Can GIMP replace Photoshop?

Summary:If you just want to do basic image editing, the free GIMP is a viable alternative to Adobe's expensive Photoshop. But professionals will find a number of key features absent from the open-source application, for the moment at least.

Usability issues
If you can live without, or don’t need, any of the features above then you may find that GIMP is just the application you need. It has a much smaller footprint than Photoshop on your system, and won’t cost you anything to use.

However, even when a given feature is available in GIMP, you may find that Photoshop can do the same thing better. For example, performing a levels adjustment in Photoshop results in a live preview that changes before your eyes as you move the relevant sliders. Performing the same function in GIMP, by contrast, requires you to let go of the slider each time you want to see the effects of your adjustment.

If we take a look at the brush tool in each application, we can see that Photoshop’s offering is more sophisticated:

GIMP allows you to create custom brushes of any size, but in Photoshop you can resize brushes dynamically while you’re using them. This is an invaluable time-saver, especially when creating masks, as you don’t have to go and specifically create a new brush whenever you need a new size.

Other features in Photoshop offer a great deal of convenience, but you can generally get by without them. Functions such as the healing brush, layer effects, layer folders and recordable actions are a boon to heavy-duty users, yet many never use them.

Adding functionality to GIMP
For those who do need more than the standard package provides, there’s a whole world of plugins and add-ons for GIMP.

Although Photoshop just installs out of the box and is ready to go, to get advanced functionality out of GIMP requires some effort on the part of the user. Some standard Photoshop features are possible in GIMP, but require the installation of additional software.

It’s the nature of open-source development for different development teams to be working on related projects. What this means for the user is that you often won’t find what you need all neatly packaged up in one place. The functionality you need may be available, but you may have to spend some time finding it and then getting it to work.

Using Photoshop plugins
There are many freely and commercially available plugins for Photoshop, and if you already use these, you’ll be please to know that of these can be made to run successfully in GIMP using a plugin called PSPI.

PSPI was developed in 2001 and was recently updated (in 2006) to run not only on Windows, but also on Linux. It uses Photoshop’s plugin SDK to form a bridge between the two plugin formats, thereby allowing you to load up Photoshop plugins directly in GIMP.

GIMP’s interface is different to Photoshop
GIMP was never intended to be a Photoshop clone, and so it doesn’t use the same menus, keyboard shortcuts or terminology. If you’re used to Photoshop, then although GIMP is relatively straightforward to use, you’ll find the user interface and control system rather different. To help Photoshop users make the transition, GIMPshop takes a normal GIMP installation and modifies it to look more like Photoshop.

By mimicking Photoshop’s menu layout, GIMPshop aims to make GIMP simple to use for Photoshop users, although it’s not officially supported by GIMP’s developers.

GIMPshop (above) modifies a normal GIMP installation to make it look more like Photoshop (top).

Coming soon to GIMP
As with most open-source projects, GIMP is under constant development and new features are being added all the time. Development releases, with version numbers 2.3.x, have started to incorporate some level of colour management by supporting embedded colour profiles when loading images. This is still very much a work in progress, and we should not expect to see a sophisticated colour management solution anytime soon.

One of the proposed systems for supporting colour management in GIMP is LittleCMS (LCMS) which has been ported to Windows, Mac OS and Linux platforms. You can follow the development of GIMP, by checking the developer site.

So can free software really compete with Photoshop? For the vast majority of ordinary users the short answer is certainly 'yes'. However, for graphics professionals — that is, Photoshop’s target market — the answer has to be a resounding 'no'.

There are many people who are using Photoshop, legitimately or otherwise, who would be served just as well by software such as GIMP or its derivatives. Those wishing to learn image editing can also gain much from using GIMP, especially as GIMPshop enables many Photoshop tutorials to be run on GIMP.

But GIMP has a long way to go before it can gain a strong foothold in the industry. Although CinePaint has found a niche market in professional movie production, wide acceptance of GIMP would require major work if it’s to be relied upon by those who would make their living from it — especially if they are creating work for print.

Many of the required features are already in development, and if they’re implemented successfully we should see more people being able to create and edit their work entirely on free software. This has to be a good thing for everybody — except perhaps Adobe.

Ultimately, though, there are some proprietary technologies that simply must be paid for — Pantone support being a good example. Until we see free alternatives with widespread industry support, we’re going to have to pay for software that licences such technologies.


Topics: Enterprise Software, Reviews

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.