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It seems that Photoshop is the dominant software in that space, however I am a hobbyist photographer and Photoshop is not cheap. Is there anything else that compares and that does not have such a high price tag. I heard Gimp could be a candidate, any one using Gimp or something else? What is your feedback?

What I am trying to do: Ideally I would like to manipulate pictures to enhance them, crop, etc., and also have tools to merge new backgrounds, and tools to transform a pictures completely, e.g. transforming the picture so it looks like a painting.

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Also, it would be helpful if you told us more about what you're trying to do. What kind of manipulations are you hoping to accomplish? – Reid Nov 7 '10 at 16:46
Good point. Added more info. – supercobra Nov 7 '10 at 16:52
Photoshop is well worth the money. – RCProgramming Nov 16 '10 at 0:45
What platform? Windows, Mac, Linux? (Amiga? BeBox?) – khedron Mar 8 '12 at 5:24

14 Answers 14

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The biggest competitor to Photoshop is GIMP.

Other image manipulation tools include:

  • Paint.net A free .NET based image editing tool for Windows machines

  • Paint Shop Pro A commonly overshadowed application

  • Microsoft Paint. Newer versions have some basic tools like crop

  • Pixelmator A lightweight but powerful Photoshop alternative for OS X

  • Google Picasa which is a image library tool with some image editing capabilities

  • Windows Live Photo Gallery Similar to picasa, but it's MSFT

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Gimp is a very capable package that will perform virtually all editing operations that even an advanced photographer would need. I routinely use Gimp with good results. – labnut Nov 7 '10 at 19:17
I use Gimp as my primary retouching software. It is good and powerful. The most important drawback for me is that in the current version (2.6) it doesn't support images with more than 8 bit per channel. This should be implemented in the future 3.0 version. Now I try to do curves transformation in RAW processing software or in digiKam which supports 16 bit (but it cannot replace Gimp). – sastanin Nov 9 '10 at 17:07
The last time I checked CinePaint had a scary and very dated user interface (like Gimp 1.x?). It has been removed from major Linux distributions (Debian, Ubuntu), because it depended on an obsolete version of the GTK toolkit, and was practically unmaintained and very buggy. According to www.cinepaint.org, the project will be resurrected, but for now even official builds for Mac/Windows are not available. – sastanin Nov 10 '10 at 17:10
PaintShop Photo Pro is incredibly underrated -- not only does it come reasonably close to Photoshop in terms of overall capabilities, it is compatible with nearly all Photoshop plugins. And while it's not free, it is very reasonably priced (and often on sale at around the $50-70 dollar range at retailers). For Windows, it's a winner as a "poor man's Photoshop". – user2719 Jan 27 '11 at 20:20
+1 For pixelmator. -1 for GIMP, because I find GIMP hard to use. There is a very high threshold to really understand and master GIMP: – Johan Karlsson Jan 31 '12 at 17:47

Photoshop Elements is $99 and is very close to Photoshop in terms of features for photographers but much cheaper.

There are also free software that do basic image manipulation without being as complicated as GIMP. Try Google's Picasa for example.

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Picasa is certainly simpler, almost to a fault. If you only need very basic edits, it's a great tool, however, you give up a lot of control over the edits. – chills42 Dec 15 '10 at 15:10

I use Gimp as my primary editor. It is powerful and can do a lot. Also even if it may sound unexpected, I like the interface of some of its tools (e.g. I like its curves tool).

What Gimp can do

What I am trying to do: Ideally I would like to manipulate pictures to enhance them,

Levels, curves, brightness, contrast? — yes, Gimp can do it. Sharpen? — check (see Unsharp mask and Refocus, edge only sharpening is also available). Denoise? — check (not the best in the world, but Wavelet denoise is very usable). Remove red eyes? — check. Fix colors? — check (not the strongest side of Gimp, though, it's better to have a RAW file around).

crop, etc...

Yes, Gimp can do it. Also quality resizing, rotation, perspective correction etc.

and also have tools to merge new backgrounds

Yes, there are several ways to remove or replace background. There is also a special Foreground Select tool.

Foreground Select

and tools to transform a pictures completely, e.g. transforming the picture so it looks like a painting.

Yes, sure. I never use them, but there are many filters like this and tutorials how to do it manually. See how to reate an oil painting from a photo in Gimp and Sketch effect.

before after

What Gimp cannot do yet

Current version of Gimp (2.6) doesn't support color spaces different from RGB (e.g. no CMYK or Lab images). But you can decompose the image into separate compontents, process them and re-compose them back. The future versions of Gimp will have a much more flexible color model: Plates. It will allow for arbitrary color representations.

Current version of Gimp doesn't support color depth beyond 8 bit per channel. In practice this means that if you try to pull shadows up with the curves tool (and the curves tool itself is very good in Gimp), you may notice color banding and will see a spiky histogram. It's unlikely to be implemented before Gimp 3.0, but the work has started. I suppose contributions and donations are welcome.

