Photoshop is the only image editor in history to have its name turned into a verb: ‘to Photoshop’ a picture means to edit it. GIMP doesn’t exactly enjoy the same level of name recognition, but it’s still popular. So how do they compare in terms of capability?
My name is Thomas Boldt, and I’ve been digital image editing for fun and profit since before the turn of the millennium (yes, that millennium). I’ve used almost every editor available for PC and Mac, and I can help you cut through the noise to figure out which is best for you.
The very short answer is that Photoshop is leaps and bounds ahead of GIMP. It has more powerful features, better support, and a huge community of users who can help if you run into trouble. If you need a professional-quality image editor, Photoshop is the perfect solution.
Photoshop costs $9.99 per month as part of a Creative Cloud subscription and comes bundled with Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Lightroom Classic, Photoshop for iPad, and 20GB of cloud storage space. You can sign up for a free trial here, or read on to see more comparisons.
GIMP stands tall in one area: it’s entirely free and open-source, which means that anyone can examine the code and even develop their own improvements. It has a decent set of basic image editing tools but also has a few issues that mean it might not be the best choice for an editor.
GIMP vs. Photoshop: Head-to-Head Comparison
As you’d expect for image editors, the most important thing to compare is how well they can actually edit your image! But with so many different reasons for editing an image, we’ll have to zoom in a bit to do a proper comparison.
1. Selection Tools
One of the most common image editing tasks is editing just a small section of an image. In order to do that, you often have to use selection tools to define the area you want to edit. This makes them one of the most important tools to get right!
When it comes to manual selection tools like rectangles and ovals, GIMP and Photoshop perform about the same. They both come with a good range of options, and they’re both responsive while you’re working with them.
The real differences show when you start looking at the automatic selection tools. Selecting a product box on a white background is easy to do by hand, but selecting individual strands of hair on your model by hand will drive you crazy almost instantly! Automatic tools to the rescue.
The Fuzzy Select tool in GIMP took about 20 seconds to decide what I had clicked on and isolate it for me – so long that I actually thought I’d crashed the program. The same process in Photoshop with the Magic Wand tool was finished as soon as my finger finished clicking.
Additional preset selection tools in Photoshop make it easy to select a specific color range, the area of your image that’s in focus, or the entire sky. You can even try to select your subject automatically, but this doesn’t always work well on images with complex backgrounds.
Photoshop also has excellent tools for adjusting your current selection boundaries, allowing you to feather, expand/shrink, and automatically mask your selections. GIMP offers a few ways to customize selection behavior, but they don’t offer the same level of control as Photoshop.
Winner: Photoshop, thanks to its impressive automatic selection tools and refinement options that dramatically speed up your workflow.
2. Healing and Cloning
Another extremely common editing job is hiding or duplicating elements of your image. When you need to fix a zit in a selfie or stop someone from photobombing your family reunion snapshots, healing and cloning tools help you patch things up while still looking realistic.
Winner: Tie. Both Photoshop and GIMP handle cloning and healing quite well, and the tools are responsive even during long strokes in both programs.
3. Automatic Adjustments
One of the biggest new trends in software development is that everyone wants to include tools powered by artificial intelligence (AI). A lot of the time these claims are just marketing buzz, but Adobe has just launched some incredible AI tools lately that you have to see to believe.
Photoshop CC 2021 includes a new set of tools called ‘Neural Filters’ which use machine learning to apply powerful adjustments to your images with just a few simple sliders. GIMP doesn’t offer anything even remotely similar.
Winner: Photoshop, no question about it. GIMP still struggles with automatically correcting brightness and contrast, while Photoshop can give you perfect skin instantly, change your facial features, or even create entirely new sections of background from your existing photo.
4. Common Image Formats
Both GIMP and Photoshop handle all the common types of image files like JPG, PNG, GIF, and TIFF files. Photoshop uses the proprietary PSD format to save more complex files, but GIMP is one of few programs that can also open and save the PSD format.
Winner: Tie. Both GIMP and Photoshop can handle any common image file type.
