In this article I’ll be providing an in-depth comparison between GIMP, which is a free photo editing software, and Photoshop, Adobe’s flagship photo editing software.
If you prefer, you can watch the video version of this topic below, or skip over it and continue to the article, which is available in over 30 languages (use the language dropdown in the top left corner of the page).
Quick disclaimer: I’ve been creating GIMP tutorials and courses since 2011 and have been a strong advocate for both GIMP and Free and Open Source Software. In fact some of you know I’m not afraid to speak critically every now and then about Adobe in some of my videos. But I think many of you would like a more neutral, objective approach when comparing these two programs – so that’s what I’ve decided to do for today’s article.
To perform the comparison, I’ll be using GIMP 2.10.18 and Photoshop CC 2020, which are both the latest versions of their respective software (at the time this content was created).
I’ll start this article with an introduction to Photoshop and GIMP, and will follow that with the strengths and weaknesses of both programs. Note that I’ll by no means be covering all the features found in both programs as that would make this article excessively long. Let’s start with an introduction to the two programs.
It’s no secret that Photoshop has been a cultural icon for the better part of the last two decades, and that it has both defined and dominated the photo editing and manipulation landscape since its inception in 1990. It’s become so ingrained in society that the brand name itself has become a verb – as in to “Photoshop” someone out of a photo.
Today, Photoshop has become a staple in the photo editing arsenal of photographers around the world. It utilizes many AI-powered smart-selection tools as well as non-destructive editing features. Additionally, Photoshop has tons of intelligent tools for creating mock-ups for branding assets, web design, and more.
It is considered the industry standard software for photo editing and manipulation and is the go-to program for professional photographers and creative agencies
On the other hand, GIMP, or the GNU Image Manipulation Program, has paralleled Photoshop since its inception back in 1996. Originally founded by a couple of college students at UC Berkley as a viable photo editing alternative for Linux operating systems, this free software has evolved through community-based development to be by far the best FREE Photoshop alternative on the planet.
GIMP has everything you need for editing and manipulating your photos, including both basic and more advanced tools. While very popular, “GIMP” hasn’t quite become a verb – which perhaps is for the best considering I don’t think people want to be “GIMPed” out of a photo. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that GIMP has had a meteoric rise in recent years thanks to its improved development and community support.
GIMP has become an obvious choice for everyday photographers, photo retouchers, and digital artists.
All that being said, let’s dive into what I like and dislike specifically about each program, starting with what I like about Photoshop.
Photoshop’s strengths start with its world-class team of developers and software engineers. As the “Golden Goose” of a multi-billion-dollar company, Photoshop essentially has an endless supply of talent and resources to maintain and develop the program.
As a result, the program is constantly innovating with new features, improved performance, and cross-platform functionality.
Photoshop is undoubtedly a very complex program with multiple integrations that work seamlessly, such as the built-in RAW processing interface “Camera Raw,” smart objects for creating interactive design assets, and Creative Cloud app integrations for bringing in compositions from other Adobe apps like Lightroom or Illustrator.
Additionally, Photoshop has integrated tutorials into its home screen to help beginners learn the program, as well as Adobe Stock templates to create quick projects. Of course, you’ll need a Creative Cloud plan that includes Adobe Stock in order to access stock templates or photos.
Adobe Photoshop’s user interface is simple in design but also packed full of features. It has grouped tools, dialogues that can be repositioned anywhere around the canvas, and a dynamic “options” bar that changes based on the tool you have selected to reveal additional tool settings.
Getting into some of the tools, Photoshop has a variety of smart selection tools that work quickly and intelligently. These tools aren’t perfect, though, as I demonstrated in my “GIMP vs. Photoshop: 90 Second Background Erasing” video. However, tools like the Object Selection tool and Quick Selection tool are quite effective smart-selection tools. These tools also come with the “Select Subject” button in the options bar to quickly select prominent subjects in the photo. Additionally, the “Select and Mask” button within these tools brings up a properties dialog for quickly refining your selection regions – further extending their capabilities and speeding up your workflow.