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Gimp has very powerful scripting features. I have written a complete batch processing script in Python that I use to 1) convert from RAW, 2) apply all my routine enhancements (contrast, sharpening, etc) and 3) save as jpeg in chosen directory. – labnut Nov 9 '10 at 18:47

If you are primarily needing software for photography, Lightroom is easily your answer. It is a powerful subset of functionality from Photoshop along with strong features for organizing your photos. And at $150 for Lightroom 4, it's a steal. You may even be able to find LR3 cheaper soon.

You can get pretty creative with Lightroom however, if your focus is to heavily manipulate images, then you should look to apps that let you push pixels around.

Unfortunately the closest answer to Photoshop is probably the Gimp. It can do a reasonable amount of stuff, but it's interface really is pretty bad. Back in the day it was pretty competitive with Photoshop 4, but it hasn't really progressed much since then. To put is in perspective, since the Gimp came out in 1996, it has progressed to version 2.6. In the same time there have been 9 versions of Photoshop.

I've heard good things about Pixelmator on OSX, so if you have a Mac, that might be option. And if you want to go more towards the painting side of things, with less emphasis on photos consider Core Painter.

You can find more suggestions here http://alternativeto.net/, but really if you absolutely cannot afford Photoshop, or don't think you can do what you want to do in Lightroom, then you're probably stuck with Gimp.

In the end, though, it's really hard to beat Photoshop.

*Tip, if you are a student of any sort you can get a pretty steep discount on Photoshop and other Adobe products.

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I'm not going to defend the messy UI of the Gimp, but the version number comparison is unfair, since every even-numbered point release (1.0, 1.2, 2.0, 2.2, 2.4, 2.6) has been a huge step forward. Gimp development is also still active (see the roadmap, or the agenda for an upcoming developers' meeting). From the news here, version 2.8 is on the way soon. – mattdm Mar 8 '12 at 3:25
I don't know that's in an unfair comparision. The Gimp hasn't officially officially released anything more than bugfixes since 2008. 2.7 has some nice features, and supposedly they have interns(!) cleaning up the interface a little. But Photoshop has major versions ever 18 months or so, and is almost reinvented every couple of versions, at least UI-wise. – cadmium Mar 8 '12 at 17:45
It's true that Gimp development is slow, and definitely slower than Photoshop. But comparing "9 versions" to "2.6" is misleading. – mattdm Mar 8 '12 at 17:49
Sort of. Gimp has put out many releases if you count the .1 releases, but each release is also tiny compare to a full release of Photoshop. Heck going from CS5 to CS6 probably has more advancements (UI especially) than all releases of the Gimp combined. That might be an exaggeration, but not by much. The Gimp is a good idea with good technology that's never been fully realized. – cadmium Mar 8 '12 at 21:49
That's actually my point. UI aside, each point release of Gimp isn't tiny compared to a "full release" of Photoshop. Each release has had big improvements across the board — even if the UI really could use an overhaul. – mattdm Mar 8 '12 at 22:20

I've used Gimp and its high dynamic range fork, CinePaint, a lot in the past and I would say they're very capable packages in terms of functionality, but seriously hampered by their interfaces. I find I'm about half as productive in these as in Photoshop because:

  1. They don't have the extensive default keyboard shortcuts of Photoshop and the right-click menus are absurdly nested and frustrating to navigate.

  2. The windows are not dockable. I spend a disasterous amount of time bringing up the tool options window, etc. when I need it, then minimising it or moving it when it's getting in the way.

  3. Far too many operations launch floating windows to set the parameters.

I was working in 3D animation, where the interfaces of many packages have been tweeked to the hilt to provide fast interaction and Gimp and CinePaint feel like molasses.

I had high hopes for Gimpshop (a sort of Photoshop-skinned implementation of Gimp) but I don't find it any better.

If functionality is your priority, I'd say dive into Gimp. If speed is important to you I'd advise you to save for Photoshop :)

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it sounds like they're fixing alot of long existing UI problems in GIMP 2.8 – rfusca Nov 9 '10 at 2:12
@rfusca, that's good news. The screenshots of single-window mode look nice, though the designer says in a blog post that it will not be possible to split the view, which is a shame. – Ian Mackinnon Nov 9 '10 at 13:16
Just installed Gimp 2.7 (the dev version of 2.8) and can only describe the single-window mode as promising but hugely flakey: it doesn't remember docking positions, always starts in multi-window mode and randomly un-maximizes when opening or closing a file. Let's hope it improves. – Ian Mackinnon Nov 9 '10 at 14:12
I'm sure it will, its still a middle of the project dev release. – rfusca Nov 9 '10 at 22:32
+1 for enumerating some concrete examples of UI problems rather than just waving hands and saying "The UI sucks". – mattdm Jul 29 '11 at 23:44

A good free of charge alternative to Photoshop will involve using at least a few different programs. There is no single free of charge program that will allow you to do everything that Photoshop can do in a practical way. I use the following programs:

DCRaw for converting RAW files to the format you want. E.g. you may want to run your own demosaicing algorithms, you then need to use DCRaw to covert your RAW file to a TIFF file that contains only the raw sensor data.

