Photoshop Alternatives, Part II

Gimp and Photoshop Elements are two more possible choices for the budget-conscious image toner. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Gimp and Photoshop Elements are two more possible choices for the budget-conscious image toner. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Gimp and Photoshop Elements: Is one of these your low/no cost solution?

In Part I of this series we looked at  Picnik and Picasa, two free or almost-free image editing solutions. Today we’ll look under the hood at Gimp, the open-source answer to Photoshop, and Photoshop Elements, Adobe’s own cheaper version of its iconic image editing program. As I said in Part I, this won’t be an exhaustive investigation of these programs, but simply a look. I’ve gotten my hands on both of these programs and tried them out. Here I’ll give you my reactions and thoughts about both; hopefully this will help you make your own decision about what to use.

Gimp, an open-source editing program.

Let me start by saying that unlike Picnik or Picasa, Gimp comes at image editing/toning from a serious, Photoshop-based approach. By that I mean that nothing is dumbed-down or easy about the program. You can go into Levels and Curves, burn, dodge, sharpen, etc., just like you can in Photoshop. There are layers and layer masks that you can design and use. There is also extensive online instruction available at the Gimp website. Lots of people are using Gimp and seem to find that it works for them; I particularly like what Jennifer at offers in her Gimp postings.

What I found hard about the program is that all of these functions are just different enough from Photoshop to make the entire toning process feel disorienting. The Levels and Curves features, for instance, are located under the ‘Colors’ menu, for some reason I could never fathom, instead of under the Image menu. (There is an Image menu, it just has other stuff located there.)  The burn and dodge functionality, while it works, is nested within the ‘Tool Options’ of something that looks vaguely like the Photoshop Dodge tool icon; I found this a bit hard to get at initially, although once I had it figured out, it worked ok. All of the tool icons struck me as weird, ugly versions of their more elegant Photoshop counterparts.

The organization of the Tools menu seems a bit strange. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The organization of the Tools menu seems a bit strange. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Unlike Picasa or Photoshop, there is no IPTC-based captioning function in Gimp. (There is a Text tool for adding type directly to an image, though.) . This is a huge, huge problem for me. I write captions, add keywords, etc., to virtually all of my photographs during the editing process. Not simply for journalistic use, but also for myself: where I shot something, when I shot it, etc. Why would I want to give up this vital functionality?

Unlike Photoshop, Gimp has no ability, at least in the current version, to create Actions. I use custom-made Photoshop Actions, little bits of scripted automation, in my regular toning workflow and can’t imagine doing any serious work without them.

I guess my biggest overall problem with Gimp is aesthetic: it’s UGLY.  Why not just go ahead and make the thing prettier to look at and use? Who wants to work with ugly software? I know there are Gimp users out there who are happy with the program, and I’ll probably get slammed by them for this, but to me, Gimp feels like Photoshop built by the old Soviet Union (think about those old Russian cars that used to be manufactured in their state-run facilities.) I don’t like using it. I don’t like the way it looks or feels. It’s clunky and awkward.

Gimp feels like Photoshop built by the old Soviet Union (think about those old Russian cars that used to be manufactured in their state-run facilities.)

This is such a big disappointment, because I really am a big, big believer in open-source software. I use Firefox as my default browser, for instance. I think it’s beautiful and trouble-free. I think it’s superior to Internet Explorer. Or consider WordPress, the blog platform that I create The Discerning Photographer on and which you’re looking at my creation with right now. I consider it the best blogging platform out there, bar none.

So I love open-source software, when it works as well or better than its expensive retail counterpart. Unfortunately, I don’t think Gimp is even on the same planet with Photoshop. At least not yet.

Photoshop Elements, or Photoshop on a tight budget.

Photoshop Elements, like Adobe Premier Elements, (the cheaper version of the Adobe Premier Pro video editing program), is a surprising robust little piece of software. If what you’re doing with your photos is mostly burning, dodging and sharpening images, and then maybe recropping and saving them at higher or lower resolutions (for printing or the web), you’ll be surprised by Elements. It can do all of these things and more. In fact, if you’re a veteran PS user and run a few pictures through your basic toning workflow in Elements, you may find that it can do almost everything you normally do in its much bigger, much more-expensive Older Brother.

