6 Even Better Open Source Graphics Programs

by Carla Schroder

Open source graphics programs offer affordable alternatives to commercially available software; we recently looked at five. Now Carla Schroder adds her six picks to help SMBs get the picture.

My friend and colleague Joe Brockmeier wrote The 5 Best Open Source Graphics Programs. But being friends doesn't mean there can't be a bit of competition, and I think I can go one better. So here in no particular order, rhyme or reason are my six top open source graphics software picks, plus a list of honorable mentions.

The open source graphics category encompasses a wide range of applications: movies and animations, photo editing, drawings, Web albums, format converters, CAD (computer-aided design), diagramming, game engines, desktop publishing, mind-mapping, and 3D modeling.

If you're looking for free-of-cost Adobe software replacements, forget it. Everyone wants Adobe for free. I want beer and ponies for free, but I'm not going to get them, just like nobody is getting Adobe for free. Not legally, anyway. If you want Adobe then buy Adobe. If you want to expand your horizons and check out the wealth of great free/open source (FOSS) graphics software then walk this way.

1. MyPaint -- Paint and Draw

MyPaint is an exceptionally user-friendly drawing and painting program, with the great bonus of supporting pressure-sensitive drawing tablets, such as Wacom. (The Wacom Bamboo costs less than $100 and is a great introduction to drawing tablets.) MyPaint comes with a fabulous number of brushes.

Of course they're not real brushes, but rather the colors, patterns, shapes, textures, and widths of strokes that appear on the screen when you draw with your mouse or drawing tablet stylus. You get splats, smudges, snow, airbrush, glow, hair, tree, sparks, stings, different types of pens and pencils and hundreds more. You can even create your own custom brushes.

MyPaint supports layers, many keyboard shortcuts, and has a nifty Scrap feature. Scrap lets you make changes and save different versions quickly by pressing F2. Each saved scrap is automatically given a new name like scrap001_a.ora, scrap001_b.ora, and so on.

MyPaint; open source graphics software
MyPaint is an exceptionally user-friendly drawing and painting program.

MyPaint supports a limited number of file formats: .ora, .png, and .jpg. .ora is OpenRaster, an open layered graphics file format with the goal of enabling interoperability between graphics programs.

It is still immature so don't count on it for seamless interop; use it as MyPaint's native format that saves layers. .png and .jpg are universal and can be read and edited by any graphics program, but they do not support layers.

Free of cost, GPL license, runs on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.

2. FreeMind -- Mind-Mapper

FreeMind is mind-mapping software, a tool for capturing your brainstorms, and visually organizing your thoughts and ideas. FreeMind is easier to see than to describe, so visit Getting a taste of FreeMind for a live demo in your Web browser (requires Java).

FreeMind is a flexible, fast tool with many possible uses. I use it to record and sort my research for articles and books. A single article might have hundreds of notes and links, which I can arrange in hierarchies like "important stuff" and "maybe might want," and easily re-arrange any way I want. It's a nice tool for tracking large quantities of little bits of information.

Free of cost, GPL license, runs on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

gLabels -- Address Labels, Business Cards, CD Labels

Want to create a sheet of address labels, postcards, business cards, name tags, inventory tags? Want to do it without going screaming crazy from trying to do it in your favorite word processor, which seems to save all of its malice and obstructive tricks for these tasks?

No worries, for gLabel is just what you want. It is small, lightweight, and does only one thing-- create labels and form documents easily. gLabels includes hundreds of templates for Avery, Worldlabel, Maco, Stomper (CD labels) and many others. To create a custom template, look all the way down near the bottom of the template picker for "Your Design."

Creating a sheet of labels that are all the same is the easiest. Just open your desired template, enter whatever text, images, or barcodes you desire, and poof! Done. Merging with a contact database is a few more steps, but still fairly simple. Your database must be in a CSV file (plain text with comma, colon, or tab delimiters) which any spreadsheet can export, or Vcards, or an Evolution address book. Selecting your desired fields is simple point-and-click.

Free of cost, GPL license, Linux.

Tux Paint -- Graphics for Beginners

Tux Paint is supposed to be for children, but don't let that stop you from trying it. It is a wonderful painting and drawing program with a good interface that guides the user through various tasks, rather than being all confusing and vexing like so many graphics applications. It includes sound effects, many special effects, and painting and drawing tools.

Hugin; open source graphics software
Hugin lets you easily create high-quality panoramic photos.

I recommend it for anyone who is not familiar with painting and drawing software. Tux Paint will give you a good grounding in the basics of computer graphics software.

Free of cost, GPL license, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

Hugin -- Panorama Photo Stitcher

Creating panoramas out of digital photos used to be a geeks-only endeavor. Now normal people can create high-quality panoramas with Hugin. Ideally, you should take your photos with your camera on a carefully-positioned tripod, with great attention to exposure and positioning.

In the real world you're probably snapping a batch of pics on impulse with whatever you have at hand, even a camera phone. The one must-have is at least 25% overlap in each photo. If you have that then Hugin has the tools to smooth out exposure differences and uneven positioning. Visit Hugin examples on Flickriver for inspiration.

Hugin is fully localized and available in many languages.

Free of cost, GPL license, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

Wikimedia Commons -- Free Multimedia

Wikimedia Commons is a database of over ten million freely usable multimedia files: sound, video, photographs, and graphics images. Anyone can contribute their own works. Look here first to find high-quality multimedia files to use and modify. Be sure to pay attention to the individual licenses; most of them are liberal with regards to modifying and re-distribution. Some require attribution, and some have restrictions.

Open Source Graphics Honor Roll

Luminance HDR. HDR (high dynamic range imaging) is for blending multiple different exposures of the same scene to bring out details in images with very light and very dark areas. One of my favorite examples of using HDR to make a photo look more like what we see is this Bass Harbor Lighthouse photo on the Digital Picture. Free of cost, GPL license, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

Digikam is one of the very best digital photo management and editing applications. It supports RAW, tagging, geo-tagging, slide shows and way much more. Free of cost, GPL license, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

Kword is a great frames-based word processor, and an easy and sophisticated desktop publishing application for creating brochures, books, and any document that incorporates graphics and text, and requires precise layout control. Free of cost, LGPL license, Linux.

QCad is one of the easier 2D CAD (computer-aided design) programs to learn. It comes with a nice assortment of CAD fonts, supports both metric and Imperial measurement systems, and a large CAD parts library. Free of cost, GPL license, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

The Kino video editor and recorder full of good features, and easy to use. It supports high-speed Firewire file transfer, recording back into your camera, and separate video and audio streams. Free of cost, GPL license, Linux

Feed the kitty. While all of these are free of cost, many accept donations. Do please drop a few dollars on the ones that you enjoy and benefit from using.

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This article was originally published on Thursday May 26th 2011
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