GIMP sees itself as the open source replacement for Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended ($699 to $999 list, $199–$899 list for upgrades, 5 stars). This powerful image editor—available for the FreeBSD, GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris, and Windows platforms—brings high-end photo editing to the desktop without the accompanying high-end price tag. Like Adobe's killer image application, GIMP can prove robust to the point of intimidation, but if you're looking for something deeper than Paint.net (Free, 3.5 stars), this is your program.
GIMP's UI is split into three main parts: "Toolbox," "Layers, Channels, Paths, Undo," and the main image editing area. You can blow the main image editing area up to full screen, but you can't pin the other sections to the side so that they minimize and maximize in step with it—they stay the same size, which can be good or bad, depending on your tastes. Clicking the "x" icons on the Toolbox and Layers, Channels, Paths, Undo sections doesn't close those individual sections—it annoyingly kills the entire application. Paint.net has similar toolboxes, but their positioning gives the app a more airy feel that I preferred, and closing them doesn't terminate the application.
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The menu bar houses a number of familiar options—File, Edit, Select, View, Image, Layer, Colors, Tools, Filters, Windows, Help—but GIMP replaces the traditional tools menu with the aforementioned Toolbox. It offers more options than the more novice-friendly Paint.net; in fact, some may be intimidated by the unfamiliar icons (such as the one for Foreground Select Tool, and Measure Tool). There are so many options available that the GIMP development team has wisely given users the ability to create custom menus so that they can quickly access their own most frequently used tools.
TypePersonalFreeYesOS CompatibilityWindows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS, Windows 7 More
Import and Organization
As with Paint.net, GIMP lets you drag images directly into the app, or you can use the traditional File>Open method to select a photo. I like having the choice; however, I didn't like that when I opened multiple images open within GIMP, they each lived in their own individual windows. I frequently forgot that I had two images open due to the fact that one window sat behind another, but Photoshop CS5 vets should be used to this. I much preferred Paint.net's method, which used thumbnails to represent other opened images. You can not rate or tag photos, but if you're just looking for an editing tool, it'll be of small consequence.
Editing, Effects, and Plug-ins
GIMP includes the standard brushes, text editor, and colorization tools that you'll find within other image editors, and, like Paint.net and Photoshop, it supports layers. This lets you do a lot of things with an image that aren't possible in many free photo editors such as Picasa (Free, 4 stars) and Windows Live Photo Gallery. Other standouts include Perspective (which let me tilt images), Shear (a quick way to slice off portions of a photo), Lens Glare (which let me add lighting effects to nearly a J.J. Abrams' Star Trek level), and Rotate (spinning the picture on the X axis or Y axis).
Touching up images was relatively easy with the Clone tool (which let me copy and paste a portion of an image over another) and the Heal tool (which makes automatic fixes of minor issues such as a misplaced brush stroke). Although it felt a little clunky in comparison to the Adobe Photoshop Elements 9's near-effortless Spot Healing, it's still a worthwhile tool for touch ups.
Adding effects in GIMP, for the most part, was as simple as setting effect intensity and applying it to the image, but more skillful edits, such as layering, required multiple steps and may demand that novices seek instruction. Like Paint.net, GIMP could've benefited from a zoom slider; constantly clicking on an image to enlarge it gets old rather quickly.
The options available for each feature run deep, and I can see a novice easily becoming lost in the functions (GIMP could've benefited from even a few onscreen tips, which Paint.net provides). If you happen to discover that GIMP lacks a particular feature, checking out the one of the many plug-ins available for the app will let you add a new one, such as anti-aliasing for smoothing out rough edges.
If the mentioned features haven't convinced you of GIMP's pro-level aspirations, also consider this: GIMP supports a wide range of features out of the box: USB controllers, MIDI controllers, and pressure and tilt sensitive tablets. It also opens Canon CR2 and Nikon NEF images when used in conjunction with the UFraw application.
Output and Sharing
GIMP let me send an image to a printer (portrait, landscape, and a wide variety of letter sizes), and supports custom layouts. The editor supports CMYK via a number of plug-ins (its not a default feature), but I couldn't export to Flickr or Facebook, as you can with Serif PhotoPlus and Photoshop Elements. That was a bit of a letdown, but not unexpected of a freeware application. On the other hand, GIMP lets you save images in nearly any file type imaginable: BMP, JPG, GIF, PNG, PSD, TIFF, MNG, ICO, and more.
Should You Get The GIMP?
Simply put, GIMP isn't for lightweights. It's designed for those with photo editing experience or for those that want to pour the time into exploring all of its nooks and crannies. It approaches but level of its target, Adobe Photoshop, in terms of power, but can't compete in terms of interface and convenience. Of course, many users will put up with a lot of inconvenience to save $700, and those of an open-source bent tend to be used to doing without some conveniences, anyhow.
If you need something less complicated, but still feature-packed, Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 is a great choice if you're willing to spend $99.99. And Paint.net may be worth a consideration if you want to go down to the lower end of the free photo-editing spectrum. But for users who need serious photo-editing power on a serious budget, GIMP delivers on both measures. GIMP 2.6's combination of power (high) and price (free) makes it a top photo editing contender, and our Editors' Choice for free pro- and prosumer-level photo editing software.