FOSS v proprietary software: image editing

Summary:To do a professional job, you need professional-level tools. With software, that generally means proprietary applications, which tend to be expensive. Free and open-source software is available for a wide range of tasks — but does it have the capability and support to offer a realistic alternative? We start with a look at Photoshop and GIMP.

Given the price of 'industry standard' proprietary software from Adobe, Microsoft and other vendors, it's no surprise that people often look to free and open-source software (FOSS) for a cost-effective alternative. Many professionals have no choice but to pay the asking price for proprietary software, but it's always worth keeping an eye on the evolving capabilities of the FOSS equivalents.

This article, the first in a series looking at content creation and business productivity applications, examines Adobe's Photoshop and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) — bitmap image editing applications with their roots in photographic processing and retouching. Photoshop has grown over the years into a family of proprietary products, while GIMP is the best known of the FOSS bitmap editors. Our last look at the two programs was in the summer of 2007.

Photoshop's background

Photoshop is a proprietary product that runs on Windows and Mac operating systems. Originally named Display and then ImagePro, Photoshop 1.0 was released by Adobe in 1990 as a Mac-only application, with the first Windows version (2.5) following in 1992. Photoshop 8 was rebranded as Photoshop CS (Creative Suite) in 2003, and the current product is Photoshop CS5 — the About splash identifies this release as version 12.1. Standalone, Photoshop CS5 costs £548 (ex. VAT) full price, £159 to upgrade from a previous version, or as a subscription for £27.80 a month. Prices (ex. VAT) for the Extended version of Photoshop CS5 are £794 (full), £298 (upgrade) and £39.82 a month (subscription).

Photoshop is currently available as a family of five products: the aforementioned Photoshop CS5 and Photoshop CS5 Extended, plus Photoshop Lightroom 4, Photoshop Elements 10 and Photoshop Elements 10 & Premiere Elements 10. There are also six associated products for the iPad and mobile devices: Color Lava, Eazel and Nav (all for Photoshop CS5), Photoshop Express, Photoshop Touch and Adobe Revel (formerly Carousel). Photoshop CS5.1 Extended (a.k.a. version 12.1) was used for the purposes of this comparison.

GIMP's background

GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP, began life in 1996 when two U.C. Berkeley students, Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis, wrote an image manipulation program for their computer science course. The now-famous Linux penguin logo, Tux, was created by Larry Ewing using the first public release of GIMP (0.54), and version 1.0 was released in 1998. GIMP is currently in development version 2.7.4, on the way to version 2.8, while the stable release is version 2.6. Stable release versions in GIMP are not contiguous — the next stable version will be 2.8. GIMP is free.

Although GIMP is not parcelled up or tied in to a raft of other products in the same way that Photoshop is, there are a number of derived applications, including Gimphoto and GIMPshop, both of which rearrange the interface to more closely resemble that of Photoshop. Gimphoto is based on a more recent version of GIMP than GIMPshop.

GIMP runs on a broader range of platforms than Photoshop, including Linux, FreeBSD, Open Solaris, Windows and Mac OS X. It ships with many Linux distributions.

Photoshop and GIMP desktops

The Photoshop CS5 desktop

The GIMP 2.6 desktop

There is some broad user interface commonality between the two applications — as you'd expect from two applications designed to perform very similar tasks. However, dig beneath these superficial similarities and the two UIs diverge quite bit.

Both applications have an upper menu bar with drop-down cascading menus, although Photoshop uses up more screen real-estate, often showing up to three upper menus. Both programs have an image display area, a toolbar or toolbox and tool dialogues.

Photoshop toolbar, dialogues and docking behaviour
Tools in Photoshop are organised in a vertical bar which, by default, is docked to the left edge of the desktop workspace. Values for the selected tool appear in a second horizontal bar below the upper menu bar. Tabbed dialogue boxes are, by default, docked to the right edge of the Photoshop workspace. The layout and options for these boxes change according to the workspace selected from the right-hand end of the upper menu bar.

The available workspace choices include; Essentials, Design, Painting, Photography, 3D, Motion and New in CS5. For example, choosing the Painting workspace brings colour Swatches to the front, opens Brush Presets and leaves the Layers tab as it was for Essentials.

The toolbar and dialogues can be undocked by clicking and dragging on a dark grey bar at their very top. Dragging, holding and then releasing the toolbar or a dialogue against the workspace edges will redock it. Docking both against one edge will 'raft' the toolbar and dialogues together. Unlike GIMP (see below), even when undocked with the unmaximised workspace, toolbar and dialogues floating on the OS desktop, minimising the Photoshop workspace minimises all the components.

New features in Photoshop CS5
The Content-Aware Fill allows you to select a foreground area in an image (using the quick selection tool, for example), delete that area and then automatically fill the gap with an extrapolated version of the background. Selection of complex image details such as hair, has been refined. The new Repoussé tool makes it easy to produce 3D logos, while the High Dynamic Range feature lets you merge a range of exposures to create an HDR image.

GIMP toolbox, dialogues and docking behaviour
GIMP normally opens with the editing area maximised and with the toolbox and dialogues on top. However, these elements are free floating, which is particularly annoying if you expect the toolbox and dialogues to minimise when the editing area is minimised. Dialogues for each tool may be docked, opened and closed.

Most dialogues in GIMP are dockable and can be docked together to form a dialogue 'raft' that can be dragged as one entity. Clicking and dragging next to the dialogue title spawns a small box labelled with the title of the parent dialogue. Dragging and dropping this onto the narrow docking bars at the top and bottom of each dialogue will dock the dragged dialogue on the target dialogue. By default, the toolbox dock area shows the dialogue related to the currently selected tool, although this can be undocked, leaving this area empty.

Topics: Apps, Reviews, Software

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