I am on a tight budget and chose to use GIMP for editing since it is free.

What important photographic post-processing features am I missing from Photoshop?

  • 2
    The thing that I miss most is seeing "Thomas Knoll" on the startup graphic.
    – dpollitt
    Jun 22, 2011 at 13:58

8 Answers 8


For photos? Not too much, actually. GIMP lacks automatic HDR processing. It doesn't have adjustment layers - although you don't need those too much for photos. Photoshop's Hue\Saturation dialog is superior. Photoshop CS5 has content-aware fill, which GIMP lacks, but there's a GIMP plugin called Resynth that does about the same thing:http://www.logarithmic.net/pfh/resynthesizer

Some pretty good art has been done in GIMP. (My snow photomanip, for instance) It's more about the artist's skill than the tools he\she uses.

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    any idea about raw support? When I started with gimp, I don't think it supported my canon raw, and I wasn't happy with the layer support.
    – reuscam
    Jul 16, 2010 at 13:40
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    GIMP does support raw, I think via the dcraw plugin?
    – Reid
    Jul 16, 2010 at 13:44
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    For raw images, I've been using UFraw - ufraw.sourceforge.net
    – Queso
    Nov 8, 2010 at 20:21
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    The gimp does have adjustment layers. They don't work quite the same as PS's, but it has them. You can see one in action on my answer about vibrance: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/9398/…
    – cabbey
    Mar 5, 2011 at 21:40
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    Gimp has blending modes for layers, but that's not the same. An adjustment layer is a layer which applies a filter to everything visible beneath it. A blended layer has the adjustment applied to its contents. This sounds like a subtle difference but it has big implications for workflow. See more on this in my answer.
    – mattdm
    Feb 4, 2012 at 16:50

Gimp is great, but it's not without some shortcomings. Photoshop is a big-time commercial project with a lot of funding, and while Gimp's development community is awesome, there are a lot of areas which could be useful to photographers where Photoshop is ahead. I've tried to enumerate these here as fairly and as realistically as I can.

  1. Adjustment layers. These apply the effect of a filter to the layers below, rather than being a layer with a filter applied. Gimp doesn't have this. One can live without, but they are nice. In some cases, layer blending modes can be used to achieve a similar effect, but they don't work the same way. This makes it much more tedious to experiment with different amounts of an effect when doing something complicated. (See this answer for an example of something that's easy with and a whole different more complicated process otherwise.)
  2. Shadow/Highlight tool. There's several decent (free, of course) plugins which add this, but not as nicely as the integrated tool. (My favorite is this simple one; there are others with more options that sometimes give better results.) The main downside of the available add-ons is that you can't really preview the effects of different settings.
  3. Match Color tool. This can be used to correct (to some degree) the white balance of a photo, given a "correct" sample. There are some match color scripts for Gimp, but they generally are designed for special palette effects, not color correction. One can use the color picker + curves tool to do the same thing manually, though.
  4. Color Replacement Tool. This is a quick-and-dirty tool for changing colors — like making a red balloon turn blue. It's a paintbrush-like tool which remaps one color to another, by hue, saturation, luminosity, or "color" — hue and saturation together. Gimp's Color Exchange dialog is a global operation with only rudimentary thresholds and no anti-aliasing; it can't do the same thing. And setting blend modes in the regular paintbrush doesn't do it either, because that affects everything you touch, not just a target color.
  5. "Vibrance" adjustment. Adobe uses this term for a special color tool which increases saturation in a gentle way, without overdoing normal tones, and specifically handling skin tones specially. That's very handy for photography, obviously. See this answer for an approach for emulating this in Gimp — a lot more work.
  6. Content-Aware Fill. Gimp has actually had this for years through the Resynthesizer plugin, but that project has stagnated for a while — it's a great start, but it's just not up to the level of magic that the Photoshop tool accomplishes. Recently, there's a new maintainer for the project and updated code, so there is hope here — although Photoshop CS6 extends this technology into patch and move, while the Gimp version is still basically stagnant. (Side note: don't miss the "Heal Selection" fix to Resynthesizer's smart remove selection script.)
  7. Face detection and select-by-skin-tones. Another new CS6 feature, and something that's useful for a lot of different photographic work (like this problem). There's open source technology for face detection, and decent research on skin color selection, but nothing I know that is integrated in this way (or even available as a plugin).
  8. Denoise plugins. There's tons of proprietary ones for photoshop that give amazing results. The state-of-the-art for Gimp is a little more rough — see this question on the topic.
  9. Fractal image saving and upscaling plugins. For whatever reason, there's no mathemagical upscaling software like Genuine Fractals in the open-source universe. That said, it may be no huge loss, as the results aren't always better than bicubic scaling. In fact, see this question on upscaling images, where one of Gimp's upscaling methods beats many proprietary options (for that particular image).
  10. Action recording. Gimp has very powerful scripting capabilities, which is great for those of us who are comfortable with that kind of thing, but no GUI-based record-and-playback macro system. This isn't strictly photography-related, but if you're doing the same thing to a lot of images as part of your workflow, it would be nice.
  11. 3D Support. Photoshop CS6 and newer feature real 3D tools (not just 3D-like effects). This is irrelevant to many photographers, but can be very useful for extensive image manipulation. See How to make a 3d model from an object in a photograph? for an eye-opening example of how easy this makes it to, for example, swap the fabric on a sofa for a different pattern. Photographers working with product photography or with high-concept manipulated images may really miss this.
  12. Close integration with RAW processing tools. Many of the above shortcomings are covered by great open source RAW processing and workflow tools like Darktable and Rawtherapee, but without Photoshop's "Linked Smart Objects", raster-editing in Gimp is an afterthought, not something that fits into a non-destructive workflow. With the Adobe "family", integration is much more tight, allowing one to make edits in Photoshop and Lightroom together. It's not quite perfect, but it's a big improvement.

