Free graphics tools

As more people switch to digital cameras, they are finding a greater need for software that can help manage, edit and improve their photographs. Many cameras ship with a basic editor program, but there is no reason why you can't explore other options (particularly when the programs are free).

One of best free offers for anyone interested in graphics tools is Ulead's PhotoImpact 6 SE. PhotoImpact 8 is available in retail stores for about $200-$210.

Another useful program is CursorArt's ImageForge Basic, a graphics package that combines the elements of both paint and image-editing programs. Although it's quick to load and full of helpful hints, some users may find it sluggish at times - particularly with larger files. However, given its extensive range of tools and features, it should be considered as a good introductory graphics tool. Its features are superior to the standard Windows Paint program.

ImageForge has a very handy tool for creating slideshows. These can be played on other computers without the viewer needing to install any special programs, and is ideal for, let's say, older relatives who are new to computers. For more details, select ImageForge's Tools-Create Executable Library.

Adobe ActiveShare

This entry-level program from Adobe will help you manage and improve the look of your photos. It has a several one-click tools that can improve a picture in a flash. Although not perfect for every photo, the auto adjustment option can also make a quick and easy correction to a photograph.

To begin, click on the Fix My Photo button on the bottom left. You will be presented with five options (the one at the bottom, More Tools, is an advertisement for other products). If you are not sure where to start, click the Instant Fix option. The Rotate option is straightforward, as is the Trim option, which can help frame an image: simply drag the cursor over the area you want to trim and click the Trim button on the left. The red-eye removal tool is good, but without pigment control, the outcome may not suit everyone.

Studioline Photo Basic

Generally, this program has a good collection of tools and is the stripped-down version of Studioline Photo. The program takes a slightly different approach to the classic graphics menu layout.

The first big difference is the way images are managed. Files must be copied to the archive folder before they can be loaded into the program. On the plus side, this protects your originals from accidental alterations. On the downside, you can't quickly jump to a folder to edit an image - it must always be copied over. The basic version allows up to 200 images to be stored in the archive folder. Beware: organising the images outside of the program becomes quite messy.

Overall, Studioline Photo Basic has a good feature set, especially for a free program, but it is a little frustrating. If you are used to more traditional programs, the unique layout of Studioline Photo Basic will make it harder to find features and tools. However, the major irritation is the way the limitations work within the free edition. Many menu items look like they can be clicked, but when you do, you get an error message saying the feature is not available unless you upgrade. The Help file supplied is designed for the upgraded version, which makes it more confusing to learn the basics. A copy is on the CD, so take it for a spin and see for yourself.

GIMP

If you are going to delve deeply into photo editing and are willing to spend some time on a new program, then the best choice is GIMP. Its feature set is huge and many of the tools work in a similar fashion to those found in Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.

It's interface is a little quirky - each toolbar, menu or other option is located in its own window (see FIGURE 1). This can be a little confusing on a Windows system, particularly if you have other programs running at the same time and switch between the windows. In a future column, we will return to the GIMP and how to get started. In the meantime, a copy is on the cover CD of PC World September 2003 issue - don't forget to install the included GTK runtime.

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