- Complete package of editing tools
- Wide range of selection options
- Simple-to-use perspective and transform tools
- Minute control over every editing function
- Customizable software on many levels
- Long list of supported file types
- Difficult for newcomers to use
- No premade filters or effects
- Interface lacks polish and is tricky to understand
- Learning resources are hard to find
There aren’t many names that are immediately synonymous with photo editing tools. Photoshop is likely the first that’ll spring to mind and is obviously the head honcho having dominated the market for decades despite its high price. GIMP might not be associated with the same sense of quality, but it’s still extremely popular. The software is jam-packed with features and can go toe-to-toe with Adobe’s equivalent in many ways, particularly when it comes to functionality. But what really makes this comprehensive suite of tools stand out is the fact that, as open-source software, it is available completely free – and that’s a hard value proposition to beat considering the sheer number of features stuffed in here. But is GIMP really a worthy Photoshop alternative as it is so commonly pitched as, and who exactly will get use out of this editing software?
It can be a little overwhelming opening GIMP for the first time. What might be initially familiar to anyone that has used downloadable photo editing software in recent years will quickly give way to a barrage of icons, sliders and dialog boxes. It’s confusing to all but the most experienced and that can be off-putting, especially when so many functions are restrained to sub-menus within the top menu system.
But the interface is at least very flexible. Sidebars can be expanded or shrunk as per the user’s needs, while certain dialog boxes can be toggled on or off as and when they’re needed. In some ways it makes sense that certain tools are bundled into menus, though, since there’s a lot of complexity to GIMP that likely can’t be so keenly presented on the main workspace.
With every function of GIMP there are a series of options to help customize their results, and while there isn’t too much consistency with these – most use sliders but some require selecting an option from a drop-down menu, for instance – this does enable the user with a huge amount of control. The added ability to preview the changes directly on the image or with a side-by-side comparison means making adjustments doesn’t need to be a back and forth task.
Tools and Effects
All the basics are here, of course, so simple edits like cropping, scaling, or rotations can be quickly and ably made in no time. Particular mention should go to the range of selection options, though, which go far beyond the usual to include the likes of Fuzzy Select (basically a smart auto-select tool), select by color, or even functions that allow for selecting the foreground, straight edges, or more complicated point-to-point path selection. It enables the user to be really precise about what they’re editing on an image, without having to spend too long fiddling about with selections.
The edits that can be made to a selection are robust, too, with most of the ‘core’ tools worked onto the image itself. It’s just a case of dragging either the image itself or the various nodes to bend and twist the photo into the desired shape. This is useful for the likes of the Unified Transform Tool – which packages in all the manipulation tools together – or the perspective tool since it makes visualizing the adjustments much easier.
Applying filters isn’t quite as simple, however. There are no presets nor quick effects to apply, instead it’s necessary to go into the submenu and manually make the changes yourself. GIMP is a very powerful tool, but only to those in the know. For newcomers it’ll be practically impossible to quickly enhance their photos, the closest being functions such as the old photo or little planet effects.
The more complex features are hidden away in those submenus, with whole sections devoted to layers and colors, the latter of which being where the likes of saturation and brightness among others are kept. It’s here where much of the major tweaks to a photo are made, but for the more intricate or inventive changes it’s the filters category that is necessary. There are too many tools to detail here – some more effective than others – but needless to say, if you haven’t yet found the tool to create the sort of image you’re hoping for, then it’s in this menu where you’ll ultimately find the solution.
Regardless of the choice from within these menus, however, you’ll almost always be greeted with a new dialog box containing the settings to be applied. In many cases there’s a wide variety of sliders and options to tweak but they’re not often clear, easy to understand, or at all explained. Put frankly, GIMP is basically only open to those willing to experiment, tinker or – failing that – search online for tips. As thoroughly capable the software is, it is not easy for a layman to use.
Import & Export
The list of compatible file types with GIMP is extensive, with the major formats of .JPG, .BMP, .PNG, .TIFF, and .GIF all included. There are a number of lesser known and less often used types available, too, even including the vector-based .SVG file format – though this has limited compatibility and could result in errors.
Naturally the supported export list is equally long, but GIMP also has its own formats, too, key among them being .XCF, which is the best way to save your progress with an image so you can return to it later and continue making adjustments. The exporting process itself is very deep, with a slider for quality that will even preview the compression results directly on the image itself. The advanced options section isn’t for the faint of heart, but expert users will appreciate the finite control they’ll have over the image’s metadata.
Downloadable photo editing tools don’t commonly feature in-built sharing tools or, if they do, they’re not often all that varied. However, GIMP offers absolutely no means of in-built sharing, meaning that if you want to get your perfectly crafted creation online then your only option is to do so manually after exporting the image.
This doesn’t seem to have been a concern for the software, however. As an open-source tool, such a feature is only likely to be implemented if its community of developers are at all interested in such a function existing. The fact that it isn’t is perhaps testament to the lack of interest in being able to directly share to Facebook, Twitter or the like. There is an option to create a template file, however, which will allow anyone using that file to make adjustments within particular boundaries; pretty useful for SMBs looking to share the image editing workload.
Open-source software is available wherever its developers want it and in that sense it’s expected that Windows and GNU/Linux are supported by the program – including some pretty old Windows versions, covering XP Service Pack 3, Vista, 7, 8, and 10. However, Mac OS X from 10.6 onwards is also compatible. Also, while you will be able to find a version of GIMP on the Google Play store, this is not an official port of the software and therefore it is not available on mobile devices.
One thing that should be noted, however, is that GIMP is not the best optimized program. Because of its open-source nature, more time is spent on implementing or improving features rather than optimizing the software itself and, as such, it requires a fairly powerful computer to run smoothly and effectively.
There’s no other way of putting it, really, GIMP is completely free and likely always will be. It is open-source software, which means that it is available as part of the Creative Commons license, and is therefore available free for anyone to use or share. It cannot be sold for a fee in any manner and is not funded by adverts.
All this is to say that there’s no reason to not consider using GIMP. Its entire suite of tools is available for zero, zilch, nada, nothing, and when you take a look at the wealth of features and functions available it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever pay for photo editing software again.
It’d be fair to assume that as open-source software your options are limited when it comes to GIMP’s customer support. Admittedly there is no means to directly call the developers, naturally, but there are still plenty of ways of getting assistance. There are mailing lists for general inquiries about how to use GIMP, for questions directed at the developers, and even those about the website. There’s also social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, which don’t provide the most direct assistance but will at least try to help with any questions.
Then there’s a wealth of indirect assistance, too, the primary being an in-depth FAQ to answer any basic questions you might have. In addition to that there is a roadmap – to follow any upcoming additions to the software – and a page for tracking bugs.
How do you argue with free? With a suite as complete as GIMP, you don’t honestly need to consider any other editing software – there is nothing available as in-depth as this without some limitations around payment. It isn’t just a competitor to Photoshop with its price but with its features, too, and anything that can be done with photo editing can be done with GIMP.
However, this is not the easiest software to use and even experts with Photoshop will find the interface cumbersome to use. Understanding the numerous sliders and options for adjustments within dialog boxes is not something that newcomers to photo editing will be able to comprehend, and even learning how to use these features is a convoluted process of googling, referencing the user manual, and trial and error – which is huge hassle if all you want to do is make your personal photography pop a little more. GIMP is a serious, very complex, and empowering suite of editing tools, but if the time isn’t put in it’ll be impossible to get the most out of it.