ImageMagick is a useful command line for photo editing tool. If you need to work with a large number of pictures e.g. computing the average of many aligned noisy pictures, a command line tool is more useful than a GUI.

ImageJ is a low level powerful photo editing tool. It can handle all image formats from 8 bit to 32 bit images. It allows you to perform arbitrary mathematical computations involving any arbitrary set of images using the macro language that is easy to use.

Hugin is a panorama stitcher, it has executables like align_image_stack and enfuse that you can use separately as command line programs to align image stacks, to create HDR pictures or to perform focus stacking. The Hugin program is also useful to perform remappings of images, e.g. to make the horizon in an image appear straight.

GIMP is a high level photo editing tool, comparable to Photoshop, but it falls short on some points as mentioned in the other answers given here (e.g. it can only handle 8 bit images). I mostly use GIMP when I'm done with doing the more advanced photo editing stuff.

In addition to these photo editing programs, you want to have mathematical software allowing you to do computations relevant to photo editing. Mathematics is a neglected area of photo editing, you need to realize that hidden in the gray value of noisy pictures there is a lot of relevant information to be uncovered. This requires doing some math. While you can in principle do all the computations you need within ImageJ, it is often not so practical to do so. Useful programs are:

J. This is a powerful low level mathematical tool, it allows you to handle arrays and do computations involving statistics with ease.

Maxima This is high level computer algebra system. I don't use it because I have the non-free of charge Mathematica program. But this is a a useful supplement to the lower level J program.

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I'd also like to recommend Apple Shake. It's Mac only and it has been discontinued for a while but there are still retail copies available (check you're getting a big box full of manuals) on eBay for about $300 (less that a third of full-price Photoshop), and it's so brilliant I'd like to enthuse about it while it's still available.


  • High bit-depth support up to 32bit floating point, plus ability to edit images in logarithmic scale.
  • Non-destructive workflow: You never touch the original. It's like editing a macro that is constantly run over the image (and it's fast because the caching is good).
  • Everything is programmable: every parameter accepts expressions, which can refer to any value in your workspace; you can program your own filter nodes (may sound scary, but there are good examples to get you started); your workspace can be copied and pasted as ascii text for custom programatic editing; you can run it from the command line; there are experimental 3rd party Python bindings.
  • Automatic multiple outputs: your workspace is just a series of connected flowing nodes and you can have as many outputs as you like. It's great if you want to export several different versions of your image whenever you save.
  • All this for moving image - Shake was designed for movie visual effects :)

There is one gocha: you have to alter a parameter in a buried text preferences file to open images larger than 4096px². I don't remember the details off-hand but I can look harder if anyone wants to know.

It's the best raster editing package I've ever used. It used to be obscenely expensive and now it's not. Anyone remotely interested should snap up a copy while they can!

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I also would advice you to go for the GIMP if you don't want/can afford the Adobe product or if you want to go for free software, which is always a better choice ;-). Basically, you can do all the image manipulation you need with the GIMP. The only big drawbacks will be the two limitations stressed by jetxee, who has written a very good summary and a very good answer: If your workflow includes RAW pictures, the 8 bits limitation and the color space constraint will be annoying, but may be acceptable, depending on your level of exigence.

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Sumopaint is a free online image editor with a Pro version that costs 19 euros.

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Offhand, Sumo paint actually looks pretty impressive for what it is. – rfusca Nov 8 '10 at 17:25

Photoshop is very advanced tool. Its costly too. For who are just starting out, they can use Gimp, which is free. It doesn't replace Photoshop, but has the things you have listed. Also you can use online photo editing tools. Since I mostly prints them, I use colormailer. If you upload it to flickr, you can resize from there too.

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Gimp is the main tool for image/photo manipulation. See http://registry.gimp.org/ for addons and plugins.

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Although Gimp is one of the main photo-editing/creating programs I don't think its main strength is the kind of photo editing the photo- "-prosumer" / -professional or advanced amateur needs.

For this kind of photo-manipulation I have found LightZone (Windows/Apple/Linux). LightZone can handle an array of different RAW-formats. It's interface is very user friendly and strait forward.

But if it is big alterations and/or abstract art you are looking for then Gimp will be the better choice.

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Definitely The Gimp. I use it all the time. Photoshop is good too, but not free.

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You might want to try PhotoLine. I think it is Photoshop’s closest competitor. It does all the photo editing that Photoshop does, and has some advanced features like adjustment layers for adjustment layers. Fully 16-bit. Uses Photoshop plugins. Much more advanced than either Photoshop Elements or Lightroom; but doesn't have the photo management function that the latter has. There is a learning curve; you are working with a “picture” not a “document,” for example. And every now and then a menu item is in German. For Linux users, version 19 is now fully color managed in Wine. Permanent license for 59 Euros.

For raw processing, try RawTherapee. If you haven’t used it lately, it has come a LONG way.


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