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Riding the GIMP: My Photoshop-Free RAW Workflow

I committed to shooting strictly in Manual Mode at the beginning of the year, because I could see an improvement in the image quality of my photos, and I felt more of a bond and sense of ownership over my work (you can read about this process in this post). In order to push the quality of my work further, I knew the natural thing to do was to start shooting in the RAW format, however, my ancient copy of Photoshop CS3 was incapable of processing these files. I didn’t own post-production software that allowed me to shoot in this mode.

The most popular solution for processing RAW files is to purchase a copy of Adobe Lightroom. It’s a tempting option, because the software isn’t terribly expensive, it’s very powerful, and it offers great photo organization features as well. However, there is a downside. One issue I have with Lightroom is that new cameras are not regularly added and supported. For example, if you invested in the latest DSLR body in 2014, the RAW files that your new camera produced wouldn’t be compatible with your 2013 version of Lightroom. You need to upgrade your software every time you upgrade your camera.

Admittedly, I don’t buy fancy new camera bodies very often (okay… ever), so this isn’t the biggest stumbling block. But I must admit, this pesky little fact bothers me. I don’t want to be locked into a software upgrade path. Especially with a program like Lightroom—which helps you organize your files. It just seems like you become dependent on it. Hardcore users can’t load photos into their computers without it. That’s not for me.

When Adobe recently switched over to a rental-only business model, it served as motivation for me to seek out new alternatives to both Photoshop and Lightroom. I’m pleased to report that I quickly found what I was looking for in GIMP 2.

The first thing you need to know about GIMP is that it’s 100% free. The version I use features built-in RAW support, so it acts as both Lightroom and Photoshop in one. As far as new camera support goes, all I can say is that it seamlessly worked with my GH2. Before I elaborate further, the most important thing about getting into GIMP is to make sure you download the right version. Not all flavors of the GIMP are tasty.

I use a Mac running OS X as my main production computer. When I first experimented with GIMP, I downloaded a version that kind of sucked. The GUI was really ugly, and worse yet, it failed to properly open RAW files. I had read that you needed a specific plugin to handle the RAW conversion, so I wasted some time futzing around with that. My advice here: don’t bother with this. Read the next section and you’re done.

  1. Don’t download GIMP from this address: (this version doesn’t open RAW files properly)
  2. The version of GIMP that you want is available at this address:

So now that you have a functional copy of GIMP, what advice do I have for how to fine-tune your RAW files? None. I just started with this stuff, too. Treat it like you treated Photoshop when you first got started. You didn’t know what the hell you were doing. Just open up a RAW file and start fiddling around with the controls and see what happens. Move that slider around, click those boxes, explore! It’s also a good idea to check out the free GIMP tutorials on YouTube (there are gobs of them).

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Writer, musician, photo taker and video maker. When not writing somewhat longish articles for this blog, I write incredibly short things on Twitter: @SamMallery

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