GIMP and Krita are both at the top of their respective categories in the free software space, with GIMP being the best free photo editor by far and Krita arguably the best digital painting app. However, Krita has been introducing many intriguing photo editing features to its app that have people wondering: “Is Krita a Better Free Photo Editor than GIMP?” In this article, I’ll be taking a look at Krita’s photo editing features to see how the program stacks up against GIMP as a photo editor. You can watch the video version of this comparison directly below, or skip over it to continue with the article.
Over the last several years, Krita has cemented its place in the free software world by creating a feature-rich digital painting platform that’s geared towards artists. The Krita website says the software is made for “concept art, texture and matte painters, [and] illustrations and comics.” However, Krita has also managed to incorporate some more advanced photo editing features like adjustment layers, CMYK support, multi-layer selection, and the ability to open RAW images. These are all features GIMP users have been waiting on for a long time. So, now that these features are in Krita, does this make Krita better at photo editing than GIMP?
Although it is quite a breakthrough that Krita was able to introduce all these advanced features before GIMP could achieve the same feat, the program still has some hindrances when it comes to certain common photo editing tasks. Plus, when you look at layer adjustments and RAW processing in Krita more closely, they’re pretty basic in terms of functionality and, in some cases, slow in terms of performance.
Before I go any further – this is a quick disclaimer and reminder that I’m only analyzing Krita’s photo editing capabilities compared to GIMP’s, and not analyzing Krita as a program in its entirety. As someone who definitely CANNOT paint, digitally or otherwise, I do not feel I’m qualified at this time to fully assess digital painting software – which is what Krita primarily is.
I’ll start this assessment off with a quick list of what Krita has in common with GIMP. Like GIMP, Krita has basic editing tools like a Transform Tool, Crop Tool, “smart patch” tool for basic spot removal, paint tools (of course), and path and selection tools. It has a layers system with layer groups and layer masks. Finally, it has several filters for making basic image adjustments or adding effects.
But let’s take a deeper dive into the features that set Krita and GIMP apart – starting with adjustment layers.
Yes, Krita has adjustment layers. You can add an adjustment layer by clicking on the arrow dropdown at the bottom of the Layers Docker (red arrow in the image above), which is what Krita calls its Layers Panel or Layers Dialogue, then clicking “Filter Layer” (blue arrow). This will bring up a Filter dialogue that allows you to add any of Krita’s filters as a Filter Layer, which is their synonymous term for an Adjustment Layer.
Something I like about this dialogue (outlined in red in the image above) is that you can quickly cycle through all the filters and get a live preview of what the effect will look like on your image. There are also a decent amount of filters in here, including dodge, burn, color adjustment, and levels image adjustment filters, artistic and blur filters like a Halftone filter and Gaussian Blur, and common sharpening filters like Unsharp Mask.
However, there are many things I don’t like about this dialogue or about Krita’s adjustments in general – with most of my grievances having to do with the user experience.
For example, I’ll click on the “Levels” adjustment (red arrow in the image above), which is one of the more common adjustments to add to an image. Right off the bat you’ll notice that the histogram doesn’t display properly here (blue arrow).
However, if you apply the Levels adjustment by clicking “OK,” then right click on the adjustment layer and choose “properties” (red arrow in the image above), it’ll bring the levels adjustment up in a separate dialogue and the histogram now displays.
This is also the case if I add a levels adjustment by going to Filters>Adjust>Levels (as pictured above), though this method adjusts the image’s levels right on the image rather than on an adjustment layer.
Also, you can only edit the “value” channel of the levels and not the individual color channels. This isn’t a huge deal as there are other tools like the Color Balance filter or Color Adjustment filter that allow you to edit the colors in your image, but it is a pretty basic and commonly used function of the levels tool.
Additionally, this filter requires that you release your mouse to see the changes, so you can’t slide the values around to see real time results of your adjustments like in GIMP. Instead, you have to drag (red arrow in the image above) and release, wait for the result to generate, then repeat. This can cause inaccurate edits and also add time to your workflow. And, in my opinion, it’s just kind of annoying.
GIMP’s levels tool is a bit more intuitive. When added to an image by going to Colors>Levels, the filter dialogue (blue outline in the image above) displays the histogram, shows your adjustments on the image in real-time (red arrow) while also coming with a “split view” preview option, and allows you to adjust the value channel as well as each of the individual color channels. In other words, it’s a fully-functional levels tool – although the final edits take place on your image directly and not on an adjustment layer.
Looking at all the Filter Layer filters in general in Krita, there is no filter preview for getting a quick “before” and “after” of your adjustments. You do get a real-time preview of the filter on your image, but you can’t toggle it on and off – at least not by default. The strange thing about this is that if I go to the Filters menu and click on “Blur>Gaussian Blur,” for example, there is a preview checkbox in this case (red arrow in the image above). But, again, adding filters from this menu is destructive – meaning the adjustments or effects are occurring directly on your image and not on an adjustment layer.