I can’t talk about Photoshop without mentioning the features that made Photoshop famous. These tools include the Airbrush, Heal, Clone, and Warp tools, as well as Photoshop’s object removal tools. Photoshop is infamously good at transforming the body, sparking a worldwide debate on body image and whether disclaimers should be required on heavily Photoshopped images. Additionally, the Content Aware Fill feature can erase pretty much anything within a selection area from a photo, and the Spot Healing tool can quickly paint out mistakes in a photo such as a stain on someone’s shirt.
Photoshop naturally has a full suite of image adjustment tools like Curves, Levels, Dodge and Burn, and various transformation tools such as the Free Transform and Crop tools, as well as a variety of filters for common tasks like blurring or sharpening.
However, one of the program’s major strengths comes from its non-destructive editing features – most notably the adjustment layers that make it easy to preserve your original photo as you work, or to go back and tweak adjustments you make at any point in your workflow.
Photoshop is undoubtedly a world-class photo editing and retouching program used by many of the best photographers in the world. It performs well, even with larger image sizes, with most of its tools being lightning fast. It works on Mac, Windows, and iPad (with the new Photoshop for iPad). Of course, it also has a huge community of creators that create thousands of informative tutorials, articles, and courses on the program. Finally there are plenty of add-ons, plugins, brushes, fonts, etc. you can download and install for Photoshop to further enhance the program.
Let’s move on to GIMP, which certainly has had a different upbringing than Photoshop.
Rather than having unlimited monetary and developer resources to maintain its software, GIMP relies entirely on volunteer contributions from an open-source community of part-time developers (with day jobs). There’s no massive corporate umbrella or army of nine-to-five, top-tier software engineers dedicating their work lives to the development of GIMP.
Despite this, GIMP has managed to survive nearly a quarter century at the time of this article, while becoming a powerhouse alternative to Photoshop. This bootstrap mentality of GIMP’s development process often works in its favor, creating a culture of community around the project.
There are many features found in GIMP that are obviously inspired by Photoshop, but GIMP is far from being a knockoff or carbon-copy. It does many things differently while in fact doing some things better than Photoshop. Opening GIMP for the first time, you’ll immediately notice that, like Photoshop, it has grouped tools, a dark theme, and dialog boxes surrounding the canvas. There is also a Tool Options dialog that allows you to adjust various settings for your tools.
Like Photoshop, the dialogues can be moved around to create different workspaces. GIMP also uses a layer system including the ability to add layer masks, group layers together, and add layer modes to layers.
Fun fact: there are more layer modes in GIMP than there are blending modes in Photoshop.
Also like Photoshop, GIMP contains many smart-selection tools, with its most powerful tool being the Foreground Select Tool. This tool contains similar features found in the Object Selection, Quick Selection, and Select Subject tools found in Photoshop.
GIMP has powerful retouching tools including the Heal tool, Clone tool, and Warp Transform tool. These tools work just as effectively as their Photoshop equivalents, allowing you to retouch photos in a timely manner and get professional results. It has all the vital image adjustment tools like Curves, Levels, Dodge and Burn, and more for basic and advanced photo editing.
It even has a suite of transform tools like the Unified Transform tool, Scale tool, and the more advanced 3D Transform tool.
GIMP has a variety of filters for common photo editing tasks like sharpening and blurring, as well as filters for more advanced effects like the Long Shadow filter. Most of these filters run on an open-source engine known as GEGL that allows for faster performance and cool features like the split view preview option. I have an entire video tutorial dedicated to the GEGL concept on my website.
Just like Photoshop, GIMP has a large community of content creators that create how-to tutorials. Davies Media Design, for example, has hundreds of free tutorials on YouTube, Help Articles here on our website, and multiple GIMP courses for mastering the program and improving your photo editing.
In the areas where GIMP is lacking, there is usually a third-party plugin or resource to fill in the gaps. For example, the G’MIC plug-in does a great job of offering additional filters and effects, while the Resynthesizer plug-in gives you access to an intelligent object-erasing tool that works just as good, if not better, than Photoshop’s Content-aware Fill.
Additionally, there is a full suite of complimentary free and open-source software programs like Darktable for RAW processing, Inkscape for vector graphics, and Blender for 3D design and animation. They use a similar code base to GIMP, so once you learn one of them, the others have a flatter learning curve.
