In the Beginning, There Was GIMP
In 1995, while still students at the University of California–Berkeley, Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis developed GIMP—General (later GNU) Image Manipulation Program—as a free, open source alternative to expensive graphics programs. This was for a class assignment. It was in general release in 1996, and by 1998, Sergei Brin used it to create the first Google logo, with the Baskerville Bold font. GIMP was quickly adopted by a subculture of computer enthusiasts who chipped in to create group email lists, blogs, and websites showing the best way to use this marvelous free product.
I downloaded the current version of GIMP; that took less than 5 minutes. Looking over the program, I went through the tabs at the top to find the features I normally use in graphic work—selection tool, cropping, brightness and contrast, and color enhancement. To see what it could do, I called up an image I took in Ireland in 2003. Everything worked the way it did in costlier programs, until I got to saving the file. To save it in the JPG format, I needed to use the File/Export feature. This was slightly counter-intuitive, but otherwise, it gave me the cropped, refreshed, and cheerful-looking picture I had hoped to produce. It looked fine, but I belong to a photo-sharing group that is fussy about image definition, and this was showing around 800x500 in pixel size, using the web standard 72 dpi (dots per inch). If I am to share this photo, I need to try a separate program to make it high definition. Anyone who has ever tried to get around this by just making the photo bigger has encountered the term “pixilation”—seeing the image as a series of little boxes.
Putting the Image Through Let’s Enhance
Let’s Enhance is a web-based graphics enhancement program with a flexible pricing plan. I have quite a few old photos that need expanding, so I took advantage of the free trial, which lets you enhance five photos. The results were great, and I immediately purchased 50 enhancements for $10. You can also buy monthly or yearly subscriptions, which allow 999 enhancements per month. The yearly option costs a little more than $50. The developers don’t say much about themselves, but I did find out that the program is a Ukrainian startup and that they used neural networking to create the functionality.
Let’s Enhance is simple to use. Go to the website, choose an image from your hard drive, and tell it to improve the photo. A minute later, the improved image is ready to download or save. In this case, the photo was saved as a 3500x2100-pixel image. That allowed me to zoom in to any part of the image and still have a viable photo:
Dynamic Auto Painter Will Take It to the Limit
If you, like me, feel constrained by a lack of actual artistic talent but still have the urge to create something amazing, Dynamic Auto Painter might be your answer. I bought the home edition for less than $50. You can upload any of your old photos and choose a template such as Cezanne (shown in the following image), Van Gogh, Monet, and many others. The real fun is when you press the Start button and your image disappears. Then splotches begin appearing, a recognizable picture starts to form, and minutes later, you have your own collaboration with a master artist—this is particularly effective when you are turning your photo into a Van Gogh. Like the previous program, Dynamic Auto Painter will always leave you with a full high-definition image, regardless of how small your original was.
Sometimes, an image will not come out the way you hoped, but all you have lost is a few minutes. If it is reasonably close, you can send the image to a full-service graphics program and get it up to par. Of the programs discussed here, Dynamic Auto Painter gets a special mention for being so much fun to use.
Pixlr: A Graphics Program Well-Suited for the Smartphone Age
If you have been to many music or sporting events in the last 10 years, it is hard to avoid noticing that most people take pictures using their phones—I’ve even seen them being used when members of Congress are talking to the press. I prefer a full-sized Canon, but have to admit that in some circumstances, the smartphone can take a superior photograph. The free application Pixlr can be used on desktops or mobile devices, but it really seems to come into its own on a phone.
To use it, you simply choose a photo from your phone’s directory and then perform a wide range of standard operations to adjust the cropping, brightness, contrast, hue, and so on. Once you have made the changes, it gives you a chance to compare your tweaked version with the original. If you approve, you can send the finished product to Facebook or Instagram or email it. This allows you to take a picture, edit it, and publish it while still in the moment.
PaintShop Pro: An Inexpensive, Full-Service Desktop Program
The original version of PaintShop Pro was developed in 1990 as a graphics program for Microsoft products. It has gone through a number of iterations, but it remains a powerful and inexpensive option. A check of Amazon showed that you can download the PC version of the 2019 edition for $39.99. A CD-ROM is available for $10 more. Older versions are for sale, but there is no real cost incentive.
I use this program for basic procedures such as adjusting the brightness, contrast, and hue of a photo, as well as adding text. It also has a wide range of artistic functions.
Conclusion and Disclaimer
There are a number of similar options from which to choose, but these five programs have a proven track record with me. All of them have different pricing levels, but if you select the ones that I have used, the total cost would be about $100.