So I’m not sure why there’s a discrepancy between Filter Layers and Filters applied destructively to the image, but the discrepancy is there.
Also, you can’t zoom in on your photo while applying a Filter Layer in Krita – you’re stuck at the zoom level you’re at when you open the Filter Layer dialogue. Again, the zoom works when applying a destructive filter, just not for Filter Layers. In GIMP, you can zoom in and out to get a better look at your changes and check for artifacts when using any of the main filters. Once again, because Krita uses filter or adjustment layers, you can always apply the filter, zoom in, then edit the settings of the filter again at any time. But these extra steps tend to add up when you’re editing many images or making lots of edits to a single image.
My final grievance in regards to Krita’s filters is that many of them don’t have sliders for making adjustments to the filter or effects values. Instead, you have numerical fields and arrows for adjusting your values (red arrow in the image above – demonstrated with the “Oilpaint” filter). This is actually quite prevalent throughout a lot of the filters in Krita – which means Krita hardly gives you immediate feedback when you’re tweaking settings, and instead you have to manually type values or click on the arrows and wait for the result. This process can be quite tedious when compared to a simple sliders system, like the one used in GIMP.
Let’s move on to opening RAW images in Krita. I’ll use a CR2 file from my Canon 7D, which is visible in my “Recent Documents” section (red arrow in the image above – this screenshot was taken on my welcome screen). I can double-click this link to open the image, and that will bring up a little dialogue box.
The first thing I noticed when this dialogue opened is that the image preview on the right-hand side is quite small and chops off a significant portion of the image (red arrow in the image above). You can scroll up or down the entirety of the image’s height, but can’t scroll all the way across the images width.
Also, the settings here are pretty technical – especially for new users – so it’ll take a bit of research to figure out how all these settings will affect your image (blue outline in the above image).
The good news is that there’s a little “update” button at the bottom to update the image preview so you can see the changes your settings will produce on your final image prior to completing this step. For example, I’ll change the “Highlights” dropdown to “Unclip” (red arrow in the image above), then click update (blue arrow). This setting makes my image much darker. I’ll switch this setting back to the default value and click “Update” again. I’ll click OK to apply processing to my image.
One thing I’ll say is that despite the RAW interface being a bit complicated for beginners, the default values for the RAW image display do produce a pretty accurate result while requiring little to no user input. So, you don’t really have to do anything to open your unedited RAW photo into Krita – simply go with the default values and click OK. It is important to note that Krita has explicitly stated on Twitter that it is NOT a RAW Processor, and that the software simply allows users to open RAW images into the program.
With GIMP, on the other hand, you can’t open RAW images directly into the program. You have to process them first through another RAW processor like Darktable or RAWTherapee. Though this process is fairly simple once you learn it, it does require downloading additional software and setting up the software to open up processed RAW images into GIMP. But because Krita isn’t a RAW processor, you’d have to download at least one of these apps anyway if you wanted to properly edit your RAW photos and take advantage of the benefits of editing RAW images.
I have an entire tutorial dedicated to showing you how to set this up with Darktable and GIMP, as well as a course on how to edit your RAW images with Darktable, so definitely check out those resources if you’re interested.
Switching gears now – I want to talk about vector drawing in each of these programs. And I know what you’re thinking – vector shape drawing isn’t photo editing. This is true – but it is a handy tool when designing graphics that overlay on a photo. Vector shape tools are also becoming standard on other photo editors like Affinity Photo or Photoshop and have been in high-demand from GIMP users.
When it comes to working with vectors, Krita has the upper hand over GIMP. Though Krita does not have a traditional Paths tab like you’d find in GIMP, it does let you draw paths and vector shapes that are both editable at any time during your workflow.
To take advantage of this feature, you first have to create a “Vector Layer,” which is different from the standard “Pixel Layer” that images open up as by default, by clicking the little down arrow in the layers docker (red arrow in the image above) and choosing “Vector Layer” (blue arrow).
When this layer is active (blue arrow in the image above), any shape you draw with the shapes or curves tool (yellow arrow) will be editable using the “select shapes tool” (red arrow) or “edit shapes tool.” Although in the case of drawing shapes, you first have to convert the shapes to paths inside the Tool Options docker in order to be able to edit the nodes of each shape with the edit shapes tool. So, the user experience for drawing vectors in Krita is a bit complicated, but once you figure it out it’s really useful.
GIMP can draw shapes using shape selection tools (red arrow in the image above), as well as draw paths with the Paths tool, with the paths editable over in the Paths tab (blue arrow), and the selection areas able to be converted to paths for further editing (yellow arrow).
