GIMP vs. Photoshop: We compare the leading free and subscription image editors

We break it down by essential features and declare winners.

Which is the better image and photo editor, GIMP or Photoshop? We’re going to compare essential features here and declare a winner for each, but first, a reality check.

Speaking from 25 years of Photoshop experience, plus 14 years of teaching Photoshop courses, it’s not fair to compare anything to Photoshop’s rich universe of features—unless you’re comparing the price. Free software like GIMP is always going to be more appealing than subscription-based models such as Photoshop’s, especially for individual users who don’t qualify for a government or corporate discount. These users’ defiance is displayed all over the Internet.

In fairness to GIMP, most Photoshop fans use only a fraction of its features. If you’re just looking for a photo editing program that provides a reasonable number of capabilities, great plug-ins, and special effects, GIMP is an excellent choice. However, for me, it’s Photoshop—hands down!

Gimp vs. Photoshop: Which does it better

Selection tools

The Selection Tools are number one on my list of essentials. If you can’t select the foreground objects or the background, you can’t edit much of anything. GIMP has seven Selection Tools, while Photoshop 2020 has ten.

Photoshop Tools

Comparable GIMP Tools

Which Is Better?

1. Lasso

1. Foreground Select

About the same

2. Polygonal Lasso

2. Free Selection

Photoshop

3. Magnetic Lasso

3. Intelligent Scissors

Photoshop

4. Object Selection

None

Photoshop

5. Quick Selection

Foreground Select (again)

Photoshop

6. Magic Wand

4. Fuzzy Select

Photoshop

7. Rectangular Marquee

5. Rectangle Select

About the same

8. Elliptical Marquee

6. Ellipse Select

About the same

Same as Magic Wand

7. By Color

About the same

9. Single Row Marquee

None

Photoshop

10. Single Column Marquee

None

Photoshop

01 compare gimp vs photoshop selection tools JD Sartain / IDG

Compare GIMP vs Photoshop Selection Tools.

Photoshop’s Lasso tools are absolutely the best, especially the Magnetic Lasso, which seems to know instinctively what you want selected. I do not like GIMP’s Fuzzy Select tool, and the By Color tool seems to be redundant.

The Free Selection tool and the Intelligent Scissors are “good enough” if you can’t afford Photoshop. They do the job almost as well as Photoshop’s Lasso tools and would not be a deal-breaker for GIMP. In other words, they work well considering they’re free.

Winner: Photoshop

Styles

02 photoshop styles are unmatched by any other program JD Sartain / IDG

Photoshop Styles are unmatched by those of any other program.

The second essential on my list is Styles, especially for the text layers. GIMP’s styles for the text are the same as the filters for objects, which are applied to the selected layer. The effect on the text layers isn’t much better than those in Word or PowerPoint styles, and you can view the results only after the filter has been applied.

Photoshop styles are unmatched by those of any other photo or graphics program available—I’ve tried them all. Photoshop provides lots of styles with the software, plus there are thousands of free ones available on the Internet. It’s also easy to create your own styles, because Photoshop provides many hundreds of style effects that you can mix, match, or customize to create your styles.

Also, if you select Styles under the Window tab, the Styles group is displayed on the screen, with thumbnails showing how each Style looks when applied. This way, you can cursor through the different styles and watch the text or object of the image on the screen change instantly.

Winner: Photoshop

Editing tools

03 editing transform tools in gimp photoshop JD Sartain / IDG

Editing Transform tools in GIMP & Photoshop

The editing features are mostly the same across both platforms. Although under different tabs, they both contain Transform tools with features such as Scale, Rotate, Skew, Distort, Perspective, Warp, Align, Crop, Shear, and more.

GIMP’s Cage Transform is interesting, and the Shear effect is nice. But for the rest, especially the Perspectives and the Warps, I prefer Photoshop.

Editing also includes features such as Spot Healing (removes or paints over spots); the Clone Stamp (paints over sections copied from another section); the Pattern Stamp (paints patterns); the History brush (restores a previous section back to its original state); the Eraser tools; and the Blur tools (that blur, smudge, or sharpen an area). You also get the Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools, which—if you’ve ever worked in a darkroom—lets you lighten or darken selected areas, and decrease the saturation of colors in selected areas, respectively.

