With the release of version 2.10, GIMP is now a truly viable alternative to Photoshop. So is it the right time to cancel your Adobe subscription and adopt this free open-source image editing package that works on every platform?
If you’re ready to make the jump to GIMP, you’ll discover things work differently to how they are in Photoshop. But once you find your way around, you’ll be able to unlock GIMP’s power as a graphic design and photo editing tool.
Go ahead and download GIMP and let’s get started.
Step 1: Find Your Way Around GIMP
The first thing to do when switching to any new piece of software is to master its interface so you can find your way around quickly. GIMP has long had a reputation for being complicated to use—as it was created by engineers rather than designers—but things have improved in version 2.10.
It’s still different, but the new layout and theme should make it far less alien to Photoshop users.
GIMP 2.10 now opens as a single window, unlike previous versions where each panel was held in its own self-contained window. There’s less ability to customize your workspace than in Photoshop, but you can add tabs to the right hand docks at Windows > Dockable Dialogs.
The default layout is clean and accessible. The canvas is in the center. The top left houses the Toolbox, laid out as a grid. This is GIMP’s version of the Toolbar.
Bottom left is the Tool Options dock. This is the equivalent to the Options Bar in Photoshop. The settings differ based on what tool you’ve got selected. It also contains a tab for your graphics tablet, to view Undo levels, and to manage all your open images.
Top right is a dock that you can customize with your own choice of tabs. You can add things like a histogram, swatches, brushes, and fonts.
On the bottom right you’ve got the dock for layers, channels, and paths. This is very similar to what you get in Photoshop. You can choose blend modes and opacity, lock layers, and create masks.
Step 2: Tweak the Settings to Your Liking
Next up, it’s time to change a few settings to help make GIMP function a little more like Photoshop. These are all down to taste, of course, but we’ve picked a few common ones you’re likely to want to get started.
First, go to View > Snap to Grid. This causes all your objects to snap into place when you move them. It makes it much easier to keep things aligned.
Next, go to View > Show Layer Boundary. By default, GIMP shows a yellow dotted line around the edge of your background layer. This turns it off.
Get images to open faster at Edit > Preferences > Image Import & Export > Convert to preferred RGB color profile. Without this, GIMP will ask you which color profile to use every time you open an image.
Finally, clean up the Toolbox by going to Edit > Preferences > Interface > Toolbox and deselecting some of the transform tools. You no longer need them all as the new Unified Transform has combined them into a single tool akin to Photoshop’s Free Transform.
Step 3: Learn the GIMP Keyboard Shortcuts
Learning keyboard shortcuts is an essential way to speed up your workflow. GIMP has lots of them. Some are the same as they are in Photoshop, others aren’t. Here’s a rundown of some of the ones you’ll use most often. If you’re on a Mac, replace Ctrl with Cmd.
Working With Files
- New image: Ctrl+N
- New image from clipboard: Shift+Ctrl+V
- Open multiple images as layers: Ctrl+Alt+O
- Save image: Ctrl+S
- Undo: Ctrl+Z (repeat to go back multiple steps)
- Redo: Ctrl+Y
- Repeat last: Ctrl+F
- Paste as new image: Shift+Ctrl+V
- Color picker: O
- Default colors: D
- Swap colors: X
- Fill with foreground color: Ctrl+Comma
- Fill with background color: Ctrl+Period
- Invert selection: Ctrl+I
- Select from path: Shift+V
- Toggle quick mask: Shift+Q
- Show selection: Ctrl+T
- Duplicate layer: Shift+Ctrl+D
- Deselect: Shift+Ctrl+A
- Rectangle tool: R
- Ellipse tool: E
- Free Select tool: F
- Bucket fill: Shift+B
- Gradient: G
- Pencil: N
- Paintbrush: P
- Text: T
- Clone: C
- Dodge and Burn: Shift+D
- Align items: Q
- Move: M
- Crop: Shift+C
- Scale: Shift+T
In time these shortcuts will become second nature. However, at first you might find your muscle memory keeps kicking in, and you’re hitting Photoshop keyboard shortcuts instead.
There’s a simple solution to this: You can manually set up your own keyboard shortcuts for GIMP actions. Go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts to do this.
Step 4: Learn What Tools Are Called
One of the things that has always made the GIMP learning curve seem so steep is that many of the most common tools are named differently than Photoshop’s tools. Not only that, but the names can be pretty obtuse too.
Here’s a quick list of the main Photoshop tools and their GIMP counterparts:
- Rectangular Marquee > Rectangle Select
- Elliptical Marquee > Ellipse Select
- Lasso > Free Select
- Magic Wand > Fuzzy Select
- Free Transform > Unified Transform
- Paint Bucket > Bucket Fill
There’s similar confusion when you’re trying to perform common tasks. The appropriate tools aren’t always found where you’d expect them to be.
For example, the Noise Reduction tool, designed to help you achieve noise-free photos, is located under Filters > Enhance. You’ll find the Unsharp Mask tool here, too.
You’ll find the tools for post-processing your photos under the Colors menu. And general graphics tools, including text, paths, paint, and colors, are all clumped together under the Tools menu.
Step 5: Understand GIMP File Formats
GIMP saves files in the XCF format by default. There’s a new version for GIMP 2.10 that promises better compression for smaller file sizes, but this is not compatible with older versions of GIMP.
You should be wary of using this format at all if you plan on sharing your file with anyone else. There’s no guarantee that non-GIMP users will be able to open it.
There’s always the option to save your files in a more mainstream format. Go to File > Export, then click Select File Type to see your available options. There’s heaps of supported formats, including PSD for Photoshop.
Click Export once you’ve made your choice.
The GIMP Experience Isn’t Much Different
Now you’re set. Once you get used to GIMP you’ll start to find it becomes a lot more familiar and usable than it first appears. And lots of the smaller navigation tricks you’re used to from Photoshop still work.
Like, you can place guides on your image by dragging down from the rulers, or you can adjust the brush size or other sliders with the scroll wheel or cursor keys.
The biggest difference you’ll have to get used to is that GIMP is undeniably slower than Photoshop. Even fairly basic tasks like filling colors or drawing lines take their time.
What’s Missing in GIMP?
Less important, but still noticeable, is the absence of adjustment layers, making non-destructive editing harder to achieve. And some of Photoshop’s smarter features, like content-aware fill, are also missing. You can get plugins to replace these.
Support for Actions is also limited. It is possible to use them, but you have to code GIMP scripts manually.
Is It Time to Switch to GIMP?
GIMP 2.10 is a decent substitute for Photoshop. Yes, it lacks some of the polish and there’s a bit of a learning curve, but if you want to save some money, or just don’t like Adobe’s subscription model, it’s well worth a look.
Once you’ve got used to how GIMP differs from Photoshop you’ll be ready to start mastering the program. For your next step, take a look at our guide to GIMP photo editing as well as our collection of Photoshop skills you can master in GIMP.