Photo Editing with Gimp: Has the Free Photoshop Alternative Finally Come of Age?


In Search of the Holy Grail: A Free Alternative to Photoshop

Way back in the mists of time, professional photographers either used Photoshop or were likely still sloshing chemicals around in an analog darkroom. Indeed, throughout the ‘90s, digital photo editing was basically synonymous with the name of Photoshop. Sure, there were a couple of clunky Photoshop alternatives around, but none that any hard working professional would waste their time using. 

Today, though, photographers are spoiled for choice when it comes to photo editing software. While Photoshop remains the number one option for those who want to retain full control over the editing process, Adobe’s less intimidating alternative, Lightroom, has likely overtaken Photoshop as the most popular photo editing software for both amateurs and professionals alike. Meanwhile numerous copycat programs have also come on the market, from basic web-based tools like PicMonkey, through to those offering a somewhat greater degree of control such as Polarr, up to fully-fledged Photoshop clones such as Affinity Photo or DxO PhotoLab.




-DXO Photo

But in all this story one name has been forgotten: GIMP. Created as an open-source free Photoshop alternative, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) has actually been around since the mid-‘90s. At the time of its release though, GIMP was perhaps more an admirable idea than a practical reality; one that was largely of interest to geeks and programmers rather than to actual photographers.


However, GIMP has come a long way in the 20+ years of its existence, and is now much more usable than ever. And as other free alternatives to Photoshop are still mostly rather limited in features, this makes GIMP look rather attractive as a photo editing tool. 

But has GIMP evolved enough to now pose a real threat to Adobe’s reign? Let’s take a look.

Photo Editing with GIMP

GIMP looks a lot like Photoshop, and anyone already familiar with the Adobe family of software will have no trouble finding their way around GIMPs controls. All the usual photo editing features are here, from cropping, curves, contrast and color adjustment tools, to customizable brushes, gradients, noise reduction filters, and layer masks. What’s more, GIMP’s user interface has been massively improved over the years and is easily customizable.

We could go on to list all the good points about GIMP here. But as there are so many of them, and they are in any case largely the same as those offered by Photoshop, it will actually be a lot quicker if we simply mention the few elements that you may find are missing when photo editing with GIMP. However, bear in mind that while many of Photoshop’s features may be lacking from the basic GIMP setup, many of these can nonetheless be achieved by using work arounds or installing one of the many fantastic plugins available for free from the GIMP-user community.

Let’s first get out of the way what is undoubtedly GIMP’s biggest defect; it does not offer adjustment layers. There has long been talk of implementing this feature in GIMP, but at the time of writing adjustment layers were still not a reality. And for many photography professionals, a lack of non-destructive editing options alone will be enough to dissuade them from using the program. 

However, it’s worth noting that many of the uses that photographers would want to make of adjustment layers can still be achieved by using regular layers and layer masks. The only major drawback here being increased file size.

GIMP’s history capabilities are also somewhat limited when compared with Photoshop. To be sure, you can still hit undo, and even view a list of previous states to which you might want to return. But there are no sophisticated history tools comparable with Photoshop’s History brush. For many photographers, though, this will not be a major turn off.

Perhaps more serious is GIMP’s lack of native RAW processing. Meaning that anyone who shoots their images in RAW format will need to supplement GIMP with a plug-in or stand-alone RAW-converter such as UFRaw. Finally, while vastly improved in recent years, GIMP’s interface nonetheless remains somewhat ugly and, above all, very busy; sometimes making it difficult to keep all your windows organized while working.


Let’s be totally clear; GIMP is not Photoshop. It is, however, capable of achieving pretty much anything that Photoshop can do, it’s just that getting there sometimes requires a little bit more hard work on the part of the user. 

Indeed, Photoshop is clearly much more sophisticated, with GIMP resembling an older version of Adobe’s offering. Nonetheless it’s worth noting that many of the improvements that have been made to recent editions of Photoshop are actually more geared towards graphic designers and art directors than they are to photographers. And in reality most of the tools needed for photo editing have been in Photoshop almost from day one. Consequently they are all present in GIMP too.

If you want Photoshop, you’ll have to pay for it. If you want a highly powerful photo manipulation tool for absolutely no money whatsoever, GIMP really is quite amazing - particularly for budget-conscious photography enthusiasts. However, as photo editing with GIMP can often be a little slower and more complicated than with some of its competitors, anyone earning money from their photography will likely prefer to stick with Photoshop purely for reasons of speed and convenience.


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