GIMP vs Photoshop vs Pixelmator – Graphics Editor Shootout

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As someone who dabbles in both photography and graphic design, I spend a lot of time in graphics-oriented apps. There are several leading apps in this category, but which is the right one for you? Is Photoshop better than GIMP? Is Pixelmator better than Photoshop?

The Contenders

GIMP 2.6

The free one. GIMP is free, open source, and cross platform. It has a reasonably good feature set, but doesn’t perform particularly admirably and has a user experience that is decidedly un-Mac-like. GIMP is free.

Photoshop CS5

The big one. Photoshop has been around for a long time, and is the industry standard. Photoshop is the archetypical ‘professional’ app: tons of features (some questionable), a usable-but-not-great UI, and a ridiculous price. Photoshop CS5 is $700, Photoshop CS5 Extended is $1000. Amazon has small discounts. Students and teachers get big discounts.

Pixelmator 2

The shiny new one. Pixelmator is relatively new, incredibly inexpensive, and has quickly gotten a good reputation. Pixelmator is beautiful and a pleasure to use, performs very pleasingly, and has a respectable feature set. Pixelmator is $30 on the Mac App Store.

Methodology

To review and compare these apps, I came up with four real-world tests to put them through. The tests are designed to evaluate the apps’ capabilities and performance doing actual work, as well as give me a good idea of what it’s really like to use them.

Each test has a set of metrics assigned to it. To be sure that they accurately reflect the most important elements of a successful app, I chose these metrics based on the mental comparisons I made while actually performing the tests.

Each app is given a score from 1 to 10 on each metric. The app with the highest score in a given test is deemed the ‘winner’ of that test.

In addition to the per-test metrics, I’ve included at the end several general metrics that don’t apply to a specific test but to the apps in general.

So, on to the tests!

Creating the Ask Different Logo

The first test was the simplest. This was designed to evaluate the design-focused features of the apps by creating a simple vector design: the Ask Different logo we all know and love.

GIMP: I was able to use GIMP to almost re-create the logo. The part I was unable to replicate was the 3D effect on the command sign: I had to go with a uniform border instead. I also had to convert the text and background shape into raster objects (which isn’t ideal because it makes changing text and font impossible).

Photoshop: Photoshop could easily replicate the logo, complete with all 3D effects and no loss in mutability.

Pixelmator: Pixelmator came a little closer than GIMP did. I was able to re-create the drop shadow with more accuracy and leave the shape as a vector object. Like in GIMP, I had to revert to a uniform border and a rasterized symbol, but Pixelmator’s border was cleaner than GIMP’s.

Results:

ask different logo recreation results

Scores:

Metric  GIMP  Photoshop  Pixelmator
Shape & Text Capabilities 7 9 10
Styling & Effects Capabilities 3 10 5
Ease & Speed of Use 6 8 10
Total 16 27 25

Winner:

Photoshop, with Pixelmator close behind.

Retouching an Old Photo

In this test, I removed blemishes from and corrected the picture of an old photo. This was meant to evaluate the apps’ localized editing features, including healing and cloning tools, as well as global picture corrections to a faded image.

GIMP: GIMP’s Healing tool is easier to use than the Clone Stamp tool, but still requires that you select a source for each correction. Overall exposure, contrast, and color changes were easy and effective. GIMP does not boast any nondestructive editing features, which are important to me when working with valuable photos.

Photoshop: Photoshop has a one-click Spot Healing Brush which uses Content Aware Fill. Its performance was good, and I could make most corrections in one click. Picture corrections were easy and powerful. Photoshop has excellent support for nondestructive editing: all adjustments and blemish corrections can be kept separate from the original image and changed at any point.

Pixelmator: Pixelmator also has a smart one-click healing tool. Its performance was similar to Photoshop’s, but it did slightly better around edges; there were fewer times when I had to resort to the Clone Stamp tool than in Photoshop and GIMP. For healing and local corrections, Pixelmator has nondestructive editing capabilities equal to Photoshop’s. Image correction introduced a bluish tint to the photo.

Results:

old photo restoration results

Scores:

Metric  GIMP  Photoshop  Pixelmator
Healing Capabilities 7 9 10
Image Correction Capabilities 10 10 7
Ease & Speed of Use 3 7 10
Total 20 26 27

Winner:

Pixelmator, with Photoshop close behind.

Editing a RAW Image

In this test, I edited a RAW image taken with my Canon DSLR. This test was designed to evaluate the apps’ RAW processing capabilities, global picture adjustments, local picture adjustments, and nondestructive editing capabilities.

