Do you want to edit bitmap images on the home desktop? It’s surprising, but really the choice of image editing applications comes down to just two: Gimp and Photoshop. And therein lies a dilemma.
Photoshop costs around $600 these days, and Gimp is free, so of course if cost is a factor you’re going to swerve towards Gimp. But - and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming - it’s not that simple. Photoshop has two leads over Gimp: (1) patented features, and (2) the interface that everyone is used to. Most especially, Gimp is out of the running for professional print shop editing, thanks to the patent lock on industrial features such as color correction and CMYK. Gimp can emulate these features with work-arounds, or it can get sued, and that’s all there is to it.
A common misconception is that Gimp lacks many more features that Photoshop has. In fact, with the exception of features that depend on patented algorithms, Gimp is 99% on par with Photoshop in capabilities. It’s just that Photoshop users try Gimp, are immediately lost in the baroque interface, and leave in terror. Having the features doesn’t do you much good if you can’t find them!
That’s the real hanger is the user interface. Unlike other professions which happen to take place on a computer, graphics artists are almost never geeks. Geeks explore an interface, practice with it, read the manual on it, and when they discover the scripting language buried within (Gimp has scheme), they’re bowled over at how cool it is. Graphics artists aren’t like that. They’re right-brained all the way; they’re here to draw, not write programs. And when they learn one way to make the computer do what they want, that’s a sacrifice of time which they can never again be asked to do. Learning a new interface is painful for anybody, but it seems to be simply unacceptable for the graphics artist.
For instance, let’s say you want to draw a beard on a face. In both Photoshop and Gimp it is straight-forward enough to create a custom brush shaped like a few hair follicles. But to draw the beard on and have it come out looking like natural hair, in Photoshop you would open the brush dialog and change the shape and color dynamics, tweaking switches and knobs in each and setting them to randomize. In Gimp, however, you would create a layered brush (called an “image pipe”) which is similar to how you would do an animated gif, then just tell it to use the brush layers in random order. You could manually set up the brush layers to be lighter, darker, and rotated and resized - in effect giving yourself more control over the final effect. It is possible to get the exact same effect in both programs, with even some room to argue that one result looks better than the other.
But what good is that going to do if you’re used to the Photoshop interface? Nothing. In a nutshell, Photoshop is for linear thinkers, and Gimp is for lateral thinkers. Both of them can arrive at very nearly the same result, so close that it’s a neck and neck race. Bottom line, for website graphics and simple editing jobs it’s almost insane to spend the money to use Photoshop. And Gimp is likewise inadequate for the needs of a professional print shop.
Unless, of course, you’re already a geek. Then it won’t matter, because you learn new programs just for fun anyway. The only problem with that is… have you ever met a geek with good artistic skills?