens by the way.

anonymous on May 29, 2013:

I downloaded Gimp, but haven't tried to get to know how it works.

Thank you for the tutorial, this is helpful. :)

shewins (author) on April 25, 2013:

@lgOlson: I'm so glad to hear that this lens is helpful. Please let me know if anything is unclear.

L Olson from Northern Arizona on April 25, 2013:

thank you! I have been struggling with photo editors, and Gimp and this has helped me alot.

shewins (author) on April 25, 2013:

@JimMcD: Thanks, I'm glad you like my photo of Booker T and the Drive By Truckers.

JimMcD on April 25, 2013:

Nice lens thank you...I will look into Gimp as it sounds like what I need.

And the D.B.T. picture is a nice add!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 18, 2013:

I have to learn more so my photos look better.

shewins (author) on April 13, 2013:

@TxCowboyDancer: There is a version for Mac. It's opensource software, I first started using it on Linux. Thanks for the info on my link.

Tony New from Dallas, TX on April 13, 2013:

Does it come in a Mac version? oh, btw, I followed a link in the Squidoo forums to your lens. You may want to go edit the link because you copied and posted the workshop URL rather than the live URL. I cut and pasted and edited the URL to get here because the topic intrigued me. :-) Thanks for sharing the info on this program. I'll check it out.

Whatsittoyou from Canada on April 11, 2013:

Thank you. I have been looking for a good photo editor. I can give this one a try thanks to your instructions.

Don Wilson from Yakima, WA on February 27, 2013:

Thanks for this tutorial. I can use all the help I can get.

shewins (author) on December 20, 2012:

@BarbRad: That's a good question BarbRad. I don't know. I've never used it on a Mac. Most programs I've used on both Mac and PC were pretty similar, so I'm guessing that's the case here.

Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on December 19, 2012:

Your explanations of how to use Gimp are clear. Will it work on a MAC or is it just for a PC?

anonymous on November 26, 2012:

Cool tutorial thanks

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on November 15, 2012:

Thanks for the tutorial.

shewins (author) on November 15, 2012:

@WritingForChange: Gimp really is a powerful program, I think you'll find that the things you learn using it will translate well to photoshop when you are ready.

shewins (author) on November 15, 2012:

@crispwrites: I hope this helps you get started. Please let me know if you have any problems with the instructions.

WritingForChange on November 15, 2012:

Really useful tutorial. I need something more than the very basic editing tools included on my computer but I'm not ready to spend out on something like photoshop yet. this could be a great in-between step for me. Thanks.

crispwrites on November 15, 2012:

This has come at a good time for me. Just recently downloaded Gimp but it seems so complicated. I know it's a great tool so this beginners guide will do the trick. Bookmarked for later referral as well. Thank you

mjoonline on November 14, 2012:

You can do so many cool things with GIMP. Really good free tool. Great tutorial.

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on November 13, 2012:

Good place to start for sure. I really like Gimp, but it can be overwhelming when you first begin.

TenPoundTenor on November 11, 2012:

Great guide. I started with Gimp and then moved to Photoshop a few years later. A lot of the skills transferred over. Great lens.

fifta on November 07, 2012:

I love using Gimp, since I could not afford Photoshop. Perhaps you can create a tutorial series for Gimp, starting with this simple one to the more advance. It will be a great niche I think.

anonymous on November 04, 2012:

I've been using Photoshop for well over a decade, but if I didn't know or have Photoshop, I'd be using Gimp. It is a full featured graphics editor, which I have recommended to clients for years.

Good job hitting the editing basics in this mini-tutorial.

Heidi from Benson, IL on November 03, 2012:

Nice...Gimp is a good alternative if you think Photoshop is overpriced for a photo editing tool. Mostly I use it for cropping or making minor alterations for pictures I intend to use online.

ketchingup lm on November 03, 2012:

I use pixlr most of the time. I'll have to take a look at gimp. Thanks

English-lion on November 02, 2012:

Thanks for the tips I have seen gimp on the internet and wonder if it was worth downloading