The GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is a popular open source image editing application. It’s often described as a free Photoshop competitor. While it can do a lot of what Photoshop can do, there are some areas it falls short.
This article isn’t a hit piece for GIMP. It’s just an honest look at where Photoshop’s massive budget and team of developers have given it the edge. There’s more than one reason that the vast majority of professionals use Photoshop.
CMYK Color Mode
There are two dominant color modes that professional photographers and designers use: RGB and CMYK. RGB comes from the red, green, and blue pixels that are used both to capture images with cameras and to portray them on a digital screen. CMYK comes from the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks used by commercial printers.
Any color can be described using these two systems though which one you use depends on the task you’re doing. If you’re working on something that needs to be displayed accurately on screen then RGB is the best, however, if you’re going to be printing your work, then you need to work in CMYK for the best results.
GIMP doesn’t offer a CMYK mode while Photoshop does. This is more relevant to designers than to photographers, but it can be a deal breaker if you’re planning on printing your work.
Easier Non-Destructive Editing
One of the most powerful innovations in Photoshop over the last decade has easier non-destructive editing. Rather than changing the original file, you use Photoshop’s tools to modify things in a reversible way. If you want to see them in action, I use a load of non-destructive techniques in my article on creating a spooky Facebook profile picture.
While GIMP has improved a lot in recent years, non-destructive editing is one area where it still doesn’t compete with Photoshop. If you’re making simple adjustments to your images that’s no problem but if you’re trying to do crazy Photoshop composites it makes your work a lot harder.
Better Support and Constant Development
Photoshop is made by a $40 billion dollar company. GIMP is made by a team of dedicated volunteers. While this hasn’t stopped the GIMP team making a respectable program, it does have a lot of knock on effects. It’s fun to be the one to implement a cool new feature, but volunteering to answer tech support phone calls? Not a hope.
Adobe has entire teams dedicated to helping you with every problem. It’s simple to phone up and speak to support staff in whatever language you want. They’ll walk you through fixing your problem. With GIMP you’re stuck trawling through open source forums by yourself.
By the same token, Adobe is able to keep development going constantly. GIMP is reliant on volunteers’ free time. Things like bugfixes are continuously rolling out from Adobe while it can take longer for a GIMP developer to get round to fixing things, let alone implementing new features.
More Powerful Tools
All the extra development resources means that Photoshop has more powerful tools. The basics like levels, curves, and masks are available in both programs but when it comes to real pixel manipulation Photoshop leaves GIMP far behind.
For example, Photoshop has four separate healing tools each with an array of controls that lets you determine how they operate. GIMP has a single healing tool. For removing the odd spot it’s fine, but for serious editing work it isn’t enough control.
The same situation repeats itself with many of the other features the two applications share. GIMPs tools are just at the point that Photoshop was at a few versions ago.
Play Nice With Other Apps
Photoshop is part of an ecosystem. There’s Lightroom, Bridge, and every other Creative Cloud app that you can open your Photoshop work in. For example, I use Lightroom to perform basic edits and keep all my photo organized. Then I do the heavy editing in Photoshop. Finally, if I want to design something or print a booklet with my work I’ll kick the file over to Illustrator or InDesign. There’s something for every job.
GIMP is on its own. It’s just a single image editing app. There’s no Lightroom or Bridge to organize things. No Illustrator to make business cards. For people who just want to use an image editing app for basic things occasionally this is fine, but if you’re shooting 1000 photos a week then having Photoshop play nice with Lightroom is essential.
Handle RAW and PSD Files
Modern cameras can shoot either RAW or JPG files. RAW files contain a lot more information; if you want to improve your photographs you should be using them. Out of the box, Photoshop, thanks to CameraRAW, can handle RAW files from every major camera manufacturer. Periodic updates add support for all the new cameras files. GIMP on the other hand, can’t. You need to use an additional RAW processor to convert the file to a JPG before editing it in GIMP.
Thanks to Adobe’s dominance, their proprietary PSD file type, has become widely used. It’s often used for commercial purposes much like other proprietary formats like PDFs and DOCs are. GIMP can open PSD files but will occasionally fail to render things correctly. This creates a real problem if you’re working with someone else; the file you look at with GIMP won’t be the same as the one they created in Photoshop.
Easier to Learn
Whether Photoshop’s interface is more intuitive is debatable — GIMP has improved a lot in the last few years going from unbearably ugly to bearably ugly — but what’s indisputable is that Photoshop is much easier to learn thanks to the countless awesome tutorials available online.
— lynda.com (@lynda) January 28, 2016
While there are some tutorials available for GIMP, most people are using Photoshop. Even the tutorials I write for this site, like how to make a Christmas card, use Photoshop. If you want to use GIMP you can follow along as best you can but you may encounter problems. It also leaves you very much on your own when you’re starting out.
GIMP is a great application for many people. It’s perfect for making simple changes to your images. When it comes to real work, however, Photoshop more than justifies its price tag. CMYK mode, non-destructive editing, the Creative Cloud ecosystem, and everything else that Photoshop brings to the table are essential features for most professionals.
Again, this article isn’t meant to be a take down of GIMP. It’s just mean to help you make an educated decision between the two programs. If you don’t need any of Photoshop’s more powerful features, GIMP may be the app for you. Basic tasks like editing backgrounds are perfectly doable in GIMP.