Whenever anyone asks for a free alternative to Adobe Photoshop, GIMP is always the first program that people talk about. Launched at the very start of 1996, it’s one of the oldest open-source image editors still under active development, and it’s still free and open source today.
How does GIMP compare to professional image editing software available for sale today? Can it hold its own in a professional environment? Is it easy to learn? I’ll answer all of these questions and more in this in-depth review of GIMP, but first I should introduce myself quickly.
For those of you who haven’t read any of my other articles here, my name is Thomas Boldt, and I’m the writer and image editing expert on the TGT team. I’ve been interested in the digital arts for over 20 years and have worked in the field for almost as long, and it’s been quite a ride as technology advances.
Over the years, I’ve worked with every industry-standard graphics program and experimented with almost every other image editor available, both in the free open-source world and in the world of proprietary paid apps.
I’ve spent countless hours testing and comparing different editing programs so that you don’t have to (although it’s certainly a great way to learn if you’re an autodidact like me!).
Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at GIMP – the powerful image editor with an unusual name.
- A (Very) Brief History of GIMP
- A Closer Look at GIMP
- Frequently Asked Questions About GIMP
- A Final Word About GIMP
A (Very) Brief History of GIMP
GIMP is an acronym that stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and GNU itself is an acronym that stands for GNU’s Not Unix. Yes, the acronym GNU contains the acronym itself, making it a so-called recursive acronym, which is the kind of joke that some programmers absolutely love, apparently. Perhaps it was funnier in the 1980s when they came up with it 😉
First launched in 1996, GIMP has undergone a number of heavy revisions over the course of its existence, culminating in the current stable version 2.10. There is a new version currently in development, known as 2.99, which will eventually become GIMP 3, but no release date has been officially announced.
Considering that it took 6 years to go from version 2.8 to version 2.10, it might be a while before it finally reaches a point where it’s ready to be released, but it looks very cool.
A Closer Look at GIMP
When I write up a review of an image editor, I try to stick to a few specific criteria so that each program gets a fair chance to show off its abilities on a level playing field.
With that in mind, here are the elements I look at the essential editing tools, automatic adjustment tools, unique bonus features, ease of use, the learning materials available to help new users, and what kind of tech support you can expect from the developers if you run into an issue.
Essential Editing Tools
These are the tools that make or break an image editor like GIMP. Editing pixels is its primary job, so the tools need to be capable, adjustable, and responsive. From the clone/healing brush to the burn/dodge tool, all of GIMP’s brush-based tools are excellent, even when working on large high-resolution images.
GIMP’s brush system allows for an impressive degree of customization, allowing you to recreate any real-world medium and a few that probably wouldn’t even be possible with physical materials. Each of the manual editing tools shares the same brush system, so the attributes soon become familiar.
I’ve tested out paid software that could learn a thing or two from GIMP’s brushes. It’s always possible to push brushes to the limits of what your processor can handle, but I’ve never run into a situation where a brush was laggy or unresponsive in normal usage.
GIMP’s selection tools are also top-notch, although they could be a bit more user-friendly when it comes to some of the more complicated settings options in the
Transform tools are the last piece of the essentials toolkit, and GIMP handles them quite well thanks to the helpful oversized handles that were incorporated in GIMP 2.8 as part of a larger overall usability improvement goal.
The Unified Transform tool handles almost anything you throw at it from rotation to perspective shear, which makes it a bit odd that GIMP still maintains dedicated tools for each of these options, but this is only a minor problem that might confuse new users with too many options.
While GIMP’s essential editing tools are perfectly capable, it doesn’t stand up so well in the world of automatic adjustments. It has a nice selection of filters that can create some pretty impressive effects, but a lot of these are closer to toys than productivity enhancements.
If you’re looking for something more advanced like content-aware fill, you’ll have to install a third-party plugin like Resynthesizer. I love GIMP’s plugin system, but it would be nice to have some of these advanced features built in and actually officially supported by the developers.