As of version 2.10 (released in April 2018), Gimp features high-bit-depth processing, one of the key previous shortcomings. This isn't about a wider range of colors but about more precision within that range. (See the bit about crayons in this answer.)

2.10 also adds a Shadow/Highlight tool, which previously was near the top of my list of shortcomings. And it adds LCH blend modes, resolving the lack of a luminosity layer blend mode. This can be used for sharpening, for example, or anything else where you want to affect luminosity rather than color. Gimp traditionally used slightly-different mode "Value", as in HSV (and this is still available if you want it).

Gimp is under active development, and the "roadmap" can be found at http://wiki.gimp.org/index.php/GIMP_Roadmap. This is useful for getting an idea of what shortcomings will be rectified soon, and what else is coming in the near future. For example, adjustment layers are targeted at 3.2. And, since non-destructive editing is going to be a big feature of that, we may see better RAW workflows, too.

User interface complaints used to be very common, but the software has come a long way, and if you haven't used it in a while, it may be worth checking it out again. Version 2.8 featured a number of significant improvements to the user interface, most notably a single-window mode. The 2.10 update refines this even further, and UI improvements are ongoing

There's still some UI things which could use serious work. Frequently-used items are buried too far in disorganized menus, and while it's easy to remap keyboard shortcuts, there's no good way to tailor the menus for photographic tasks specifically, or to move favorite menu items to shortcut bars. That means more clicking than I'd really like, and it means that some great features are hard to discover. I think this will get better in time.

There are a number of other things like RAW development and lens profile correction which Photoshop does and which are not handled well in Gimp but which are covered by other open source tools (like Hugin, RawTherapee, and Darktable). As noted above, though, it'd be nicer to have more close integration, as Adobe does with its products.

  • 2
    I find the Wavelet Denoise plugin to be pretty good.
    – labnut
    Jan 26, 2011 at 9:53
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    That's what I use too. It is pretty good, but I still think it's also fair to call it "rough". And it hasn't been updated in over two years.
    – mattdm
    Jan 26, 2011 at 18:55
  • it's not really fair to put the adjustment layers on there, as I showed in my vibrance answer, it does have them, they just work differently.
    – cabbey
    Mar 5, 2011 at 21:42
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    @cabbey: see this q/a. Photoshop also has layer blend modes like those in Gimp; Adjustment Layers are a feature beyond that, so it's not accurate to say that Gimp is trying (which implies that they're not doing as well). It's simply something not implemented.
    – mattdm
    Aug 23, 2011 at 17:22
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    @PeterTaylor It's not that it doesn't work on the selection but that it doesn't work as a brush.
    – mattdm
    Apr 27, 2018 at 19:47

This may seem biased/unfair, but GIMP has awful usability.

Disclaimer: i have used both, although recently i use photoshop much more.

In terms of functionality, GIMP doesn't tread much behind photoshop (for simple photomanips and adjustments - i don't do HDR), but layer manipulation and general use are tortuous (IMHO). I never couldn't do a task with GIMP, but i end up searching online how to do it, whereas in Photoshop i tend to find stuff on the menus or figure it out by myself.

And yes, i am aware that 600€ is quite a lot to pay for a small hobbyist.

