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Just about every image you encounter in the world has been manipulated or processed in some way. Headline images, fine art photography, and advertisements all rely to some extent on image editing software. Many of these manipulations are so subtle that they’re nearly imperceptible: Slight cropping, adjusting contrast, and color correction are all standard procedures. Others are more drastic, like altering shapes and removing (or inserting) certain elements.

In the world of image editing, Photoshop is the undisputed king. Adobe’s flagship product is so closely related to image editing that “photoshop” has become a verb in its own right. But it’s not the only tool out there. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at Photoshop and the open-source image manipulation program GIMP, and try to help you decide which tool is best for your needs.

First, let’s cover a little background on each.

Photoshop

From its humble origins as a side project for a PhD student at the University of Michigan, Photoshop has grown into the de facto industry standard for image manipulation. Originally released in 1990, Photoshop has grown and deepened its feature set with each release. Successive versions have added pioneering features like layers, repeatable actions, and the clone stamp tool, cementing Photoshop’s place in the creative professional’s workflow.

Despite its name, Photoshop isn’t just a tool for photographers. Graphic designers and illustrators also rely on many of its features to create and manipulate images, including logos, advertisements, and website mockups. It’s a powerful tool with a ton of features for specialized jobs.

GIMP

Like Photoshop, GIMP began as a side project for a PhD student. Originally developed at UC Berkeley, GIMP stands for “GNU Image Manipulation Program.” (GNU is an operating system and collection of freely available software.) Unlike Photoshop, GIMP is an open-source project, relying on a large community of contributors to drive development and new features.

The best way to think of GIMP is as a powerful tool for hobbyists. It may not have all the specific capabilities of Photoshop, but it has many of the features required to do basic touch-ups and manipulations.

Now that you know a little about each of these tools, which one is right for your needs? In the following sections, we’ll compare them across a few different areas.

Basic Features

If you’ve never used an image manipulation program before, the sheer number of features in a program like Photoshop can be overwhelming. In addition to basic functions like cropping images, creating shapes, adjusting color and contrast, and removing unwanted elements, Photoshop is a powerful tool for layout and composition. When it comes time to prep and export your work, Photoshop has a number of different automation features for different production workflows, whether the final destination is print, the web, or something else.

As is the case with most feature-rich pieces of software, the majority of users will use only a limited number of the available features, but depending on the kind of work you’re doing, it can be worth your while to learn a few of the more advanced tips and tricks, like blending layers, using masks to create composite images, or creating advanced selections based on color or luminosity.

Another thing Photoshop has going for it is that it’s one of the best supported programs around. In addition to professional tutorials and certification, there are quite literally thousands of books, videos, forums, and blog posts devoted to explaining how to get the most out of Photoshop’s features.

Like Photoshop, GIMP supports the basic functions needed to manipulate images. GIMP supports levels, curves, layers, channel mixing, cloning, healing, transformation, editable text, etc. For many photographers and designers, this covers the vast majority of their needs. That said, there are many Photoshop features that haven’t (yet) made it over to GIMP, such as support for smart objects and the shape tool, which allows you to easily create n-sided polygons. One advantage GIMP has over Photoshop is that it works with Linux. In fact, many Linux distributions include GIMP by default.

Professional Features

This is where Photoshop really shines. Are you a graphic designer who needs to work exclusively in Pantone colors? Photoshop includes the entire Pantone color library by default. Are you a web designer who needs to switch between vector and bitmap (raster) graphics? Photoshop has both capabilities and integrates nicely with Adobe Illustrator. Do you work in desktop publishing? Photoshop supports CMYK color profiles. Are you a photographer who needs to be able to work directly on raw image files? In Photoshop, you can save to raw file formats.

By contrast, GIMP is more limited when it comes to some professional-grade features. The default installation lacks out-of-the-box support for many creative industry standards like Pantone colors, 16- and 32-bit color depth, RAW image files, and different color profiles. It is possible to add some support with third-party extensions, but you’ll need to feel comfortable installing them yourself.

Price, Extensibility & Support

Photoshop is a professional-grade tool that comes with a professional-grade price. While earlier editions of Photoshop cost hundreds of dollars, Adobe now distributes it through its Creative Cloud platform for a monthly fee.

Photoshop also supports a number of third-party add-ons. While some are free to install, others are commercial software. These add-ons extend Photoshop’s capabilities in a number of ways, adding specific filters, bundles of actions to achieve a particular effect, or templates for different use cases. Many of these add-ons can now be accessed and downloaded through Adobe Creative Cloud itself.

An open-source program, GIMP is free to install and use. It’s also supported by a vibrant open-source community. However, as with other open-source software, finding the best plugins can be a bit of a challenge. The GIMP plugin registry contains several hundred plugins that add everything from new filters to brushes to additional save and export options.

What Are You Using It For?

When you select an image editing program, it really comes down to what features you need most. If you’re a professional designer, photographer, or if you’re creating for print, then Photoshop will have the tools you need to do just about anything. Hobbyists and occasional designers, however, may be pleasantly surprised to find that GIMP covers the majority of their image editing needs.

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