By comparison, Photoshop has recently added a whole slew of automatic adjustments powered by machine learning algorithms. You can replace an entire sky in a single click, remove blemishes from your subject’s skin or even change the expression on their face. Of course, some of these are also still in the “toy” stage, but they’re still lightyears ahead of GIMP.
Expanding GIMP With Plugins
Plugins are pieces of third-party software that integrate with GIMP to give it new features and functionality. GIMP has always been open-source software, which means that anyone can download the source code to see how it works – a dream for plugin developers.
As a result, there is a huge library of free plugins available that allow you to totally customize the way that GIMP works. You can add support for RAW photo editing, CMYK colors for printing, or just a bunch of crazy fun effects that probably don’t have an actual use other than to make you say, ‘Wow, how’d they DO that?!’.
Check out my list of the best GIMP plugins here, complete with installation instructions.
Ease of Use
For those of you who have never used an image editor before, GIMP can be a wildly confusing experience at first. Even for those who have some familiarity with other image editing programs, GIMP’s approach can seem a bit counterintuitive sometimes.
The ability to completely customize the user interface can make a huge difference in ease of use, but it all depends on the type of projects you use GIMP for. I keep GIMP in the default configuration so that new users can follow along with my screenshots more easily, but you’ll probably be much happier with a custom layout.
Despite the fact that nobody should be considering GIMP easy to use, it’s actually much more user-friendly than it used to be. It only recently began setting Single-Window Mode as the default configuration, since new users often ended up closing important panels and not knowing how to recover them.
I have high hopes for usability improvements in the next version of GIMP, but we’ll have to wait and see!
I really wish that GIMP took a bit of time to help out new users, but it drops you right into the deep end instead. Most complex programs like image editors now come with a welcome screen that introduces new users to the basics and provides some links to tutorial resources, but GIMP hasn’t yet included anything of the sort.
I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but there are quite a number of excellent GIMP tutorials available here 😉 I’ve tried to make this site a comprehensive tutorial guide to the most common tasks in GIMP, and I hope that you’ll be coming back throughout your learning journey!
Tech Support for GIMP
This area is where many users run into trouble with free software, and GIMP is no exception. Because the developers are very generously sharing their hard work with us for free, there isn’t a dedicated tech support helpline that you can call when you run into trouble.
Instead, you’re left with some out-of-date technical documentation from the developers and a whole lot of forum posts. If you’re good with search engines, you might be able to find the answers to your questions, but many of the results deal with older versions of GIMP or simply provide incomplete (or totally incorrect) solutions.
What I Don’t Like
There are only two areas of image editing in GIMP that I consistently have problems with: layers and typography. Arguably, there could be three, since GIMP doesn’t handle the CMYK color space used for printing images properly, but I almost never print images anymore (do you?).
It’s fairly easy to do layer-based edits and compositing with the current layer system, but it’s also somewhat limited compared to other editors. GIMP doesn’t support adjustment layers, which makes it much harder to use a non-destructive workflow.
You can’t select multiple layers at once, so you’ll have to rely on layer groups and linked layers to move multiple objects. This doesn’t pose a problem when you’ve only got three layers, but if you’re trying to work on a complex image composite with tens or even hundreds of layers, you’ll soon run into trouble with layer hierarchy and visibility.
Setting text is also needlessly complicated in GIMP. The text system is capable enough when you’re just adding a few words as a watermark or something similar, but if you apply any kind of edit to the text other than a Move or Scale command, you’ll lose the ability to edit the contents.
Frequently Asked Questions About GIMP
After spending a lot of time working with GIMP, here are a few of the most common questions that I get asked by users from around the world. If you’ve got another question that I didn’t answer in this review, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it here!
Is GIMP really free?
Yes. It’s not a free trial or a limited freemium model.
GIMP is available free to the public under the General Public License v3, also known as GPLv3+.
Without getting into a legal discussion, it essentially means that GIMP is available free to any user for personal or commercial purposes and that you can view, edit, share, or even sell the source code and/or a version you’ve modified, as long as you include the terms of the GPLv3+.