GIMP: GIMP has a RAW processor, which allows picture correction to be made with the extra image data present in a RAW file. Unfortunately, the interface was confusing and the corrections didn’t look great: they introduced noise and tint. Localized corrections weren’t very convenient, but the results were acceptable. GIMP has some level of nondestructive editing capabilities, but not enough for me to be comfortable using it on my original copy of a file.

Photoshop: Photoshop has the most advanced RAW processor I’ve seen, and the results of both its global and localized corrections are superb. RAW files are automatically processed nondestructively, and it’s also easy to make further edits to the processed image without harming the original. Global adjustments were easier here than in any of the other apps, and local adjustments were equally easy.

Pixelmator: Pixelmator does not process RAW files, making it impossible to fully take advantage of the format. That said, Pixelmator’s global corrections are powerful and easy to use, so I was able to achieve a nice result on this basic editing job without a dedicated processor. Local corrections were quick, easy, and effective. Pixelmator does not have nondestructive editing features for global adjustments, but it does for local adjustments.

Results:

raw file editing results

Scores:

Metric  GIMP  Photoshop  Pixelmator
RAW Processing 5 9 5
Global Adjustment Capabilities 4 8 8
Local Adjustment Capabilities 5 9 9
Ease & Speed of Use 4 8 8
Total 18 34 30

Winner:

Photoshop, with Pixelmator fairing considerably better than GIMP.

Swapping Heads

In this test, I stuck Jon Stewart’s head on Stephen Colbert’s body. This was designed to test the selection capabilities of each app, as well as how efficiently they allow a user to perform complex cloning and filling tasks. These features are important to both photographers and designers.

GIMP: GIMP’s ‘smart’ selection tools aren’t smart enough for use in complex photos, so I had to use the Lasso tool and draw around the image. This is usually less precise than automated tools, especially when dealing with hair. As usual, GIMP was the slowest and clunkiest app; it took me the longest to complete the swap using GIMP.

Photoshop: Photoshop’s smart selection tools really are the best I’ve used. Selecting the head was easy and fast, and refining the selection to handle hair well was also easy. Photoshop wasn’t slow, but it was less fluid to use than Pixelmator.

Pixelmator: Pixelmator’s smart selection tools are somewhat hit-and-miss, but they didn’t work well in this image. Like in GIMP, I ended up using mostly the Lasso tool to make my selection. Pixelmator was very fast and I got the job done more quickly than in the other apps (Lion’s Autosave and Versions were helpful here).

Results:

Scores:

Metric  GIMP  Photoshop  Pixelmator
Selection Capabilities 5 9 6
Ease & Speed of Use 4 8 10
Total 9 17 17

Winner:

A tie between Photoshop and Pixelmator, with GIMP far behind.

General Scores

Metric  GIMP  Photoshop  Pixelmator
Standard Feature Set 9 10 10
Pro Feature Set 5 10 6
Quality of Results 5 9 8
Price 10 2 8
Total 29 31 32

Combined Scores

Test  GIMP  Photoshop  Pixelmator
Ask Different Logo 16 27 25
Photo Restoration 20 26 27
Editing RAW 18 34 30
Head Swap 9 17 16
General 29 31 32
Total 92 135 130

Conclusion

Photoshop is the overall winner, but Pixelmator is very close behind. GIMP didn’t put on a great show.

General users, amateur designers, and amateur photographers should get Pixelmator. It has lots of great standard-level features; a decent selection of pro-level features; and is a beautiful, fast app.

Professional designers and photographers should get Photoshop. It has all the professional features that Pixelmator lacks, and the user experience is entirely acceptable.

Really, GIMP isn’t the best choice for anyone. Its feature set is acceptable, but its interface and sometimes-lackluster results mean that it’s slow and frequently painful to use. Even if you’re on a tight budget, Pixelmator is well worth the money.

23 Comments

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  • Daniel says:

    Have you used Acorn? If so, how does it stack up in your comparisons?

  • Stu Wilson says:

    I’ve been using Pixelmator for a few years now, and it’s been fantastic. As for someone for whom Photoshop was the tool I benchmarked everything against, Pixelmator did everything for a much more respectable price.

  • Martin Marconcini says:

    +1 for Acorn

  • cksum says:

    It’s a thorough, in-depth review Nathan, but you don’t mention one of the biggest caveats: your experience with the programs. To compare then all as apples is unfair unless you know each of them inside out (and you just may). You should have made mention of your prior experience with the software.

