How to Use Filters in GIMP

The world of image editing can be a hobby or a career, but it’s usually something a bit more fun that gets people interested at the beginning. 

Artistic filters are a simple way to dramatically change an image with just a few clicks, and many image editors got their first creative satisfaction from playing around with filters. 

Not all filters are used to apply artistic effects; some are technical processes involving other ways to manipulate pixels, such as sharpening or distortion. 

If you’re just starting to explore image editing, this can make filters a bit daunting and mysterious, so let’s take a closer look at how to use filters in GIMP.

Using Filters in GIMP

The GIMP developers have known since the very beginning that filters are a big draw for their potential user base, so you can find all of GIMP’s filters in the Filters menu

This separates them from the Tools and Color menu features that can also be used to manipulate your image, although sometimes the distinction between Tools and Filters can be a bit unclear. 

As you can see above, the filters in GIMP are divided into several different categories, from the obvious, like “Blur” to the more…. “Generic”. Each submenu contains several different filters that share similar effects.

The Python-Fu and Script-Fu submenus are for making edits using the Python programming language or GIMP’s built-in scripting for batch editing. They are intended for very advanced users who are comfortable writing code. 

The Goat-exercise filter is apparently based on a running joke between the developers, but if you actually select the filter, it only applies a simple color inversion to the active layer. 

To use a filter in GIMP, open the Filters menu, select the appropriate submenu, and then click the name of the filter you want to use. 

The filter’s effects will be applied to your currently active layer, so make sure that you have the right layer selected. If you have an active selection, the filter effects will only be applied within the selection area.

In most situations, a new dialog window will appear containing customization options for the filter. Some filters have no customization options and get applied immediately, but most have a dialog window, like the Cubism filter shown below. 

For most of GIMP’s filters to work, you need to have an open image that isn’t just blank. Some of the filters are capable of rendering completely new content into an empty document, but most of them work by manipulating the existing pixels in your image, so if you try to run them on a blank canvas, you’ll get no results. 

I’m not sure that this is Cubism in the sense of the early-1900s art movement created by Picasso and Braque, but it’s still an interesting effect

Fortunately, most of the filters contain a “Preview” option in the filter dialog so that you can see the results of your current filter settings before finally applying them, as shown above. 

Once you’re happy with the results, click OK, and the filter will be applied to your active layer. 

7 Popular/Useful Filters in GIMP

GIMP has well over 100 filters to choose from in the Filters menu, so there isn’t enough space in this guide to discuss them all, but some filters are far more useful than others – and some are a lot more fun! Here is a brief list of some of the most popular and useful filters available in GIMP. 

1. Gaussian Blur

Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur

This is one of the most useful blur filters in GIMP, and it can be used to add a soft blur to any layer or selection with variable strength. 

2. Unsharp Mask

Filters > Enhance > Sharpen (Unsharp Mask)

Despite the confusing name, Unsharp Mask is a popular method for sharpening images that uses some fancy techniques that were invented in the darkroom days of film photography to enhance edge contrast.

3. Lens Distortion

Filters > Distort > Lens Distortion

This filter allows you to correct (or create) the distortion effect created by camera lenses at certain focal lengths. For example, you can correct the spherical distortion caused by a fisheye lens or create a fisheye lens effect on a normal image. 

4. Gradient Flare

Filters > Light and Shadow > Gradient Flare

Channel your inner J.J. Abrams film aesthetics with this filter that generates lens flares. There isn’t a huge amount of customization available, but it’s a step up from the basic Lens Flare filter.

5. Cartoon

Filters > Artistic > Cartoon

This filter outlines color segments with black, creating an ink-like effect similar to rotoscoping. 

6. Cubism

Filters > Artistic > Cubism

As you saw earlier in the post, this filter converts your image into randomly rotated squares to create an interesting geometric effect. If you combine the filter with multiple image layers and feathered selections, you can gain extra control over the effect and create something closer to actual Cubism!

7. Old Photo

Filters > Decor > Old Photo

This filter is actually a script that runs multiple different filters in succession to achieve the effect of a vintage photograph. 

Remember, this is not even close to a complete list of all the useful or fun filters in GIMP. Part of the fun of this aspect of image editing is the exploration and experimentation process, so load up GIMP and start playing with filters! 

Using Third-Party Plugins

One of the most powerful features of GIMP is that it allows you to install small pieces of third-party software known as “plugins” to expand its functionality with new features, including adding new filters. 

There is a huge range of free filter plugins available for GIMP, but make sure that you only download software from sources that you trust – and always have your malware scanner ready to go! 

A Final Word

That covers everything you need to know about how to use filters in GIMP! Filters can be powerful tools that completely alter the contents of your image, but it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. 

While the edits made by filters can be dramatic, they’re also no substitute for good old human creativity – and other image editors will instantly be able to recognize the results of the most common filters. 

Happy filtering!

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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