September 16th, 2012

Book review: The Artist's Guide To GIMP (2nd Ed.)

The kind folks over at No Starch Press sent me a review copy of The Artist's Guide to GIMP a while back (see here for my Amazon review). The GIMP, in case you're not aware, is a popular open-source image editor, pretty comparable to Photoshop in terms of features. I've been a relatively frequent user of the GIMP for some years now, often using it to touch up and edit photos (a couple of friends and I have a habit of photoshopping one another into unlikely situations; as one does). It's a godsend in situations when I have to quickly edit graphs for publication or retouch screenshots too. But, while I'm hardly a stranger to the software, I can't really say that I'm an expert in any sense. Still, it's fully-featured, pretty easy to use once you've gained a little familiarity with it, and has the definite advantage of being free and cross-platform.
The Artist's Guide to GIMP (book cover)
The book covers "creative techniques for photographers, artists, and designers", with a definite slant towards designers of the web variety, I would say. It starts off with a solid 60-page section on using the basic set of tools available in the GIMP, such as paintbrushes, drawing tools, selection masks and layers. For anyone who's used Photoshop or a comparable editor, this is the very necessary bread and butter stuff, explained at an "overview" level. The subtleties of the various tools are developed later on in the book, scattered about the numerous example projects that make up the bulk of the guide.

And boy, are they numerous. There's a shade over 200 pages worth of projects, most of them taking up about 4 pages each. The projects are very tightly written, with the minimum of chatter - just no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point instructions, prefixed by a bit of background and motivation for each of them, and a handy example of the end result you can expect for a given technique. Each project has a number of useful screenshots of intermediate steps so the reader can make sure that their results (and on-screen tool set-up) are tracking what the instructions say, which makes it particularly easy to follow along. The author, Michael Hammel, is a long-time GIMP user and contributor, who has written a couple of books on the GIMP in the past. His experience shows!

The instructions tend to be detailed, but not over-prescriptive. You'll get instructions on exactly which mask tool to use for the job, for example, but it's left up to you to make sure you're selecting the right bits of the image! For photo editing in particular, the results can be somewhat sensitive to the detailed choices that you make while you're editing, so you shouldn't expect this book to tell you how to get perfect results right away - some practise will be needed. It'll help you climb GIMP's learning curve very efficiently, though.

The projects are grouped into a handful of chapters, starting off with photographic techniques, then going on to web design, advertising, and typographical effects, before finishing on computer-generated art. For the web designer in particular, the choice of techniques covered in the projects is excellent - you'll get a very good introduction to creating high-quality results for website logos, banners, and product presentation, for example. The computer art projects look good too, although I feel there's not enough depth in here to allow the newbie to create truly stunning results. There are a few places where the results aren't very convincing as well (for example, adding waves to a reflection in water).

The section on photography is OK, but there are notable omissions that will prove restrictive for the more serious photographers out there. Exposure blending, RAW image handling and so forth, now staples for many photographers even at the amateur level, are not covered. Instead, projects about adding light effects to photos have been chosen instead. Although there are projects on adjusting colours with curves and touching up photos, these subjects are of sufficient importance that a little extra coverage wouldn't have gone amiss, especially for more advanced applications of the techniques. On the whole, I would have welcomed fewer computer art-type projects and more on common photography techniques.

Overall, it's a good book, with decent instructions and engaging projects that any competent computer user should be able to handle, whether or not they have previous experience with an image editing package. Photoshop experts will find this to be a pretty efficient conversion course into the GIMP, although they probably won't learn much techniques-wise. Budding web designers should pay attention to this book as a way of unlocking the GIMP's serious potential as design software. Photographers will gain a lot from it, but should be prepared for a couple of disappointing omissions. Those who are simply looking for a way of getting into image manipulation and learning a whole bunch of neat techniques will find the book pretty much ideal as a (substantial) first step. Recommended!