    GIMP is by far my favorite and I could just never get the hang of it when I was using Linux, but I’ve seen artists churn out amazing stuff using it. So I always suspected that it had a steep learning curve (Linux programs aren’t known for their usability).

    Check out jimmac’s work (most noted for his additions to the Tango icon set): http://jimmac.musichall.cz/icons.php He uses GIMP exclusively and produces some amazing designs (not just icons).

    • Jason Salaz says:

      Non-Digital Artists also churn out amazing stuff. The medium is not the primary point. The point is the capabilities the medium offers (and I’m not just talking “features”) with regard to what you need to accomplish, and how much it gets in your way, or not.

    • I have a good level of experience with each of the apps I reviewed.

      I was a GIMP user even before I was a Photoshop user, and I know my way around well. Pixelmator was a relatively new app for me, but I have definitely used it enough to offer a fair comparison.

      By hours, I’ve used Photoshop the most and it’s the app that works best for me. It’s followed by GIMP, which have quite a bit of experience with. I have a solid working knowledge of Pixelmator, but I admit that I probably don’t know all the hidden tricks of the app.

      I have no doubt that artists more skilled than I can (and have) create amazing things in all three of these apps :)

  • joe says:

    The new version of Gimp (2.8) should be out soon, PS 5 is much newer than the Gimp tested here.

  • ASC says:

    Totally agree with #cksum, you should mention your capabilities because things can change a lot. I am not a professional, but I think I could do all the processing thigs and the logo better than you with the gimp (and I am just a begginer). I supose you really use photoshop because all the time you are rating it as the easiest one to do all the things. I think the idea of performing this test is magnific, but if you do not have experince in all of them, may be it would be nice to ask someone to do the test with the programs you do no usually use.

  • ASC says:

    Moreover, with the sentence “GIMP has a RAW processor”, you make me thing you have little knowledge about this program, since there exist some ways to do it (that’s the magic of open source). I supose you have used one of these: UFRaw or Raw Therapee…(it would be nice to say which). From my newbie’s point of view you should clarify it, because out there is a lot of people who could confused with your post (unless you have some interest to disparage Gimp or benefit other software).

    • See above for info on my experience with each application.

      If you have improved versions made with GIMP, I would be interested to see them along with a little explanation of your techniques. Post links if you’ve got ‘em. :)

      I used UFRaw, as it is what’s bundled with the Mac version of GIMP. The idea was to test each app’s included functionalities; nonstandard plugins weren’t tested.

      I have no interest to comment or disparage any particular software; this is an objective, non-sponsored review.

  • Strangehold says:

    That logo you made with GIMP was bad, I have made a better logo than that with GIMP(2.6), and I will happily provide the .xcf files to prove it.

    This took me less than an hour (Which is why it’s not shaped properly).

    Heres a link : http://img96.imageshack.us/img96/5751/logohy.png

    • Hey, nice job on that! It looks great.

      GIMP, like Pixelmator, has no built-in Inner Shadow function. Without using a plug-in, it’s impossible to produce the inner shadow effect without plugins. (Yes, it could be done by manually selecting and playing with feather, fill, and gradient values, but the results are clunky and immutable and the time required to find values that work in a given situation can be prohibitive).

      All three apps reviewed have many plug-ins available, and I made the decision to review each app as exactly as it’s distributed (without adding any plug-ins). That’s why I opted to use a stroke instead of an inner shadow in GIMP (as I did in Pixelmator).

  • boomheadshot43 says:

    Congratulations, you successfully made gimp look like the garbage it isn’t. I would have expected better from this, a fair comparison of the three. Just because you can’t use a program straight off, does not make it junk. Plenty of tutorials and people who actually know *hint (Strangehold) how to use this program, next time, do some research, and use a more recent version that hasn’t been defunct ages.

    • Really, GIMP isn’t the best choice for anyone. Its feature set is acceptable, but its interface and sometimes-lackluster results mean that it’s slow and frequently painful to use. Even if you’re on a tight budget, Pixelmator is well worth the money.

      I never called GIMP anything like a piece of garbage. It’s a powerful piece of software, but I believe that Pixelmator is a better choice for just about anyone.

      This is a fair comparison; all apps were given equal tests and scored on the same metrics. I have plenty of experience with each app (I was a GIMP user for years). Any points that GIMP lost are due to interface or feature set limitations.

      GIMP 2.6 is not at all defunct; it was the current version distributed from the GIMP website at the time of this writing (as it is now, months later). All apps were tested using the current stable, distributed version.

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