GIMP vs. Photoshop

GIMP vs. Photoshop: How a free photo editor compares to the industry standard

best free photo editing software gimp screenshot
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Adobe Photoshop has long stood at the top of the list of professional image editing software — but it’s always been attached to a pro-level price. While Photoshop is much friendlier on your wallet than it was years ago thanks to a $10 subscription plan, the industry standard editor will never be as affordable as GIMP, an open source photo editor that encompasses several of Photoshop’s heavy hitting tools.

GIMP, which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an open source, free Photoshop alternative. Besides the free price point, the open source design means that the program welcomes code adjustments, along with being available for Mac, Windows, and Linux. But how does it stack up to a program so popular that it’s been turned into a verb? Here’s what photo editors need to know when trying to decide between GIMP and Photoshop.

GIMP Pros

  • Free
  • Small download
  • Includes many of the same tools
  • Editable code

GIMP Cons

  • Lacks the professional interface of Photoshop
  • Updates aren’t as frequent
  • Missing some advanced tools
  • Lacks graphic design features, like CMYK

Cost

While GIMP may be free, Photoshop is no longer the $700 program it once was. With the advent of the Creative Cloud, Adobe moved all of its major programs over to a subscription model, which means you’ll have to continue paying for it for as long as you want to use it, and those monthly fees will add up over time. Fortunately, if you’re just in the market for Photoshop, the $10 Photography Plan is pretty easy to stomach. What’s more, the subscription model ensures you’re always running the latest version of the app.

The Photography Plan also includes Lightroom, a non-destructive RAW photo editor and organizer that integrates well with Photoshop; Adobe Camera RAW for converting and opening RAW images in Photoshop; and 20 gigabytes of cloud storage, to which you can add more for an additional fee. All of this adds up to an undeniably good value at $10 per month — but that still comes out to a more than free.

GIMP doesn’t offer as complete a package as the Creative Cloud Photography Plan. It doesn’t include cloud storage nor its own RAW processor and organizer, though you can opt for an open source Lightroom competitor like RawTherapee. GIMP also needs a plug-in to convert and open RAW files, which, fortunately, is also free.

Features

Dell UltraSharp U3818DW review photoshop
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Photoshop has long been an industry standard for photo editing as well as graphic design. GIMP, like other open source programs,  tends to have fewer advanced features, since there’s no company motivated by a profit to continually improve it. But free doesn’t mean bad, and for some types of users, GIMP has all of the necessary essentials without needless bloat. It also takes up less space on your hard drive.

As an open source program, GIMP is easy to customize. Even if you don’t have the programming knowledge to adjust the open source code, GIMP has several plugins to expand features, while the user interface can also be easily customized. The program is lightweight, so besides taking up less room on the computer, it’s also compatible with older computers and budget devices that may not have the RAM that Photoshop requires.

Tool-wise, GIMP can handle the same basic and mid-level edits, and in some cases, even the more advance edits that Photoshop can. If you just need to crop and resize a photo, GIMP can easily do the job. While not quite as advanced as Photoshop, GIMP isn’t just bare bones photo editing, either. It still offers layers, curves, filters, and many more tools that go well beyond basic.

But as the industry standard with a dedicated company making frequent updates, Photoshop is certainly the more powerful program. For example, GIMP has just one healing brush tool while Photoshop has four. GIMP also doesn’t handle CMYK color, doesn’t allow for non-destructive photo editing using adjustment layers, and requires plug-ins for some features that are built in to Photoshop. Adobe also innovates at a blazing pace, and started integrating artificial intelligence into Photoshop several years ago with tools like Face-Aware Liquify, which automatically detects features of a person’s face and lets you resize the eyes, mouth, and nose without having to make any manual selections.

That’s not to say GIMP never sees updates — in fact, the software usually sees some sort of minor or major update every few months, and plans for both non-destructive editing and CMYK support are in progress.

User Interface

Photoshop’s interface feels less clunky, and as an industry standard, more familiar for experienced users. GIMP may not be as cleanly designed, but because it has fewer tools and more ways to customize it, it can look less intimidating for beginners — if not exactly pretty. Both programs have an obvious learning curve for new users, and, thanks to its popularity, Photoshop has more tutorials to help you learn how to master it, whether Adobe’s own or from a number of online resources like CreativeLive. But you won’t have a hard time finding GIMP tutorials on YouTube, either, as the program has an active community working to support it.

Bottom line

For a free program, GIMP has a lot to offer. In fact, even if it weren’t free, it would still be one of the most feature-rich image editors out there. But more serious photographers and frequent users tend to prefer Photoshop’s tools, interface, and seamless compatibility with Lightroom. It also has a couple huge advantages, like adjustment layers, which allow for non-destructive editing, and CMYK support, which — while a niche feature — is absolutely necessary for those who need it.

With all of that Creative Cloud subscription money pouring in every month, Adobe can also continuously pump out new features, usually long before anyone else. And, really, at $10 per month for the Photography Plan, Photoshop isn’t exactly expensive. The value that serious photographers and designers will get form it seems well worth it. But for beginners or people who just need to retouch the occasion image, GIMP is more than enough to get the job done — and we can’t argue with the price.

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