Levels functionality with Elements is virtually identical to that in full-blown Photoshop. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Levels functionality with Elements is virtually identical to that in full-blown Photoshop. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The whole Elements interface is dark and slick, a combination of dark grey and black. The Tools icons remind me of the regular Photoshop versions, only these are more colorful and slightly cartoon-like in overall appearance. The look and feel is a consistent and polished experience, what we’ve all come to expect from Adobe products.

And for me, YAY! It has a Captioning function! By now you know how important this is to my workflow, so enough said. Elements can handle this task in its simple version of IPTC captioning.

Interestingly, one of the things it can’t do is create sophisticated Photoshop Actions. Starting with Version 7, there now is an ‘Action Player’ function in Elements, which seems to mostly be designed to do some special effects on images (sepia toning, for instance). Web sources indicate that some actions created in full-blown Photoshop can now be imported and run in Elements, although this will be on a trail-and-error basis as you test your particular actions for their usability.

Overall I would say this is software aimed at the casual photographer: there are plenty of shortcuts and built-in ‘effects’ that the new photographer may find fun to use. Unlike Gimp, this software is designed with an easy learning curve for the beginning user. However, the tools and their usage mirrors ‘real’ Photoshop, so the beginner who eventually moves up to Photoshop will find that they already know how to drive the car when they get behind the PS wheel.

Conclusion: if you can’t afford Photoshop, get Photoshop Elements for now. It retails for $79 at Amazon, but you can find legal copies at Ebay for  substantially less. When you eventually find that your photographic passion requires Photoshop, the skill set that you’ve developed on Elements will help make your transition easier.

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related content on the web:

Jennifer’s Gimp articles at

Computer Hardware and Software for the Photographer at Your Photo Tips

How Much Would You Pay for Photoshop? at Epic Edits

Posted in: Software

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

21 Comments on "Photoshop Alternatives, Part II"

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  1. BayouBill says:

    Andrew, thanks for the info on GIMP. It got me interested and I did some digging. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

    1. Not only does GIMP not support IPTC editing, if IPTC data is stored in the image and then you edit the image with GIMP and save it, the IPTC data is lost! I have searched for a GIMP plug-in that will handle IPTC or Exif but have not found one yet.

    2. See this page for a package that claims to provide a Photoshop-like interface for GIMP: I haven’t tried it.

    3. You didn’t mention it, but GIMP by itself does not handle RAW images. But UFRaw does, and it can be integrated with GIMP: I tried it and it worked great with some recent the photos.

  2. Michael Hannelly says:

    Can i make a suggestion, if you get something like a wacom tablet they come with photoshop elements, if you are starting out and want to get set up, a basic wacom tablet will be not much more than the price of photoshop elements and come with the software bundled. Much more economical and once you start working with a tablet when processing your photos you will notice the difference.

  3. Great suggestion, Michael. I’ve never used a Wacom tablet but have been curious to try one. Doing a quick Google search, I’m only finding PSE offered with one of the more expensive versions, anyone know a good source?

  4. Rosie says:

    I’ve found the photoshop just too complicated for me – family members get frustrated showing me how to work the program – maybe the elements is a better choice for me.

  5. Robert says:

    how about the online version offered by photoshop at What do you think about it?

  6. Michael says:

    As far as I know, Gimpshop is based on a really, really old version of GIMP and hasn’t been updated in recent years. But correct me if I’m wrong.

    Andrew is completely correct in stating that GIMP is in its current state completely unusable for any serious photo editing and retouching work.
    As someone who has looked a bit into how GIMP is developed, I have to conclude that the major issue is the attitude of its main developers. They had been aggressively defending the horrid user interface for years; only recently, they have been working on implementing *some* possible improvements (and plan to take years for that).
    In addition to that, they continue to program such a complex project in an outdated low-level language [C] that doesn’t scale up to the task. Completely beyond me, but then again this might be one of the reasons no one wants to work on improving GIMP.

  7. Fizmoo says:


    I only use the Gimp on a Linux system. I retouch all the studio portraits I take with it. You can found my work on my website :

    You also can give a look at the Rosi Hardy work : She only uses The Gimp.

    There is also the following time lapse video from David Revoy, a graphic artist :


  8. Richard says:

    1. Gimp has actions – they are called ‘scripts’. There are hundreds of them that are freely available. There is even work happening on a plugin that will allow you to import actions from photoshop.

