In the world of free image editors, there is never a shortage of programs to choose from. But when you’re exploring new software, it can be hard to tell where you should be investing your time and effort – because despite what we might like, there isn’t always enough time to learn them all.
GIMP and IrfanView are two of the most popular free image programs available, and they both have extremely long development histories as well as unique and powerful features. Which should you spend your time learning? Like most things, it depends on what your goal is.
GIMP is a legend in the world of open-source software. It’s an extremely powerful image editor that can be expanded using third-party plugins to add almost any feature that you want, from RAW photo editing to advanced filters like content-aware fill.
GIMP is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, which is almost (if not totally) unique among image editors.
IrfanView is also quite popular, but it has a much wider range of features with far less focus on actual image editing. It can still do basic edits like image cropping, cloning, and painting markup, but it also offers batch processing, slideshow creation, and metadata editing.
It’s also important to point out that while it is free for personal use, using IrfanView for a business requires purchasing a license. By contrast, GIMP is free for any use with no restrictions.
To really see how IrfanView and GIMP compare, let’s take a closer look at both programs.
A Closer Look At GIMP
GIMP, also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is one of the most popular open-source programs still available today. Many users consider it the next best thing to Adobe Photoshop, even though the GIMP developers argue that the two are not intended to be comparable (though their logic escapes me).
With excellent brush-based painting and editing tools, precision image manipulation, a huge range of filters and effects, and the ability to add new features through third-party plugins, GIMP is hard to beat in the image editing department.
Layer-based editing is a key feature that sets GIMP apart from most of the other free image editors available today, giving users the ability to create perfectly realistic edits and utterly surreal composites. While the layer system isn’t as flexible as you’ll find in some paid software, it’s still far more capable than most free software.
It can even incorporate plugins and filters designed for Photoshop, although each new version of Photoshop risks breaking this compatibility. The same applies to its celebrated ability to edit PSD files, Photoshop’s native file format; PSD files saved by newer versions of Photoshop may not work properly in GIMP unless they stick to the basics.
While GIMP is extremely capable as an image editor, it’s not exactly perfect. Even after the recent adjustments, the interface could really use some polish and consistency, and new users are often completely bewildered the first time they open GIMP (which, fortunately, is where TheGimpTutorials.com comes in to help!).
RAW photo editing and CMYK colorspace support are much-needed additions and may be available in the near future when GIMP 3 is released, although, at the time of this writing, no date has been set. These features are currently available through plugins, but it would be nice to have them built-in.
Aside from these minor quibbles, GIMP is a truly impressive piece of free software. Even though it can be a bit difficult for new users to learn, the blend of power, flexibility, and value that it provides is well worth your time.
A Closer Look At IrfanView
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, IrfanView has actually been around as long as GIMP, also getting its first release back in 1996. Irfan Škiljan, the program’s developer and namesake, is still actively developing IrfanView, with the latest release published in May 2021.
IrfanView began its career as an extremely fast image viewer with a very small installation size (the whole program, with all its plugins, is still under 20 MB in size to this day), and gradually new features were added until it became a multi-function multimedia viewer/player/editor that it is today.
Billed primarily as an image viewer, IrfanView supports an impressive range of image file formats as well as many common audio and video formats (see the full list here). It does offer some basic painting and brush-based editing tools, but you’ll have to enable the Paint toolbox in order to access any of the tools.
While I wouldn’t want to do any serious editing with these tools, they’re fine for making quick markups on screenshots or other similarly casual projects.
From what I can discover, the painting tools are actually a plugin called IrfanPaint, developed by Matteo Italia with assistance from Irfan Škiljan and the rest of the development community.
IrfanView also offers some additional tools such as slideshow creation and batch image processing, although these are a bit hampered by a slightly confusing user interface that feels a bit stuck in the past.
Using variables for text input may be effective, but it’s not exactly user-friendly – especially when the full list of available variables is hidden in the help files.
If you rely heavily on metadata, IrfanView will also let you view EXIF and IPTC metadata, although it can only edit the IPTC version. This gives you access to keywords and other helpful categories, but I think there are probably more effective ways of managing this kind of data using a digital asset management program like Adobe Bridge or ACDSee.
Overall, IrfanView is a great quick image editor, but I’m not sure how useful the additional plugin features are. I suppose if you don’t have access to a more complete program, they’ll be helpful, but I find the user experience to be a bit frustrating once you go past the basics.
Using GIMP and IrfanView Together
As I pointed out in the introduction of this article, GIMP and IrfanView are only partly in competition with each other when it comes to basic image editing.
They’re far more effective when used together, with IrfanView acting as a quick editor and GIMP acting as a more powerful and flexible image editor when precision and quality matter the most.
When I load GIMP, I’ve got a few plugins like Cyan and darktable that slow down the launch speed a bit and require some extra interaction to get GIMP properly loaded. They’re useful when I need them, but if I’m just making a quick screenshot with some markup commentary to share with a friend, I don’t want to bother to open GIMP and wait around while it gets going.
I could remove the plugins, but they’re useful. It makes more sense to have a heavyweight editor like GIMP for when I need it, and a lightweight editor like IrfanView when I need a quick edit that doesn’t need top-tier quality.
A Final Word
In a direct comparison of Irfanview vs. GIMP, there isn’t much contest: GIMP is by far the more powerful and capable image editor. But that doesn’t mean that IrfanView is a bad program – it’s very useful for what it can do, as long as you don’t try to do serious image editing with it.
If you have to choose one program to learn, I’d recommend that you learn GIMP, unless you’re absolutely certain that you only want to do a very limited amount of image editing. But since they’re both free programs, it might be worth your time to learn both of them.About Thomas Boldt