Like Photoshop, GIMP supports third-party fonts, brushes, and patterns. It even supports the use of most Photoshop brushes.
Ultimately, GIMP finds its strength in its simplicity, making it ideal for the casual photographer or beginner photo retoucher. However, as you delve deeper into the software, you’ll learn that it is powerful enough to accomplish professional-grade editing and manipulation tasks. It works on all desktop operating systems, including Windows, Mac and Linux, and, at the end of the day, it’s absolutely free and backed by an awesome community.
Alright, so I’ve covered what I like about both programs, but let’s get into where the programs have their weaknesses – starting with Photoshop.
Photoshop’s most glaring weakness is the subscription fee you pay every month. For many businesses and individuals this is an unwelcomed added expense, especially in tough financial times like right now. And yes, I know pirating software to get around the price tag has become common, but this comes with many unnecessary risks that I won’t get into for this article.
Outside of its price tag, Adobe also has a tendency to constantly update its software. This is usually more a good thing than bad, but constant updates can be a nuisance to some – requiring ever-increasing amounts of computing power and a steepening learning curve, especially since Adobe forced its users to stop using older versions of the software. If one version of Photoshop contains a bug, for example, but the update isn’t compatible with a user’s operating system or graphics card, then the user is stuck with the bug or needs to upgrade their computer.
Sticking with compatibility for the next weakness, Photoshop does work with Windows and MAC operating systems, as well as on the iPad, but it does not work on Linux operating systems. Of course, you can use a virtual machine to run Photoshop on Linux, but it’s not quite the same as running it directly on your desktop.
Finally, for users who simply want to edit photos for personal, small business, or passion projects, Photoshop contains more features than they’ll ever need. This complexity can slow down simple photo editing tasks, especially when working on a computer running below the recommended system requirements.
Let’s move on to GIMP’s weaknesses.
Having a volunteer workforce is what makes GIMP free, but this does come with drawbacks. For one, development on GIMP can be inconsistent, with new release versions taking anywhere between three to six months to be made available – versus Photoshop’s steadier one release-version per month schedule. It is often the case that GIMP has more ideas than it has developers to implement those ideas, resulting in some features getting delayed over more routine bug fixes, while other features go overlooked entirely.
Another weakness in GIMP is its lack of non-destructive editing features. Though it has made up some ground on this front in recent years, it still does not have popular features like adjustment layers or smart objects. For many photographers used to working with these features in Photoshop, this can be a deal-breaker. However, there are some workarounds to preserve your images as you work, and the GIMP team has promised adjustment layers in a future version (GIMP 3.2, to be exact). They have also announced that they have been developing their own version of smart objects for a upcoming version of GIMP.
Lastly, GIMP does not currently support full CMYK color modes. This means that all your images are edited in the RGB color space and thus may not properly display if you need to print your work. This is once again a deal-breaker for some, especially those who work a lot with printers, but for people who only post their work online this is a non-factor.
GIMP does offer CMYK soft-proofing modes that allow you to preview how your colors will look once your composition is printed, which I cover in a dedicated tutorial. For some users, however, this is not enough as it still creates compatibility issues, especially if someone sends you a photo in CMYK mode and instructs you not to convert it to an RGB color space. Once again, the GIMP team has plans to implement a full CMYK color mode eventually, but currently the program does not support it.
Which Program Should You Use?
If you’re still wondering which program you should use, let me sum it up this way: GIMP is a fantastic free alternative to Photoshop for small businesses, casual photographers, influencers who post their work directly to their audience online, and even professional or freelance photographers working on a budget. It’s also perfect for beginners wanting to give photo editing and manipulation a try without having to make a purchase. In other words, if you aren’t working with clients or agencies that require you to work in Photoshop, GIMP will do the job just fine.
If you’re a professional photographer working for an agency that only uses Adobe products, or someone that isn’t as budget conscious and is willing to put in the hours to learn the ins and outs of a more complex program, then Photoshop is certainly for you. It is, after all, the best photo editing software money can buy (for now). Just make sure you have a computer powerful enough to handle the program, otherwise you may not be able to take full advantage of the power of Photoshop.
And remember, you can always download GIMP for free, even if you decide to purchase Photoshop.