5. RAW Photo Editing
High-quality cameras save their photos using a special format type known as ‘RAW’ because it contains the raw image data directly from the camera’s sensor. Each manufacturer has its own method of creating RAW files, so it’s important to check that your image editor is compatible.
Photoshop uses a built-in processor called Camera RAW to open and process your RAW files. You can make non-destructive edits like white balance, contrast, and lens distortion corrections, then your image opens immediately in Photoshop for additional pixel editing.
GIMP uses a similar process to Photoshop, but instead of Camera RAW, it uses the free open-source program darktable – as long as you have it installed. Your image opens in darktable, you adjust it as desired, and then your image opens ready for editing in GIMP.
Winner: It’s an extremely close call, but Photoshop wins thanks to a streamlined process and regular updates supporting the newest cameras and RAW types.
6. User Interface
Photoshop’s interface can be overwhelming at first, but GIMP can feel the same way to new users. Photoshop allows you to customize the location of every panel, popup, and tool window, plus you can save different configurations and switch between them easily.
GIMP used to have a painfully bad interface by default, but the latest update has made a huge improvement. You can customize the location of some panel elements, but not everything, and there’s no way to set up multiple workspace styles.
Winner: Photoshop. The ability to set up multiple custom preset workspaces for different types of image editing is extremely helpful.
7. Learning the Software
Learning a new program is often challenging, especially when they’re complex and powerful. It’s extremely helpful to have on-screen hints and guides, as well as a lot of online resources like tutorials and support forums.
Photoshop is famously difficult to learn, but recently Adobe has been working hard on integrating hands-on tutorials and guides available directly in Photoshop from the Help menu. These will open all the files you’ll need for the tutorial without having to download anything else.
One of the unfortunate problems with free software is that there is often very little support available to help guide new users. There are online tutorials for common tasks, but they’re definitely not as polished when it comes to teaching the software.
Winner: Photoshop. Having on-screen guides, tutorials, and a huge community of users makes it much easier to learn.
Last but certainly not least is the question of price. This one is an easy win for GIMP since it is entirely free open-source software, and it always has been. The developers donate their time to the project because they love working on it, which is quite admirable and must be appreciated.
Photoshop is only available from Adobe as part of a monthly Creative Cloud subscription which costs $9.99. It used to be available with a perpetual license, where you buy it once for a huge price like $700 and that version is yours forever, but that option was phased out several years ago.
At first, this might sound like a bad deal compared to GIMP’s monthly price of zero, but your subscription also comes bundled with Adobe Lightroom CC, Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, Photoshop for iPad, and 20GB of cloud storage space.
Most importantly, though, you get constant updates whenever there is a new feature release, and major updates are usually released at least once a year.
Winner: Tie. In terms of value for your money, I’ve always thought that the $9.99 subscription bundle for Photoshop & Lightroom is worth it to get access to the best image editor in the world. But it’s arguably impossible to compete with the value that you get from free software!
Do Professionals Use GIMP?
The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that there are probably some professional photographers out there who are committed to the open-source software movement, but they’re definitely few and far between. Photoshop is the industry standard for image editing.
Is GIMP Good for Beginners?
It depends on your learning style, but it’s not the best choice. It doesn’t have any on-screen introduction guide or the same level of online tutorial support available to Photoshop. Sometimes it can be confusing for new users, as you’re forced to figure things out for yourself.
It does have the advantage of being free, which makes it simple to test out for yourself. However, Photoshop does also offer a 30-day free trial with no obligation, so you can try them both out to see which one you find easier to work with.
A Final Word on the Winner
So now that you’ve had a rundown of the pros and cons of GIMP vs Photoshop, I hope things are a bit clearer – but you might still be wondering which is right for you.
If you’re a beginner who’s never edited an image before, you might want to give GIMP a try to see if it’s something you’re interested in before you spend any money.
But considering that Photoshop has a free 30-day trial that includes all of its helpful free training and introductory tutorials, you can still experiment at no cost – and without all the hassles that come with learning GIMP from outdated manuals and tutorials.About Thomas Boldt