Learning a new piece of software can take a great deal of time, so it’s no surprise that new image editors want to make sure that they’re spending their time wisely. GIMP and Paint.NET are two of the most popular free image editors available at the moment, but how do they compare against each other?
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free, open-source raster image editor that excels at precision image editing tasks. It can be expanded with free plugins that give it added functionality like RAW photo editing support, and it offers color management support for RGB color spaces.
GIMP is not exactly user-friendly, but it is very powerful. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, which is almost unique among image editors.
Paint.NET is a free raster image editor for casual home users, but despite its roots, it is no longer open source. It also has plugin support for many of the same plugins that GIMP offers, but it contains a more basic set of editing tools and no color management options.
Paint.NET is more user-friendly than GIMP, but that’s mostly because it has much more limited functionality. It’s only available for Windows, so Mac and Linux users are out of luck unless you’re willing to run it on a virtual machine like Parallels or WINE.
If GIMP is a clone of Photoshop, then Paint.NET is sort of like Photoshop Elements – a barebones version of its more powerful cousin. It isn’t really fair to either of them to make such a comparison, but for those of you who are familiar with the Adobe ecosystem, it should give you a sense of how much they differ.
A Quick Introduction
I can understand why you might be a bit wary about these kinds of comparison articles since most of them seem to be written by bots – or at least by people who seem like they’ve never actually used any image editor for more than five minutes at a time.
My name is Thomas Boldt, and I’m the writer and image editing expert on the TGT team. I’ve been involved in the digital art world for over 20 years, and much of that time has been working as a photographer and graphic designer. I’ve tested and worked with almost every image editor available today, so you can trust my comparison reviews to be more than just useless fluff.
With that out of the way, let’s get back to the good stuff.
GIMP vs. Paint.NET: Which Is Best?
Before we dive into the comparison, I want to set a few ground rules. In order to keep things nice and fair between the two programs I’m comparing, here are the categories that I look at for an image editor (and no, it’s not just about the tools!):
- Basic Editing Tools
- Automatic Adjustments
- Ease of Use
- The Learning Curve
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at GIMP and Paint.NET.
Basic Editing Tools
Manual editing tools are the bread and butter of a good image editor. You can add on as many fancy bells and whistles as you want, but if you don’t get these tools right, then you’re not really creating an image editor.
GIMP offers an impressive array of fully customizable brush-based editing tools that are flexible and responsive, even when working on high-resolution images. Its layer system could use a bit of updating, but it’s perfectly workable for simple non-destructive image retouching projects.
Paint.NET has decent responsive retouching tools too, but they’re not nearly as customizable as those in GIMP. Brush-based tools like Paintbrush and Clone Stamp only let you change brush size and brush hardness, but you can’t use custom shapes or other more complex dynamics.
Paint.NET also has a layering system, although you can’t use tools like Clone Stamp across multiple layers, which really limits its functionality to quick retouching projects where precision isn’t too important.
Winner: GIMP. Paint.NET has decent editing tools, but they’re not as capable as those found in GIMP.
Most image editors contain automatic adjustments for a range of purposes, from noise removal to contrast adjustment and everything in-between. If we’re looking at purely functional automatic adjustments, GIMP has a fairly basic set, but Paint.NET only has a couple of options.
If you include all the fancy image effect filters (which I don’t, usually, because they’re fun once but not really very useful in the long run), GIMP still comes out ahead thanks to the inclusion of the GEGL image processing library that has a bunch of built-in filters for both fun and function.
Of course, neither of these programs can compete with the automatic adjustments available in paid programs like Photoshop’s new Neural Filters that use machine learning algorithms to do some truly mind-blowing edits with just a few clicks.
Winner: GIMP. GIMP has a number of automatic adjustments available, while Paint.NET only has a few. Even if you count all the Filters/Effects as automatic adjustments, GIMP still wins by a significant margin.
Plugins are where these programs can really shine. If you’re not familiar with the idea, plugins are additional pieces of software written by other developers that ‘plug in’ to GIMP and Paint.NET, modifying each program with additional features and functionality.
These can range from RAW photo editing plugins to silly image filters (like you see above) to fancy new automatic adjustments like content-aware fills, although they’re not always as well supported as the main program itself, so you may run into some unexpected issues.
GIMP has a huge array of plugins thanks to its open-source nature, and the Paint.NET community has been adapting the more popular ones, although it does have its own community of native plugin developers too.
I find the plugin installation process is generally much simpler with GIMP, and the plugins tend to be (slightly) more polished and reliable because most of them were originally developed for GIMP rather than adapted for another program.
Winner: GIMP. Paint.NET can use a lot of the same plugins as GIMP, but they’re not always as well supported since Paint.NET has a smaller userbase.
Ease of Use
I almost feel bad that GIMP never wins this category, but it is definitely not the most user-friendly piece of software ever created – quite the opposite, in fact. Even after briefly hiring a user experience consultant, the GIMP developers never really seemed to prioritize user experience.
The GIMP interface can be customized, although it’s a bit more difficult to do than it is in Paint.NET. Paint.NET’s interface is barebones, but that’s not a bad thing – it doesn’t feel overwhelming when you first see it, and it lets you focus on your image.
The Learning Curve
Image editors require a fair bit of practice and experience to use properly, and the best programs go out of their way to help teach new users how they work. Unfortunately, neither GIMP nor Paint.NET is particularly good at this, although GIMP does take its indifference to special heights:
Paint.NET doesn’t install local help files either, but you probably won’t need them to figure out the basics. It’s far easier to learn by experimentation than GIMP is, although that’s partly because it’s easier to use overall.
Both programs do have extensive online user guides produced by the developers, and there are additional helpful tutorial sites like this one!
Winner: Paint.NET. If you have any kind of experience with image editors, Paint.NET is easy to learn, while GIMP still requires sites like this one to help new users learn the basics.
This category is usually a giveaway for GIMP because most of the programs that I compare it with are paid programs, while GIMP is free and always has been. Paint.NET is also free, which obviously counters GIMP’s usual advantage here, leading to an inescapable tie.
It’s important to note that both programs are available from multiple sources, and some of those sources will try to charge you money for them – but they are both 100% free software when downloaded from the official developers.
If you download Paint.NET from the Microsoft store, it costs $7, but this is treated as a donation to the developers and the same program is still available free from their website. GIMP is also available for money on the Microsoft Store, but these are all modified versions that I can’t recommend.
Winner: Tie. Both programs are free from the original developers, although donations are welcomed by both teams.
A Final Word
In the world of free software, competition between software isn’t quite as fierce as it is in the world of paid software. Sure, the developers want to build their market share, but they’re not losing money if you choose to go somewhere else.
This is a virtually priceless benefit for the users (that’s you and me and all the other readers here), and it’s important to take a moment to thank the developers for freely donating their valuable time to working on these projects for us.
Of course, because both of these programs are free, you might find yourself wondering if you really have to choose at all. Why not use both?
I find that both GIMP and Paint.NET can be helpful, depending on what I want to do. If you have the time, learn them both, and see which one works best for your personal needs!About Thomas Boldt