Can GIMP be used professionally?
The short answer is no. The more complex answer is yes, from a technical and legal standpoint, but you probably shouldn’t bother if efficiency and productivity are your primary goals. If you’re a one-person studio that doesn’t need to collaborate with other artists or designers, you might be ok, but it doesn’t seem worth it to me.
Photoshop is the industry-standard image editor used by most professional studios and creative agencies, and even though GIMP can technically open and save Photoshop’s native PSD files, you’ll quickly run into compatibility issues that stop your productivity in its tracks.
Is GIMP still in development?
The current version of GIMP as of this writing is 2.10.24, which was released on March 29, 2021, but the development team has been hard at work on the next major release of GIMP, which will be version 3.0.
The full roadmap of features is available here on the GIMP website, and you can even download a beta version which is currently labeled 2.99 until it’s ready for the final release.
While GIMP is a great image editor, it’s not the only one that’s worth a look. Depending on your needs and your situation, one of these alternative options might be a better fit for your workflow requirements.
Let’s get this one out of the way right off the bat. Photoshop is included in every single list of image editors because it’s the industry standard – end of the story. It’s the most feature-rich, most reliable, and most widely supported image editor available on the market, and for very good reason.
Of course, just because it’s the industry standard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right fit for you. Adobe switched almost all of its software catalog onto a monthly subscription model, and that has outraged many users who preferred the single purchase system used in the past.
Affinity Photo arguably started a trend of so-called “Photoshop killers” – programs that are all competing to unseat Photoshop as the industry standard for photo editing. Its tagline is that it’s “built by photographers for photographers,” and it’s become a very popular option for anyone looking to free themselves from the Adobe subscription model.
Overall it’s a great image editor for most photo editing projects, but its layer handling is almost as awkward as in GIMP. It has native support for non-destructive RAW photo editing, HDR tone mapping, and many other advanced features that GIMP can only handle with a third-party plugin.
ZPS has been around almost as long as Affinity Photo but hasn’t managed to build up the same level of community awareness. This is a real shame because Zoner Photo Studio is an excellent image editor that deserves its time in the spotlight. It offers a carefully designed interface with powerful, responsive tools and a level of support for new users that GIMP should aspire to.
ZPS is only available as a monthly subscription, but that also means that you get regular updates as the development team adds new features. A lot of developers claim this without delivering, but the ZPS team has been quite consistently pushing new updates the whole time I’ve been watching it.
If you want to rely on the strength of the Adobe software ecosystem but you’re not ready to dive into the full version, Photoshop Elements can give you the core editing capabilities in a single-user license model with no monthly subscription.
Its editing tools are excellent, and it is very user-friendly no matter what skill level you’re at. The quick mode gives you access to the basics, while guided edits provide step-by-step instructions for completing advanced tasks.
Once you’re familiar with the program, you can switch to Expert mode to get the full range of editing tools at your fingertips. Read my detailed GIMP vs Photoshop Elements comparison review for more.
Pixlr is a slightly different kind of editor from all the others in this list because it can be used entirely within a web browser. You wouldn’t want to use it for editing high-resolution RAW photos (it doesn’t support them) but it’s great for low-res snapshots that you want to quickly edit and share online.
The success of the web version provided them with the funding to develop a downloadable desktop version of the program, although I think that most of the value in Pixlr comes from the fact that it’s a lightweight web app you can use from anywhere.
A Final Word About GIMP
Even though it’s not always the most polished program, GIMP is a true jewel of the free software world. I poke fun at it sometimes, but it’s an impressive example of what can be accomplished by a dedicated team of developers who are generous enough to share the results of their work with us for free.
The future looks bright for GIMP with the upcoming release of version 3.0. Even though the developers haven’t set a release date yet (and probably won’t for quite a while), it makes me happy to know that there will always be a high-quality free image editor available to the world!
Are you using GIMP for your personal or professional practice? Let us know in the comments below, and show off your work!About Thomas Boldt