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8 January 2013

Image Magick

By Andrew Clifford

Image Magick is a powerful image manipulation utility that you can use to build automated image processing solutions or solve image management problems.

By chance, I came across a note I had written to myself in late 2001. I had just ordered a new PC running the then recently-released Windows XP. The note was my plan for what software I should install on the new PC.

There were only three pieces of software on my PC in 2001 that I still have on my PC now. Two of them are unsurprising: Adobe Reader to read PDF files, and the Java Development Kit (JDK) to develop Java programs. The other one is less well known: Image Magick.

Image Magick is a powerful utility for image manipulation. Ten years ago, when the features in Windows to preview and manipulate pictures were primitive and slow, I used Image Magick to perform image rotation and to create thumbnail images, to make it easy for me to look through digital pictures I had taken.

Image Magick can do a lot more than image resizing. It can convert between over 100 different file formats, including raster (bitmap) images, vector images, PDF and video. It can perform all sorts of image transformations, such as adding text, increasing compression, querying and manipulating image metadata, animation, and a whole lot more. It has deep, technical options for manipulating images, but does not require you to know them unless you need them. Image Magick runs on Windows, Linux and Macs. It can be run from the command line, or through an API available for many different programming languages and operating environments.

There are now plenty of graphical tools that can do what Image Magick does. Windows itself has good features to preview and manipulate images, and there are a huge number of free and paid-for image manipulation programs. Why would anyone still need Image Magick?

Image Magick has survived, and thrived, because it fulfils an important niche. Graphical tools are great when you have a one-off requirement for image manipulation. Image Magick comes in when you want to automate image processing, or where you have problems. My current interest is to add image thumbnails to file uploads in our Metrici platform, which is how a lot of web platforms use it. I can imagine many other uses, such as converting image files from legacy formats, or automatically maintaining multiple sets of icons in different sizes.

Image Magick is an excellent example of where open source software works really well. Few commercial organisations could justify the resources to support the breadth of formats and capabilities that Image Magick supports, and certainly not make them available at zero cost. But it is possible through long-term, collaborative open-source development.

Image Magick is a useful addition to your IT tool kit. If you involved in any form of solution development that involves images or graphics, it is worth spending a few minutes familiarising yourself with Image Magick. It may be that you are well served by the tools you already have, and have no need of it. But if not, or if you hit problems, it is worth knowing that there is an excellent piece of free software that can almost certainly do what you need.

Next: I would pay more for open source

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