GIMP – A Legitimate Photoshop Replacement?

GIMP is one of the most popular alternatives to Adobe Photoshop that fits in everyone’s budget — free. For those of us who can’t afford or don’t like Photoshop, GIMP is a nice, feature laden photo editor and image manipulation application.

The name stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Let’s see how this free image editor stacks up against Adobe Photoshop.

Getting Started

Installing GIMP is easy. Download the latest installer from and a wizard walks you through a simple installation.

When you open the program, it takes awhile to load. I actually think it takes a few seconds longer than Photoshop to load, but the difference is minimal as they both take awhile to get everything ready for you.


Once GIMP loads, you are greeted with your Toolbox on the left as well as tool properties, your secondary toolbox with Layers, Channels, Paths, Brushes, etc. on the left, and your document window in the middle.

It looks similar to Photoshop, except the windows aren’t self-contained in a large application window. It has an OS X feel to it without the application background. I personally don’t like this because I have to clear everything else from behind the window or I might accidentally click other applications by accident.

Toolbox, Document Window and Secondary Toolbox

Toolbox, Document Window and Secondary Toolbox

Learning Curve

GIMP comes with a steep learning curve, whether you’re a beginner or an expert. Most keyboard shortcuts are not the same as Photoshop and it takes a bit to get used to them.

You can, however, change the keyboard shortcuts with a plugin. GIMP is capable of doing moderate photo editing and image creation and manipulation, and if you’re familiar with similar software, you should be able to use it right away, even if it is slow-going at first.

The Basics

GIMP comes with a number of simple brushes (and a bell pepper, which is odd), patterns and gradients. Using these tools is straight-forward and very similar to Photoshop.

Add a Patterned Background

Add a Patterned Background

Adding text is straight-forward. You have the same settings as Photoshop in terms of size, character spacing, kerning, etc. With the filters, you can add dropshadows, gradient overlays, and other effects to your text and layers.

Toolbox and Brush Properties

Toolbox and Brush Properties

The majority of tools work very similar to the way they do in Photoshop or other image manipulation applications.

Overall, use of tools in GIMP is easy and straight forward once you get used to how they work. This is where the steep learning curve comes in.


The GIMP community offers many plugins and scripts so you can extend its abilities.

Some of the popular plugins include Layer Effects, Save to Web and advanced photo effects. You can also use scripts to automate your workflow like you can in Photoshop.


GIMP is maintained by a large community of programmers that has been going strong and updating GIMP for years. The latest stable version is 2.6, with some changes to the user interface and tools.

The two largest changes that are very beneficial are improved free select tool and brush dynamics. You can view all the release notes for GIMP 2.6 if you’d like to see what’s changed since you last used the application.

Brush Dynamics Added in 2.6

Brush Dynamics Added in 2.6

The major downside to GIMP’s development is users are largely responsible for reporting bugs and errors. Sometimes there are bugs in stable versions, and you may come across them a lot more than you would with Adobe Photoshop.

Documentation & Tutorials

Photoshop’s documentation is seamless and very explanatory while GIMP’s leaves a little to be desired. You can install the user manual on your computer with a plugin or read it online.

GIMP’s documentation is extensive and explanatory, but not nearly as helpful as Photoshop’s. There are a lot of tutorials online for both applications and if you’re a novice, this is the best way to learn either software.


There is also a free modification of GIMP called GIMPshop that you can download. It gives the application a more Photoshop-esque feel to it. If you are having trouble with regular GIMP, this is a good option for you.

However, the installer offers other software as part of the installation so beware of accidentally installing extra apps.

Licensing and Cost

GIMP is free to use for anyone and there are no licensing restrictions. Photoshop is much more strict with licensing and definitely costs a bundle.

GIMP is affordable to anyone and everyone, while legitimately using Photoshop is expensive. GIMP definitely wins this round.

Final Thoughts

I am a bigger fan of GIMP in theory than I am in actual use. Working in GIMP is slow and cumbersome even compared to the behemoth that is Adobe Photoshop.

I used it exclusively for about eight months a few years ago, but once I moved over to Photoshop, I can’t go back. It’s definitely a powerful image manipulation application, and it has a great price, but it’s not a suitable replacement for Photoshop.

If you’re a print designer, GIMP is probably not going to work for you because font handling is sub-par and it doesn’t support CMYK+ well. GIMP is a wonderful free alternative if you’re a basic designer or if you really don’t want Photoshop.


GIMP is a free, cross-platform image manipulation program.

  • GIMP  | 
  • Free  |