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 iffles.com 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.
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.
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.
Hi, 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 iffles.com
Computer Hardware and Software for the Photographer at Your Photo Tips
How Much Would You Pay for Photoshop? at Epic Edits