When it comes to image editors, Adobe Photoshop remains the gold standard for professionals. But for students, the amateur, or anyone starting their career, the $700 price tag (or even ~$200 with a student discount) is likely prohibitive. There are cheaper apps available, such as Acorn and Pixelmator, but they offer far fewer features.
Luckily, there’s GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) a completely free and open source image editor that nearly matches Photoshop’s versatility. It’s long been available on the Mac if you had X11 installed, but never looked the part of a high quality Mac app. That’s all changed with the latest 2.8.2 release of Gimp, which shipped as a fully native Mac app. That’s what prompted us to take a closer look at the most popular Photoshop alternate.
A Free Graphics App for the Pros
I’m a graphic designer, and I know my way in and out of Photoshop, but the moment I loaded up GIMP, I was astonished at the similarities between this free program and Adobe’s expensive giant. The interface in GIMP Version 28.2 bears a striking resemblance to Photoshop CS6, down to the coal-gray color scheme and the palette dock on the right.
The tools are all there, too, only they are sometimes named differently (the Pen Tool is called the Paths Tool and the Marquee Tool is the Rectangle Select Tool). This will likely confuse or annoy a veteran comfortable with Photoshop’s interface, but shouldn’t cause any problems for a hobbyist looking for an Adobe alternative. Also available are layers, alpha channels, blend modes, clipping paths, photo filters, and a myriad of other impressive and advanced features.
Another great feature is GIMP’s batch processing capabilities. A user can easily program GIMP to convert a whole folder of TIFFs into JPEGs or resize a bunch of images to 200 x 200 pixels wide in a just a few mouse clicks. The batch options are robust enough to rival Photoshop’s, and I’d easily recommend GIMP for this feature alone.
Though not the best application for creating a print layout, as an image editor and digital painting program GIMP really shines. There are hundreds of brushes, a clone stamp tool, a ton of selection tools, and professional-grade image editing tools. You’ll find tools like color levels, curves, balance, saturation, and threshold: all incredibly impressive for a free piece of software. There is also support for peripherals like drawing tablets, which also increases its effectiveness as a powerful painting tool.
How Does it Stack up to Photoshop?
I liked some elements of the user interface even better than Photoshop. The handle points on the Bezier curve tools are huge and easier to control than the tiny points that are often difficult to see in Adobe’s programs. In GIMP, the ability to transform the selection is instantaneous, while in Photoshop, once you make a selection with the Marquee or Lasso Tool there were extra steps to transform the selection. There are also way more filters available out of the box in GIMP.
I had a hard time finding a feature that wasn’t in Photoshop, and I was really trying to find fault. However, there were a few tools lacking that I really couldn’t excuse, such as a spot color selector, vital for any print designer. There also wasn’t support for CMYK, also necessary for print design but less important for web design. GIMP’s developers likely had web and other designers in mind while creating the application, and print design was an afterthought.
GIMP also lacks integration for Adobe’s other programs, Illustrator and InDesign. This is almost expected, but it does make it difficult to work with files created in other programs. While I could open up a PSD (a native Photoshop file) without any problems, I had difficulty opening an Illustrator file. To do so, I had to first export it as a TIFF or another supported file type. That was fine when I was working on my own images, but if I was collaborating with another designer or working for a client, I could potentially run into some big headaches.
I was entirely surprised with how versatile and all-encompassing GIMP turned out to be. After years of working with Photoshop, I expected a free image editor to be second-rate, lacking in any real tools necessary for professional graphic design. Boy, was I wrong. GIMP had almost everything I’d need to create really amazing designs.
What it didn’t have was support for all the file types I use as a graphic designer. This is a pretty major failing, and one I can’t overlook. While I can create graphics in GIMP as a standalone app, I can’t import anything without a lot of headaches. Plus, it still has its random oddities and bugs, something others on our team have experienced in trying it out.
GIMP isn’t going to be a solution for professional graphic designers and artists. It’s not a Photoshop replacement and it’s not going to let you kick Adobe to the curb just yet. However, GIMP is going to be a powerful solution for students, amateurs, and hobbyists turned off by Photoshop’s enormous price tag. Outshining even some of the less expensive go to image editing apps available in the App Store, GIMP is a real powerhouse for anyone looking for something a notch below Adobe.