As you begin to get comfortable working with digital photos, the question that inevitably gets asked is, “What’s the best image editor for me to learn?” The answer is different for everyone since so much of it depends on personal taste – but how do GIMP and Lightroom compare?
GIMP and Lightroom are both excellent photo editors, but they’re not designed with the same purpose in mind. Lightroom catalogs and processes the RAW image files created by high-resolution DSLR cameras, while GIMP can’t even open them without the help of a third-party plugin.
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free, open-source, general-purpose raster image editor. It permanently alters the pixels of your image during editing, although it can use image layers to minimize the so-called ‘destructive’ nature of this editing method. See my detailed GIMP review to learn more.
It is available free for Windows, Mac, and Linux, which is quite rare among image editors – possibly even unique.
Lightroom (technically known as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic CC) is a paid app from Adobe that is part of the Creative Cloud platform. It excels at applying non-destructive adjustments to RAW image files and it also includes a cataloging system for organizing and managing large photo collections.
Lightroom is available for Windows and Mac (but not Linux) as part of a Creative Cloud subscription plan. The cheapest plan starts at $9.99 USD per month and includes constantly updated versions of Adobe Photoshop CC, Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, and Photoshop for iPad, along with 20GB of online storage in the Creative Cloud.
Quick Comparison Chart
|RAW Image Support||Requires a third-party plugin||Yes|
|Photo Collection Management||No||Yes|
|Price||Free & open-source||$9.99 per month, bundled with Photoshop|
Of course, I’m assuming that you want to know how GIMP compares to Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, which is the original incarnation of Lightroom. There is another version of Lightroom known simply as Lightroom CC, but it’s newer and not nearly as popular as the original.
Feeling a bit confused? You’re not alone – let me explain.
Too Many Lightrooms
Lightroom is one of the original photo editors designed from the ground up for handling non-destructive RAW photo workflows. Development began in 1999, just three years after the first version of GIMP was released, but it wasn’t finally seen by the public until 2006, and even that was only a beta version.
Lightroom was originally released under the name ‘Adobe Photoshop Lightroom’, due to the closely linked workflow created by using Photoshop and Lightroom together. Lightroom offered cataloging and non-destructive general adjustments, while Photoshop excelled at localized edits.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom went through six versions, but instead of releasing version 7.0, it was rebranded as Lightroom Classic CC to line up with the launch of the Creative Cloud platform that redefined the entire Adobe software ecosystem into its current subscription model.
At the same time, a cloud-focused version of the app was released with the name Lightroom CC. It forced users to store all their images in the Creative Cloud storage system, but as a result, it also gained some unique abilities like automatic image keyword tagging, powered by the Adobe Sensei machine learning algorithm.
I’m not sure what Adobe’s reasons for this naming decision were, but it wound up just creating a great deal of confusion. I guess they were trying to capitalize on the existing Lightroom brand loyalty, but many users became worried that Lightroom Classic would soon be discontinued.
Adobe claims they intend to support it over the long term, but they have a history of failing to keep these sorts of promises. So far they’ve continued to update it regularly with optimizations and new features, but it’s still possible that they’ll wind up treating it as ‘end-of-life’ software.
All of this is a long way to say that ‘Lightroom’ can refer to two very different programs, but for the purposes of this review, I’m going to stick to comparing GIMP to Lightroom Classic CC.
The newer cloud version hasn’t gained the same user base as the original version, and the Classic CC version is what most people mean when they refer to ‘Lightroom’ without specifying which one they mean.
The Lightroom Classic CC Workflow
Before Lightroom, most photo editing happened entirely within an editor like Photoshop. You opened a single image to work on, processed it until you were satisfied with the result, and then saved and exported it for use in whatever project you were working on.
Lightroom came along and changed all that by emphasizing non-destructive editing techniques for RAW photos. Non-destructive edits don’t actually alter the pixels within an image – they act like filters that change how the image is displayed, and they can be adjusted later without having to start the editing process from the beginning.
This was utterly transformative for the world of digital photo editing. If you were 95% of the way through your edit and then wanted to go back and change something crucial like the white balance, you simply adjusted the white balance slider, and none of the other edits you had made were affected.
Instead of a linear, destructive editing process that altered the pixels in your image, each individual edit became a separate entity.
It even became possible to do some localized retouching non-destructively. If you remove a freckle from the tip of your subject’s nose and it turns out later that they loved seeing it, you can simply delete that one local adjustment without having to re-edit the entire photo.
Because the edits you make to an image aren’t actually altering the pixels, it’s possible to copy and paste entire editing presets from one photo to another. Editing entire photoshoots became possible with just a few clicks, and the non-destructive workflow concept was in the spotlight everywhere.
Suddenly, many photographers were ignoring Photoshop and focusing exclusively on using Lightroom. Lightroom became the primary photo editing tool for many photographers, and Photoshop became a more specialized tool that was only used on a few images in need of specific and complex edits that were outside Lightroom’s capabilities.
Recreating The Workflow In GIMP
Of course, the non-destructive editing concept wasn’t created or owned by Adobe, so many other image editors began incorporating the same concepts as they gained in popularity. As a result, it’s possible to recreate Lightroom’s non-destructive workflow in GIMP using some additional plugins.
GIMP does not natively support RAW image files the way Lightroom does, but there are two popular open-source Lightroom clones that offer GIMP plugins: darktable and RawTherapee. These allow you to open RAW files in GIMP, though in a more complicated and roundabout way.
Opening a RAW file using GIMP triggers your chosen plugin to open and take over. You can process your image non-destructively using the plugin interface, and then when you close the plugin, your processed image is passed directly to GIMP for any further editing you may require.
This might sound like the Lightroom/Photoshop workflow I described earlier, but it’s actually more like using Photoshop and its built-in RAW processor, the unimaginatively named Adobe Camera RAW.
To get the full benefit of the workflow, it’s necessary to use GIMP and your chosen RAW processor as separate programs that work in tandem when required. If you use darktable or RawTherapee exclusively as plugins, you’ll lose the cataloging and multiple edit features that make them great.
A Final Word
As you can see, it’s next to impossible to directly compare GIMP and Lightroom, even though they’re both technically photo editors. I hope you’ve got a slightly better sense of how the two differ, how you can start using non-destructive editing techniques in your workflow, and why it’s useful.
Personally, I much prefer working with Lightroom for my photo collection. The cataloging system isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than trying to use your operating system to organize a large collection.
If you shoot a lot of photos, I strongly recommend that you try out the free trial of Lightroom and Photoshop so you can see how things work for yourself.
If you’re committed to the free and open-source world, then I recommend that you check out the absurdly named but very polished RawTherapee as the ‘Lightroom stage’ of your workflow. It’s free, and it plays well with GIMP. You can use it as a standalone program too, and it’s a far more fair and accurate comparison with Lightroom than GIMP.
Whatever you choose for your workflow, happy editing!About Thomas Boldt