Winner: Photoshop

Special Effects and Filters

04 i use gimp and photoshop filters all the time JD Sartain / IDG

I use both GIMP and Photoshop filters all the time.

Special Effects features and the Filters are impossible categories to judge because I use them all. I collect filters, plug-ins, scripts, styles, brushes, patterns, gradients, and shapes from everywhere. 

Every photo editing and graphics program has a folder full of filters and effects. Although many have the same name, the results are often slightly or even considerably different.

GIMP’s Water Pixels Artistic filter was applied to the fire hydrant image at right. This filter is similar to Photoshop’s Spatter filter, only GIMP’s version is much more subtle.

The filters in both programs can be adjusted, but even with adjustments, the filters produce slightly different results. This is a good argument for keeping and using both programs.

The hundreds of plug-ins and scripts are also varied enough that I need all of them. For example, Photoshop has an incredible Kaleidoscope plug-in that I use all the time; and GIMP has one that I also use a lot. Both produce very different images, and the plug-ins are not compatible with the other program. I switch back and forth between the products in order to achieve the desired result that I need for the job I’m doing.

Winner: Tie

Brushes

GIMP finally gains an advantage when it comes to Brushes. The Brushes in Photoshop are amazing and there are lots of them, but they are only one color—whatever color is selected in the paint palette will be the color that the brush paints.

GIMP uses multicolored images as brushes, like PaintShop Pro’s Picture Tubes. Creating your own custom picture brushes is also super easy. This flexibility is a huge plus for GIMP. 

Winner: GIMP

As a bonus, we’ll show you how to customize brushes in GIMP. 

05 create custom gimp brushes JD Sartain / IDG

Create custom GIMP brushes.

First, open an image that you would like to use as a brush. Any image will work, but png files with a single object and no background make the best picture brushes.

Select File > Save As and rename it as a filename with the file extension .GIH. Next, navigate to the subfolder C:\Program Files\GIMP 2\Share\GIMP\2.0\Brushes\Basic and then click the Save button.

GIMP displays a dialog that says  the filename cannot be used for saving. Use File > Export then click the link: Take me to the Export Dialog.

On the next screen, click the Export button, and the Export Image as a Brush Pipe dialog window appears. You can adjust the spacing (between brushes), the brush size, number of objects that will appear each time you click the mouse, and more. For now, just accept the default (which can easily be changed later), then click the Export button. You now have a new Picture Brush.

To see and use your new brush, click the Refresh button on the Brushes panel (it looks like a circular arrow), then ensure that the Brush tool is selected, and start painting with your new brush.

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: If you try these instructions and you keep getting an error dialog that says: “Error opening file . . . Permission denied.” The solution is really simple. Position your cursor on the GIMP icon on your desktop and right-click the mouse. In the popup dialog window, select Run as Administrator. GIMP makes some quick adjustments, then try again. This time it will work as described above.

06 run as administrator if permission is denied JD Sartain / IDG

Run as administrator if permission is denied.

Patterns

Custom patterns use a similar process in GIMP. Patterns must have the correct extension (.pat) and they must be saved in the Patterns folder, which you can find if you choose Preferences > Folders > Patterns. In most cases, it resides in the folder C:\Program Files\GIMP 2\Share\GIMP\2.0\Patterns.

Most GIMP users have already downloaded GIMP version 2.10, so pattern files can now be in .png, .jpg, .bmp, .gif, or .tiff formats. Note that the GIMP .pat format is not the same as the Photoshop .pat format so, at this time, the two pattern formats are not interchangeable.

In the case of patterns, both programs are great. You can easily create custom patterns in both, and any image can be converted to a pattern. In Photoshop, you open a file, select an area on that file, and choose Edit > Define Pattern. Give it a name, and click OK. In GIMP, choose File > Create > Patterns, then save as (a pattern format) and save in (the patterns folder). 

Winner: Tie

Overall winner: Photoshop of course, but...

In the end, Photoshop wins in three essential categories, GIMP wins one, and they tie in two others. It's not surprising that Photoshop is better overall, given its long years of development and deep resources. For many people, however, GIMP covers the bases well and costs nothing. That's hard to beat.  

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JD Sartain

PC World (US online)
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