GIMP 2.8: can it replace Photoshop?

GIMP has been the default free alternative to Photoshop for donkey’s years, but it’s largely viewed as the poor relation: a Photoshop lookalike that does many of the same things, only worse and more slowly.

GIMP 2.8: can it replace Photoshop?

But is that fair? Or does GIMP 2.8 have more going for it than an unbeatable price tag?

The first GIMP myth that needs busting is that it’s difficult to install. That may have been true years ago, when installation was (at the very least) a two-part process, but Jernej Simončič’s Windows installer (found at is as smooth as they come.

The Creative Cloud installer for Photoshop, on the other hand, hit snags on two of our test PCs. GIMP is also more lightweight, an 88MB download compared to Photoshop CC’s 960MB.

The second outdated GIMP cliché is that its interface is ugly and intimidating. The single-window mode option introduced with version 2.8 keeps things tidier on the desktop, with panels anchored within the main working area, rather than running loose.

While the interface looks a little dated, it’s clean, and not without thoughtful touches: the ever-present sliders to change variables such as opacity and threshold are marginally more accessible than the Photoshop alternatives, which are routinely two clicks away (unless you’re familiar with the keyboard shortcuts).

On the face of it, GIMP appears to have many of the same tools as Photoshop, but it’s only when you start toying with them that you realise Adobe’s software is significantly more sophisticated.

Take Photoshop CC’s Magnetic Lasso tool, for example, which allows you to gently guide the cursor around an object you wish to cut out, with the software automatically detecting ragged edges, such as ripples in a shirt. GIMP has an equivalent feature called Intelligent Scissors, which also features “interactive boundary” detection, but it requires you to continually click the mouse as you snip around the object, and its edge detection is more erratic.

Then there are tools such as Adobe’s much-vaunted Content-Aware Fill, which allows you to draw around objects – such as interlopers in the background of a portrait or distracting shadows – and have the software remove them.

GIMP had this facility long before Photoshop in the form of a plugin called Resynthesizer, but this has to be manually installed by awkwardly dragging and dropping files into the GIMP installation folder. It doesn’t work quite as neatly as Photoshop, either. It also takes around five times longer to process such actions.

Many aspects of GIMP rely on plugins, and not always successfully. For instance, GIMP doesn’t handle raw images by default. Instead, you’re forced to import them via a separate raw processor called UFRaw, but this doesn’t work smoothly with the latest version of GIMP for Windows. Photoshop, on the other hand, comes with the excellent Camera Raw 8.1, which allows you to make detailed, non-destructive adjustments to white balance or sharpening before importing into Photoshop itself.

Then we come to the real party tricks. Photoshop’s hugely impressive Puppet Warp feature – combined with judicious use of Content-Aware Fill – allows you to move a subject’s arms or legs to a different position, much like a puppet on a string, while keeping the background looking perfectly natural.

The closest equivalent feature we could find in GIMP was Cage Transform, which allows you to reshape objects contained within a user-defined “cage”. It wouldn’t allow you to move a single limb, as you can in Photoshop, but it should allow you to deform the shape of an object as a whole. However, the results are often unusable. What’s more, Cage Transform dragged our Core i5 laptop to its knees on a number of occasions.

Photoshop also has the edge on GIMP when it comes to drawing tools. Although GIMP has had the option to import Photoshop brushes (those made available online; not the default Photoshop brushes themselves) since version 2.4, the range of brush options in Photoshop CC is far superior. The option to adjust brush qualities, such as the length and thickness of bristles, makes it more likely artists will achieve the effects they desire using Photoshop.

There are some pretty sizeable holes in GIMP when it comes to using it for professional purposes, too. It doesn’t yet offer high bit-depth colour support, although that’s in development for the next release. CMYK support is also rudimentary at best, once again requiring separate plugins.

Yet, if you think all this means GIMP is a write-off, think again. Yes, Photoshop has the edge on advanced features, but GIMP is certainly capable of doing the vast majority of day-to-day image-editing tasks.

Even the results from some of the more advanced features are acceptable in isolation – casual observers would do well to notice the slight discolouration of the grass where the player’s shadow used to be in our test shots, for example.

GIMP edits

Professionals will likely stick with Photoshop in some form or another – whether that’s Creative Cloud, CS6 or an earlier version – but there’s plenty of power in GIMP that’s worth exploring for anyone who uses Photoshop on a more casual basis. Given that it’s now a two-minute install, it has to be worth a look.

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