How to Move Selection in GIMP

One of the most essential functions of an image editor is to let you move sections of your image around. Since it’s such a common operation, there are quite a few different ways that you can make a selection and move it around your image until you get it just right. 

The simplest way to move a selection in GIMP starts, unsurprisingly, with making your selection using any of the selection tools. These instructions work with all selection tools in GIMP, so feel free to experiment with different combinations. For bonus points, try using the Selection Editor!

If you want to adjust your selection area, you can tweak it using the handles, or combine it with another selection. Holding down the Shift key while drawing a new selection will add to your existing selection, and holding down the Ctrl key will subtract from it. 

Once you’ve got it just right, the next step is to turn your selection into something GIMP calls a “floating selection”. The fastest way to do this is to hold down the Ctrl and Alt keys (Command and Option on a Mac) and simply click and drag with your mouse to move the area you’ve selected. 

If you’re not quite ready to move your selection, or you don’t want to move it with your mouse, you can also turn it into a floating selection by opening the Select menu and choosing Float, or the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + L (use Command + Shift + L on macOS).

Once you’ve gotten your selection repositioned the way you want, you’ll need to anchor the floating selection by opening the Layer menu and choosing Anchor Layer, or with the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + H (Command + H on a Mac – there almost seems to be a pattern developing here 😉 )

That’s the most basic method of moving a selection in GIMP, but like I said earlier that there were quite a few ways, and you’ll need to use them all if you want to sharpen your skills for more advanced image editing projects. 

Using Floating Selections

Once you turn your selection into a floating selection, you’ll probably notice that the layers menu adds a temporary new layer titled “Floating Selection (Floated Layer)”. Floated layers are GIMP’s way of letting you focus on your selection, and new edits apply only to the floated layer.

The Layers palette displaying my floating selection

You can create a new layer using your floating selection using the green new layer button in the bottom left of the Layers palette, anchor your floating selection to resume editing the whole image, or delete your floating selection (which also deletes the selection contents).

Personally, I find this workflow a bit limited, but it can be handy if you’re just making a single change and you want to finish up as quickly as possible. It makes much more sense to me to separate your selection into a new layer permanently, but I’ll explain that in more detail later on. 

What About the Move Tool?

Despite the fact that GIMP has a Move tool, you can only use it to move your selection once you’ve already floated it. If you try to use it before that, you’ll simply move your selection area instead of the actual contents, or you’ll move the entire image, depending on the Move tool mode.

If you’re finding the Move tool isn’t letting you move your selection, there are a couple of options located in the tool palette that might help. 

Make sure that you’re set to use the Layer mode, the first icon of the three, or else GIMP might simply insist that you don’t have a selection available to move. Of course, if you just want to move your selection and not the contents, you can use the Selection mode.

Moving Your Selection Precisely

If you’re working on a precision project, sometimes it’s necessary to move a selection by a specific number of pixels. Trying to do this by hand with your mouse is extremely tedious, but there is a much better way to define just how far your selection will move: the 3D Transform tool. 

Turn your selection into a floating selection using one of the methods you just learned. Open the Tools menu, then choose the Transform Tools submenu, and finally 3D Transform. You’ll also see the keyboard shortcut is Shift + W (for once, it’s the same on Mac).

The 3D Transform tool

Typically this tool is used for precise 3D distortions of your selection, but you can use it to move your selections with pixel-level accuracy. Make sure that you’re in Offset mode and not Angle or Vanishing Point, and then stick to editing the X and Y settings. 

To move your selection 25 pixels to the right and 40 pixels up, you’d enter 25 in the X box and -40 in the Y box. Moving right or down uses positive numbers, while left and up use negative numbers. It might take a bit to get used to thinking about it this way, but practice makes perfect!

Using Pixel Layers

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to use the floating selection method if you don’t want to. It’s quite not as fast as floating selections, but you can use layers and masks to keep individual sections of your image separate for maximum control during complex edits.

As part of my workflow, I prefer to cut or copy the selection I’ve made and then paste it into a new layer. This allows for a lot more flexibility further along in the editing process and also lets you be certain you can select the exact same pixels again later by selecting the whole dedicated layer.

GIMP also lets you recreate this functionality a bit more slowly using floated layers. If you’ve got your selection already made and floated, you can simply turn it into a new pixel layer by pressing the green new layer button in the bottom left of the Layers palette with your floated layer selected.

About Thomas Boldt
I’ve been working with digital images since the year 2000 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I've tried many image editing programs. GIMP is a free and powerful software, but not exactly user-friendly until you get comfortable with it, and I wanted to make the learning process easier for you here.

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  • Archie Patterson

    I move a section and it left a void, the little light and dark squares. I can’t seem to use the clone tool to fill the void nor can i use the fill tool. How do I get rid of the voided area left behind when I moved the section?

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Archie, it sounds like you’re getting caught by the ‘Floating Selection’ problem. When you’ve got a Floating Selection active (you’ll be able to see it listed in the layers panel), GIMP doesn’t let you perform any other actions or edits until you either anchor the floating selection or convert it into a new layer.

      You can use the two green buttons shown in this screenshot ( ) to anchor your selection or create a new layer.

      If that’s not the problem, then you may want to check to make sure that you’re trying to clone and/or fill on the correct layer in the layers panel. Failing that, check to make sure you didn’t accidentally lock the layer you’re trying to edit.

      Hope that helps!

  • Mark

    The “float” option is grayed out. It wasn’t doing this until I exported the image. What else could be the issue??

    • Mark

      And I have a floating layer, or if I say to new layer, it becomes a pasted layer; in either case, the float option is still grayed out. And it definitely has something selected, because if I click cut, the layer disappears.

      • Thomas Boldt

        Hi Mark, I’m not sure what to suggest. I tried to recreate the issue you’re experiencing by opening an image, creating a selection, exporting the image in a different file type, and then floating the selection, but I can still access the Float command without any issue.

        Is it possible that you accidentally locked the layer? Try checking the Lock section at the top of the Layers panel. The small paintbrush icon represents pixels, and if the pixel lock is enabled, then the Float command is grayed out.

  • Michael O. Starr

    the Select > Float option is grayed out

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Michael, that probably means that you don’t have an active selection. The Float command is only available when you have a portion of your image selected using one of the selection tools.

      GIMP does have a frustrating “feature” called ‘Show Layer Boundary’ which outlines the entire layer with a yellow and black dashed line. It looks far too similar to the white and black dashed lines used to indicate active selections, and it frequently causes confusion. You can turn this off in the View menu.