There are lots of times where you want to quickly touch up a photo. In this article, we’ll show you how you can use free professional-quality image editing software to touch up a photo the same way pros do.
What You Need To Touch Up A Photo
To make simple adjustments to a photo, you can probably get by using Microsoft Paint, but any non-trivial change requires specialized software. The software we’ll use in this article is the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). It’s a free Photoshop clone available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.
To download GIMP, go to gimp-win.sourceforge.net and choose the stable download from the Download link. Also download the documentation for your language. Both files will be .EXEs which you can then double-click on to install. For more details about installing GIMP, plus some basic instructions on using it, please see our previous article about free image editing software.
Besides GIMP, you also need the obvious: a photo in an image format on your computer. GIMP supports all the common photo formats, including JPG, BMP, TIFF, PNG, and GIF.
First Steps To Touch Up A Photo
Start GIMP from its entry in your Start menu and use the File menu to open your photo. For many photos, the first step is to crop the photo—to remove unnecessary parts of the photo so that the photo only contains the face or the body of the subject. Cropping is easy in GIMP:
1. In the toolbox, click the gray rectangle icon. This is the rectangle select tool. Click and drag with the tool over the area you want in the final photo. It’s ok if you make a mistake—just click and drag again.
Touch Up A Photo By Adjusting Color, Light, and Contrast
Even if your photo was taken by a professional photographer, it can probably be improved by tweaking the photo’s settings. You can touch up the photo by adjusting the following settings, all found in the Colours menu:
- Colour Balance lets you adjust how much primary color goes into each secondary colour. Small changes here can lighten or darken skin tone and hair color, but watch out—big changes will turn your face blue or pink.
- Hue-Saturation virtually determines how much color “bleeds” into the virtual paper. If you’ve used an inkjet printer, think of it as determining how full your ink cartridge is: when it’s full, you get rich color; when it’s almost empty, you get weak color which creates a whole different image.
- Brightness-Contrast lets you brighten or darken the overall picture. Adjusting the contrast lets you emphasize or obscure borders and shadows. Increasing the contrast can make your picture look more dignified while decreasing it can hide some wrinkles and acne scars.
One quick way to improve almost any photo is to turn it grayscale (sometimes erroneously called black & white). You can do this instantly by opening the Image menu, choosing the Mode sub-menu, and clicking Grayscale.
Use Painting Tools To Touch Up A Photo
In most cases, you’ll touch up a photo by making specific changes—perhaps you want to remove wrinkles or acne scars, or bring out some color, or whiten your teeth, or even make bigger changes. To make these changes, you’ll use five of GIMP’s painting tools:
- The Colour Picker (Pasteur pipette/eye dropper icon) lets you choose a color from the image. It automatically selects that color for the next tool you’ll use. You’ll mostly use it with the airbrush tool.
- The Airbrush (airbrush icon) simulates splattering ink on your picture, mimicking the way a real airbrush works. This is a very effective tool for covering up blotches or adding color. After you click the airbrush icon, click the Brush button in the Tool Options in the toolbox to choose the appropriate brush size. To touch up a photo, you probably want a small brush.
- The Dodge/Burn tool (black wand icon) virtually changes how long part of an image is exposed, letting you brighten or darken an area. You can switch between dodging (brightening) and burning (darkening) using the Tool Options.
- The Smudge tool (finger icon) lets you smudge one part of the photo onto another part of a photo as if the photo were a fresh painting. Use this as an alternative to erasing small areas. For example, I often smudge away the fuzzy hair most people get from going more than an hour without combing.
- The Blue/Sharpen tool (water droplette icon) does just what it says. Bluring lets you hide minor skin imperfections. Sharpening can bring out your eyes. But be careful not to overuse this tool or you’ll start to look like Michael Jackson.
Other Ways To Touch Up A Photo
GIMP includes hundreds of options, all of which you can apply to photos. Here are quick descriptions of a few that you might want to try:
- Filters menu, Decour sub-menu, Old Photo. This transforms your photo into an old photo with faded edges and sepia-tone colors. It makes your photo look like it’s at least 70 years old.
- Filters menu, Artistic sub-menu. All of these options are fun to play with, although there’s almost no chance of using them in a serious photo.
- The flip tool (blue book with two arrows icon) lets you make a left-facing photo look right or vice-versa. This is great for making your Facebook profile picture look at your wall, but be careful using it if your face isn’t symmetrical—anyone who sees your photo will think there’s something wrong when they meet you in person. Here is how to change your profile picture on Facebook.
David A. Harding began using Linux in 2001 and quickly became a Linux Professional Institute certified system administrator. His articles have appeared in over a dozen publications and he has given over 50 presentations about Linux—including two Software Freedom Day keynotes. Dave always loves to hear from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, yes, he has more than once vainly used the techniques described in this article to touch up a photo of himself for an online profile.