EDIT: (in reply to the comments) Yes, awful is a bit vague.

I wasn't really referring to the panel approach, it's slightly confusing but not as serious as the layer manipulation controls in an image, selecting, dragging, enlarging, etc.

I didn't mean to bash, i learned the basics in GIMP, it's selection editing tools are fairly evident, but i didn't use many of GIMP's functionality (3+ layer composites, filters, color corrections) because i didn't know the name of what i was trying to accomplish, or simply because fell into dead ends (not being able to do something, not figuring it out quickly, getting frustrated, giving up) Only after transitioning to photoshop, and learning those tasks, did i know what to look for in GIMP.

I am not sure if i made myself clear, i am referring to findability vs discoverability (http://maadmob.net/donna/blog/2005/findability-vs-discoverability). I defend that photoshop is a very much better learning tool because it enables its users to discover functionality that they didn't even know they could do in the first place.

I suppose you COULD do them almost all in GIMP, after you know what to search for, and investing the time in learning it, but photoshop allowed ME to learn almost all that i know with almost no research at all.

Usability may seem something rather trivial or useless, but it really isn't. It is very complicated to get right, and is never ideal for everyone. But Adobe has obviously put a lot of effort into making Photoshop usable, and it shows. Also, i am aware of the difficulty for FOSS to engage in user testing and usability evaluation, because of the nature of the projects development structure (many developers, far apart, functionality oriented).

  • 6
    "Awful usability" doesn't have any actual meaning. Can you be more specific?
    – mattdm
    Jan 26, 2011 at 1:43
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    Hmm, awful is overstating it a bit. Different, yes. The floating windows in Gimp tend to confuse people but they are a real boon if you have a large screen.
    – labnut
    Jan 26, 2011 at 9:51
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    I meant that findability is the ability to find a functionality that i know exists, on an unknown software: for example, contrast adjustment. On any photo processing software i may use, i assume the functionality is there, and the software's findability for it is the ease with wich i get to it. Discoverability is more complicated: its the ease with which i get to the function WITHOUT necessarily knowing its name or effect. It's very difficult to get right for various expertise levels. What i defend is that PS allowed me to discover several tools that gimp also has, but i never really knew. Jan 27, 2011 at 11:34
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    I'm not necessarily talking about accelerators in specific. The daily-use over discoverability mentality can apply to user interface design throughout, not just shortcuts.
    – mattdm
    Jan 28, 2011 at 16:35
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    Your point about learning things that you could do is an interesting one, though. I think that could be improved in both Gimp and Photoshop. In some ways, it can be solved simply through good documentation, but it's always best when that isn't even needed.
    – mattdm
    Jan 28, 2011 at 16:40

One item I don't see mentioned in other answers is performance. Especially on a Mac. Lightroom and Photoshop both crunch through adjustments and work MUCH faster than the Gimp does.

  • And this is likely to get worse before it gets better — the high-bit-depth GEGL operations are slower than the old ones, and meanwhile Photoshop is much faster to adopt GPGPU acceleration.
    – mattdm
    Mar 30, 2012 at 1:22
  • hmm, GEGL can't be all that bad: libregraphicsworld.org/blog/entry/…
    – unhammer
    Dec 17, 2012 at 9:13

One key difference is not in the product itself, but its development. There are about two developers working on Gimp, and as a result, new features take a long time to be production ready. They 16-bit GEGL engine has been in progress for a couple of years and is not yet released.

I don't think it is fair to say that the Gimp UI is terrible, but it is very different from Photoshop, and its not nearly as polished.

I used to use Gimp all the time, and was very happy with it. But these days I use Aperture. I don't need pixel editing, the basics of crop/rotate and some exposure controls are what I need.

For those looking for an open-source package that is closer in spirit Aperture or LightRoom, look at Darktable.

  • 1
    Although I won't dispute that development is slow, I don't think the key claim here is true. git.gnome.org/browse/gimp/log shows quite a few different people checking in code changes.
    – mattdm
    Mar 27, 2012 at 17:04
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    Part of the confusion is: what is gimp? Lots of folks work on translations and plug-ins. With one view, they are part of the product, with another, they don't change the product itself, they make it possible for more users to use it. Mar 30, 2012 at 1:12
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    Well, that's true of Photoshop too. As I look over my list of missing features, I note that half or more of them could be plug-ins. You're right that a lot of the check-ins are translation related, but there's definitely more than two people making code improvements as well. I'm not meaning to argue, but I think by downplaying the active development of the project you're being unfair.
    – mattdm
    Mar 30, 2012 at 1:20
  • If the feature is available as a plug-in, then its available. Gimp plugins are no different in spirit from plugins and presets for Photoshop or Aperture. Apr 19, 2012 at 0:27
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    yep. Frankly, using a checklist of features and driving product selection from the number of boxes checked is why we have terrible products such as MS Word -- something with every feature known to man, and understood by no one. Sadly, gimp needs love. And more engineers. I really liked the philosophy of Darktable as an open source alternative to Lightroom and Aperture. Apr 19, 2012 at 0:32

