Whether you are actively considering a move away from Photoshop, or simply hoping there is a non-proprietary tool for reading your Photoshop images if you ever decide to stop subscribing to Adobe’s cloud, you’ve probably wondered about GIMP. A free, open-source, image editor, the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) has been a go-to tool for Linux users for years, but has a reputation for being hard to use and lacking many of Photoshop’s features. The reality has changed dramatically over the last couple years. GIMP now has a very competent user interface, as well as an extensive and powerful set of features. Its openly extensible nature means that in some areas, like running well-known image processing algorithms on your photos, it actually outshines Adobe Photoshop.
We took a deep dive into the current version, GIMP 2.8, to help you figure out whether GIMP might be the right photo editor for you.
First impressions from Photoshop veteran
When you first load GIMP 2.8, you might be forgiven for thinking that you’d fired up an alternate UI for Photoshop. Familiar panels for Layers, Brushes, Tools, Paths, and plenty of others are available. Individual tabs can be torn off (although it requires using a command on the palette menu instead of Adobe’s more intuitive action), so you can tweak GIMP UI just about as much as you can Photoshop’s.
Menus also closely parallel Photoshop’s, with File, Edit, Select, View, Image, Filters, and Help serving the same functions — although in a slightly different order. The Colors and Tools menus are unique to GIMP, with Colors pulling together operations that affect image content, that are usually found under the Image > Adjustments menu in Photoshop. The Tools menu pulls together a mixed bag of the same tools that are found in the Toolbox, plus some tools Adobe puts in the Image menu, like Crop. It also provides a window into some of the very powerful and extensible scripted image transforms that GIMP allows. Unfortunately, some of the icons, like the one for the crop tool shown, are different from the ones used by Photoshop, so finding your favorite may take some hunting.
GIMP’s missing Text menu is a hint that its Text capability, while very competent, is not as feature-rich as Photoshop’s. Missing are some of the fancy layout options, as well as all the built-in effects and warps from Photoshop. The good news is that there are GIMP plug-ins that will restore many of the missing features.
The menu of 3D commands found in Photoshop’s Extended and Creative Cloud editions is also not part of Gimp. Some of the available GEGL (Generic Graphics Library) scripts are helpful in performing similar operations in Gimp, though. Those scripts are one of the coolest features of GIMP, making it an open platform for image processing developers. While Photoshop can be scripted, most image transforms are either “black box” plug-ins or actual built-in commands.
GIMP also lacks Photoshop’s powerful Adjustment Layers. You can make a new layer, apply a Filter, and then tweak the opacity or blend mode, but it is a full image layer — like it or not. There are some plans to try to offer equivalent functionality to Adjustment Layers through GIMP, but there doesn’t seem to be an ideal workaround for the issue yet. GIMP History feature is also much less powerful than Photoshop’s. You can go back through your History as you might in most software — essentially a graphical list of possible Undos — but you can’t play around with your History or use a History brush like you can in Photoshop.
Raw shooters need to think twice
GIMP also does not include built-in Raw processing. Photographers will need to download a separate converter, with UFRaw being the most popular. At one point UFRaw was implemented as a plug-in, but the current version is a standalone application that can launch GIMP with the processed image. Fortunately, UFRaw is a very competent Raw converter, with flexible options for setting White Balance and various demosaicing algorithms. It is also frequently updated to support new camera models as they hit the market. It even has the advanced capabilities of Adobe Camera Raw for creating camera-model and lens-specific profiles, and for doing mild pre-processing on the Raw file, but it requires some patience to figure out how to use those more advanced capabilities.
GIMP is not Photoshop
Just to set expectations, while GIMP has many of the features of Photoshop, and in many ways a similar UI, you’ll be disappointed if you think you can simply fire it up and act like you’re running Photoshop. You’ll need to meet it halfway. One example of this is shortcut keys. For whatever reason, Gimp’s hotkeys are often different from Photoshop. Fortunately, there are scripts that will help you quickly remap them to be more similar.
Likewise, GIMP will not run your Photoshop plug-ins, and probably never will. It does, however, have its own library of plug-ins. To make life easier for Windows users of GIMP, there is even a tool that provides a graphical UI for choosing and downloading plugins. Available plug-ins include many of the functions you might otherwise be missing from Photoshop — like fancy layer effects for your type, and built-in HDR processing, for example.
For those who want a platform to experiment with image processing, GIMP is pretty amazing. Scripts can be written in Scheme — like the Script-fu collection pictured at right — or Perl, Python or TCL. The result is a huge collection of open-sourced extensions you can either run as-is or modify to meet your own image processing requirements.
Giving GIMP a try
As you might expect for open-source software, GIMP’s documentation and help system are not as well developed as those for Photoshop. Fortunately, there is finally a really good book that will get you started: GIMP for Photographers by Klaus Goelker. I have some quibbles with some of the finer points he makes about image editing workflow but it is a thorough — nearly 400 page — overview of both GIMP and related Raw processing options.
Fortunately, it is easy enough to try GIMP and decide if you like it. Simply download it and get started. If you’re willing to put up with a bit of a learning curve — and figuring out the GIMP way to accomplish the tasks you do from memory in Photoshop — I suspect you’ll find that GIMP has become a worthy alternative to Photoshop for anyone on a budget who doesn’t need all of Photoshop’s vast feature set.
If you’re not satisfied that it comes close enough to Photoshop, then be sure to read our results when we did a similar comparison using Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements.