GIMP 2.8 has arrived with enough bells, whistles, toys, and tools to keep any GIMP user busy for quite some time. It offers a long list of updates that make GIMP easier to use, more powerful, and more flexible. Some of my favorite new features in GIMP 2.8 include:
Single Window Mode
Text Editing got a complete makeover
Layer Groups Save vs. Export
New Brush Options
Cage Transform Tool
This list is just the tip of the iceberg (visit GIMP.org for a a complete list of GIMP 2.8 updates.). But just because a program has new features doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Similarly, newer versions of software aren’t always better than older versions. If you’re still mulling over the decision to upgrade GIMP, or install GIMP for the first time, you’ll want to know about the specific features GIMP 2.8 offers. This introduction to GIMP’s new features should help you make a decision that’s right for you.
Single Window Mode
In the past, GIMP had a multi-window interface. That meant the Toolbox window was separate from the Main window, and dialogues were housed in yet another window. Each time you opened an image in GIMP, it would appear in its own separate window. Some people like this kind of set up, but for me (and many other GIMP users) it was annoying to have so many windows. It was easy to lose one window behind another, and having more than one image open at once meant having lots of windows open on your desktop. GIMP 2.8 offers the option of using Single Window Mode, which links the Toolbox, Main Window, and the Dialogues together, in one unified window. When you open more than one image, they’re divided by tabs in the main section of the unified window, rather than opening in many separate windows. To activate Single Window Mode in GIMP 2.8, go to Windows > Single Window Mode in the Main Menu. I think Single Window Mode is a great addition to GIMP’s user interface options. It’s especially nice that Single Window Mode is optional, since some people still prefer the multi-window interface. If the multi-window interface of GIMP 2.6 has bothered you, GIMP 2.8’s Single Window Mode may justify the upgrade by itself.
The Text Tool in GIMP 2.8
GIMP’s Text Tool underwent a much needed makeover for the 2.8 version. Using text in GIMP 2.6 was probably one of my least favorite tasks. It wasn’t intuitive, and it wasn’t as flexible as many GIMP users thought it should be. Now in GIMP 2.8, we have a brand new Text Tool that addresses these problems brilliantly. The biggest pitfall of using text in GIMP 2.6 was that you couldn’t change up the style of text within a text frame. For instance, making a single word in a sentence bold meant you had to use multiple text frames. Then, you had to line up each section of text by hand to make them look like they were all part of the same flow. The new version of the Text Tool supports different text styles within the same text frame, which makes using text in GIMP a much more intuitive experience. Simply highlight the text you want to change, and choose a new style from the options directly above the text frame. Updates to the Text Tool were at the top of my GIMP requests list, and GIMP 2.8 did not disappoint. The new Text tool is much more elegant and flexible. If you use text in GIMP a lot, you’ll definitely want to check out GIMP 2.8.
Save vs. Export
Saving options in GIMP 2.8 are divided into new categories. To save a JPEG, PNG, TIFF, or most other file types you must go to File > Export in the Main Menu. The Save, and Save As options are now exclusively for saving XCF files (GIMP’s native format). While I appreciate the sentiment behind the new saving options, this is probably the only change to GIMP 2.8 that I’m not completely happy about. The point is to prevent a user from saving over their original image as a JPEG, when XCF might be a better file type. Editing and saving a JPEG over and over can cause generational image quality loss. Saving as an XCF file does not compress the file at all. No information is lost, so it’s a much better way to save images if you’re not done working on them. Splitting up the save options is supposed to keep people from accidentally saving work-in-progress JPEGs when there’s a better option. I’m not used to this change yet, so I still forget to use Export to save a PNG or JPEG. Making this mistake only tacks on a few seconds of time, and I’m sure it won’t take me long to grow accustomed to the new workflow. For most people, I think this will only be a minor annoyance and definitely not a deal breaker.
Keeping layers of an image organized in GIMP 2.6 could be a real chore. The layers Dialogue could become cluttered, especially if you were using more than a few layers in an image. Not to mention, if you want to turn off the visibility of a lot of layers, you had to do it one layer at a time. Layer Groups in GIMP 2.8 make layers much easier to work with. Putting layers into relevant groups unclutters your Layers Dialogue, it keeps related layers organized, and it lets you turn off the visibility of a whole group at a time. You can also apply transformations to whole layer groups. While you still can’t do things like adjust Hue and Saturation to entire layer groups, you can rotate, crop, flip, and otherwise transform an entire layer group. Layer Groups are a really great addition to GIMP 2.8. I wish we could make “pixel adjustments” like color changes, or add filters to entire layer groups, but the functionality layer groups offer now is much better than no layer groups at all.
New Brush Options
In the old days of GIMP, you could change the size and opacity of a brush. Those were really your only options for brush transformations. If you wanted to tilt a brush, or squish a circle brush into an oval, you had to install a plugin or find a different brush. Thankfully, GIMP 2.8 has two new brush transformations built right into the Tool Options Dialogue. Now, you can change the Angle, and Aspect Ratio of any brush. If you need to tilt a brush to paint inside a nook, use the Angle option in the Tool Options Dialogue. If you want to stretch or squish a brush, you can easily adjust the Aspect Ratio option. Not only did we get new brush options with GIMP 2.8, we got some brand new brushes to boot. There’s a star shaped brush that’s perfect for stamping, new round brushes of varying softness, and a bunch of great textured brushes to replicate everything from a dry scratchy brush, to the perfect oil painting. I’m not much of a painter, but I really appreciate the new brushes and brush transformations GIMP 2.8 offers. I often use brushes to paint on layer masks, and it’s nice to be able to customize the shape and angle of the brush to get into nooks and crannies.
Cage Transform Tool
The Cage Transform tool is a new addition to the Toolbox that allows warping selected areas of a layer. You can also use this tool to scale sections of an image. It’s easier to demonstrate how to use the tool than it is to describe using it. So have a look at this video tutorial on using the Cage Transform Tool:
I think this tool will prove useful to a lot of people, but I don’t know how much I’ll end up using it myself. I already use the IWarp filter to achieve some of the same effects. But, there are some downsides to using the IWarp filter, like having a tiny preview window to work from. Given IWarp’s downsides, and the added functionality of the Cage Transform Tool (like the ability to scale sections of an image), the Cage Transform Tool may end up being my preferred method for giving myself an eye lift or nose job.
GIMP 2.8 Is Worth The Upgrade
To me, saying GIMP 2.8 is worth the upgrade is an understatement. GIMP is completely free, so it won’t cost you anything to try. GIMP 2.8 comes with a lot of new tools and options that make using this free photo editing program even easier.
Installing GIMP is a straightforward process. Both the Mac and Windows versions of GIMP are available with easy to use installers, so there’s no reason to fear the installation process. If you’re upgrading from an earlier version of GIMP, it’s best to uninstall the older version first. Don’t worry though, if you want to go back to GIMP 2.6, it’s still available for free at GIMP.org. As with anything new, it may take some time to get used to the changes. But, in this case the vast majority of changes are positive. I have not yet read any reports of people desperately wanting to switch back to GIMP 2.6, and I myself have been incredibly happy with the update.
Kat Landreth is the author of the GIMP book "Before and After: A Beginner’s Guide to Free Photo Editing in GIMP" and the creator of How-to-GIMP, a website dedicated to helping beginners learn how to use GIMP.