When I process my photos, apart from color correction the two functions I most need are Smart Sharpen and Reduce Noise, and unfortunately both are missing from GIMP.

My understanding is that the algorithms used by Photoshop are proprietary and trade secrets, so you can't just implement them to GIMP, you'd need to reverse engineer or reinvent them yourself.

Noise reduction is in essence about removing unwanted details without removing wanted details and as such it's black art. However, you can work around this by shooting with lower ISO - using tripod or off-camera flash if necessary.

Smart sharpen is harder to replace. It basically makes the image look like the original version was slightly blurred version of the resulting image, instead of adding halos around high-contrast edges like most trivial sharpening algorithms do.

  • I haven't tried it, but the Resynthesizer plugin includes a "Smart Sharpen" component. It's almost certainly not the same thing but might be helpful.
    – mattdm
    Aug 23, 2011 at 18:25
  • Thanks! I will give it a try and update my post per the results.
    – Zds
    Aug 23, 2011 at 19:36
  • I'm curious — did you ever do the test?
    – mattdm
    Mar 27, 2012 at 21:40
  • a "black art" for which Google Scholar gives 2'520'000 results … I'd call that a highly active research area. BTW, have you compared GIMP's GreyCstoration (now part of GMIC)?
    – unhammer
    Dec 17, 2012 at 9:31

I've been using GIMP for years and I'm fine with it. I've never found the lack of high bit depth an issue. In my experience this issue is exaggerated in importance. The UI works fine, and I think it's partly what you're used to and what works for you as a person. The only thing I wish it had were adjustment layers.

An extremely useful plug-in is G'MIC ( awful name ), which contains a huge number of very useful enhancements, including :

  • Noise Reduction ( several methods )
  • Background Extraction Tool ( much better than GIMP's default one )
  • A lot of effects

Just for those G'MIC is an essential.

If you need more ( and no application is perfect ), try these (free) applications :

If anyone cares ( or dares ) to try them I have some GIMP scripts and plug-ins on my GitHub account :

I'm working in a Java plug-in for GIMP ( not ready for the light of day ).


As the other answerers have pointed out, GIMP misses certain features that you can find in photoshop. But then you are not limited to using only GIMP. I use the following free of charge programs:

dcraw allows you to have full access to your raw files, you can e.g. work with the raw data before any demosaicing is done. ImageJ allows you to easily manipulate the raw data of your picture in exactly the way you want it, unlike higher end programs like GIMP. ImageMagick allows you to easily manipulate images via command line instructions, it allows you to perform batch operations. Hugin is a panorama stitcher which includes the programs "align_image_stack" and "enfuse" which you can use to align images and compose HDR images, respectively.

In some cases I have used all these programs to do post processing to produce one picture. E.g. to sharpen an image I've used dcraw to extract the slightly blurred raw image of a star before any demosaicing. That image of a star the served as the point spread function that I used to deconvolve the image with using an imageJ plugin (the reason why you need the image of the star before demosaicing is due to the severe demosaicing artifacts when the brightness changes changes significantly over the range of just a few pixels). But this requires working in linear colorspace, and for that I used dcraw to convert the image to a 16 bit linear tiff file.

I did this for several pictures of the same scene and then I used the "align_image_stack" program from Hugin to align the images. Then using imagemagick, I could compute the "maximum" and "minimum" of the images (i.e. the images obtained by taking the maximum or minimum grey values of each pixel in the aligned images), and then you can computed the average of all the images where you subtract the maximum and the minimimum (this reduces noise by averaging as well as removing the outliers). Then I did this for different exposures and the results of the different exposures could be combined into a HDR image using the enfuse program (before that I had to converted the images to sRGB using ImageMagick). Finally with GIMP I could make some final adjustments and convert the tiff file to jpeg.

It may well be the case that with photoshop you could do all of this work, but I doubt if you could work smoothly with any single program. Some programs are more suitable for doing lower level processing while others are better at doing higher end photo editing.

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