Plus, all of GIMP’s transform tools come with modes that allow you to transform both selections and paths – which you can learn more about in this tutorial on scaling selections.
But GIMP does not have a dedicated vector shape drawing tool. This is to say that GIMP has some workarounds for drawing and editing the equivalent of vector shapes, but Krita has dedicated vector shape tools that can be edited in real time on your composition – which is what people expect out of shape drawing tools.
There is a built-in filter called GFIG in GIMP that allows you to draw and edit vector shapes, which I cover in a dedicated tutorial, but the filter is currently on the buggy side and isn’t as intuitive as simply having built-in vector shape drawing tools.
Vector shape drawing aside, I’ve mentioned a couple times throughout this article that Krita offers a Layers system, as does GIMP. They both also offer the ability to apply layer masks, which helps with things like background removal on images or simply creating areas of transparency on your photos. For example, to access Krita’s layer masks, which are called “transparency masks,” click the dropdown arrow at the bottom of the layers panel and click “Transparency Mask.”
However, one drawback to Krita is that it doesn’t really have a dedicated background erasing tool. GIMP has the high-powered Foreground Select tool for quickly selecting a foreground subject from a background, which is very effective at background removal, and the paths tool, which is also well-suited for this task, but Krita doesn’t really have a powerful smart selection tool or really any tools that excel with background removal. You can manually paint out the background using a paintbrush and a layer mask, or you can use the built-in G’MIC filter’s Interactive Foreground Extraction feature (pictured above), but these options are a bit tedious compared to GIMP’s options. GIMP definitely excels over Krita when it comes to image background removal as well as when it comes to having dedicated photo retouching tools.
One major thing I want to note about Krita is that, as I just alluded to, it comes with the G’MIC plugin built into the program by default. This to me is a huge advantage for a variety of reasons. For one, users don’t have to manually install G’MIC onto their computer and software like they do for GIMP. Secondly, users don’t have to worry about whether G’MIC will work for their operating system or current version of the program, as has recently become an issue with GIMP and their MAC builds. Finally, G’MIC has tons of great built-in photo editing features as well as photo manipulation effects, so the plugin extends Krita’s photo editing capabilities much as it does for GIMP. So, Krita users get to take advantage of this amazing plugin without dealing with some of the headaches that come with having to install the plugin manually.
Something else worth mentioning is that, like Affinity Photo and Photoshop, Krita gives you the option to change your workspace based on what you’re using the program for (red arrow in the image above).
This being said, the program does not provide a “Photo Editing” workspace at this time, which I think underlines that Krita does not primarily identify itself as a photo editing app. In fact, to my knowledge, Krita’s photo editing capabilities are mainly geared towards digital painters importing their drawings into the program. They can then use Krita’s editing features to enhance the drawings – including the lines and colors in the drawings, thus making them easier to see in the program as they are referenced during the digital painting process. I think Krita is very well-built for this purpose.
The final thing I want to cover about Krita as a photo editor is that it can edit images in CMYK color spaces. You can do this easily by going to Image>Convert Image Color Space (as shown in the image above) and choosing “CMYK/Alpha” from the dropdown (blue arrow in the image below).
Editing in a CMYK color space is useful for ensuring your colors display accurately when printed using a CMYK color printer. By editing your images in CMYK, you can ensure the final product looks the way you intended rather than editing the photo in an RGB color space, then soft-proofing the color with a CMYK color profile – which is what you typically do in GIMP. Krita also allows you to choose from a variety of built-in CMYK profiles, which is useful for getting the colors right based on the exact medium you are printing on.
GIMP’s lack of full CMYK support has been a major pain point for a lot of users for many years, so having this available in Krita is no small achievement.
So, to sum this comparison up, let’s cover where the two programs, GIMP and Krita, excel when directly compared to one another. Krita excels with its inclusion of popular features like adjustment layers, full CMYK support, vector shape drawing tools, and the ability to open RAW images. And it would be remiss of me to not mention that Krita also excels with its animation features, though that’s not totally relevant to this article.
GIMP, on the other hand, excels with its breadth of Photo Adjustment Features, Filters & Effects, its overall performance when working with images – especially when working with adjustment tools and filters, its photo manipulation capabilities for things like background removal and photo compositing, and finally its selection of tools dedicated to photo editing, retouching, and manipulation tasks.
Krita is primarily a digital painting software with some great photo editing features. And I think the opposite can be said for GIMP – GIMP is primarily a photo editor with some great digital painting features. Although, honestly, I think the gap between GIMP and Krita as digital painting software is smaller than the gap between GIMP and Krita as photo editing software.
So, is Krita a better photo editor than GIMP? In my opinion, no. But it is still really awesome software that I highly recommend anyone try. The good news is that both programs are free, so it won’t cost you anything to try each one for yourself and see what you prefer.