    2. There are tons of plugins for adding captions and borders to photos in Gimp.

    3. Yes, it may seem a bit barebones, but Gimp has hundreds of plugins that are available, and is infinitely customizable. For many of my colleagues in the design field who use Gimp, after taking the time to learn Gimp, customize and extend it, their firms no longer have to pay thousands of dollars a year in licensing fees (also they are using inkscape, scribus, etc.)

    4. The Gimp project is now extremely active, with 6 or more commits a day. A European design firm is hiring two interns now specifically to improve the usability of GIMP for 6 months.

  9. Interesting. Thanks for the update, Richard!

  10. AdSR says:

    (I know it’s been a year 🙂 )

    The Image menu in GIMP is for the entire image – all layers, paths, whatever. If at all, I’d move levels and curves to Layer or Filters. But both these locations have their own meanings. Layer, like Image, is kind of “administrative” for layer properties and handling. Filters is for more complex processing, including scripts (well, that’s the script author’s decision really).

    Just so you know, as a GIMP user, I was equally confused by Photoshop interface when I tried it – and being used to GIMP look I didn’t like Photoshop’s looks that much. So this is rather personal. I agree with your comparison to Firefox but GIMP doesn’t have that kind of backing. Regrettably, many worthwhile open source projects don’t have the corporate resources they could use.

  11. Dennis says:

    I’ve recently been looking for something other than Photoshop… Glad I came across your post! I’m off to go try Gimp…

  12. Good luck with it, Dennis! You certainly can’t beat the price.

  13. Warren Kimmel says:

    I’ve been exploring your site for a while, and it’s right up my alley. I’ve recently been bit by the ‘shutter bug’ and I’ve been learning lots of techniques, mainly on the fly. You offer a great resource from which to learn.

  14. Dennis says:

    I really dig the look of Photoshop Elements. Something about the darker backdrop makes editing pictures (and staring at a computer) more comfortable for the eyes.

  15. Adrian says:

    Love GIMP but for real easy jobs I also used It’s super easy to use for banners etc.

  16. Merrill says:

    I’ve been using Photoshop Elements for years. It was actually free software included with a scanner I purchased. I was excited at the time because I figured eventually I would move on to Photoshop and Elements would give me a nice head start on what I heard was software with a large learning curve.

    Turns out, I’ve never moved to the full Photoshop. Elements does everything I need. It’s that good. I’m sure that for the hardcore photo editor that Photoshop is needed. But for the vast majority of us, Elements will provide more than enough options.

    – M

  17. Danny says:

    No matter how many times I try another alternative, I constantly find myself back at Photoshop. I just wish it was more intuitive. Maybe Apple can give them an overhaul.

  18. Don Dunaway says:

    The reason I’m looking at your post is that I’ve been using PSE since v.2.0 (I’m now on 8.0 on Win7x84) and though I like the program, I’m tired of wrestling with frustrating problems.
    – PSE crashes way too often, especially if I leave it open for a couple of hours without input.
    – It’s extremely difficult to email pix via AOL. It ‘forgets’ email addresses I’ve entered so I have to re-enter them, and is generally very hard to use for email.
    – I can’t see videos in PSE. Sometimes it will show a few frames and then goes black. This is a new trick since I got 8.0.
    Are there solutions to these problems, or do I need to change? Is there a PSE version that addresses any of these issues? Free is nice but I don’t mind paying for good software, and none of the three other programs you discuss meets my needs.
    Thanks for your help

  19. I’m not familiar with the email issue you describe. Not sure whether that’s a PSE issue or an AOL issue.
    I’m afraid your crashing issues could be Win related. I finally switched back to Macs for video
    editing because the platform is so much, much more stable for that process than what I was using on the PC side.

  20. Phillip Cushman says:

    I have used Elements since version 6 and just “upgraded” to version 10. Up until now the only trouble I have had was it being very slow and regularly crashing on my Windows 7 machine. When I would edit and save an image somehow Elements used to discern that I always saved it as a JPEG and brought that up as the default save format. With Elements 10 it absolutely refuses to offer any default other than PSD. In complaining about this to Photoshop they argue that I should save only in PSD format until I am finished editing and then I should save to my preferred format. Unfortunately Photoshop apparently expects me to continue working on the same image for much longer periods than I want. Most often when I have finished editing I am finished with that edit and don’t need PSD. I have a separate archive copy of the image that I can call back up if I want to work on the image again. I hate taking the extra step or two involved in changing the save format to JPEG and will probably switch to GIMP or something else and call my recent upgrade expense a lesson well-learned.

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