Advertisement
  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Adobe Photoshop
Design

What Makes Photoshop Better Than Free Alternatives?

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Adobe Photoshop has long been an industry standard, and even though it's famous for being costly, it's the first choice for most people when it comes to photo editing.

But there are many other programs, available for free, marketed as "Photoshop alternatives". Why not use one of them instead? Everyone will say, duh, Photoshop is for professionals, free alternatives are for amateurs! But what does that mean, really? What's so professional about Photoshop, except its price?

If you search for the answer on the Internet, it's hard to get anything specific. You'll learn that "free programs are only good for basic editing" and "you need Photoshop for anything serious", but nobody will tell you exactly what functions Photoshop has that free photo editors lack.

I decided to test it myself. I've picked three programs: GIMP, Krita, and Photopea. I'm going to edit a photo in Photoshop, and then try to do the same in each of these three. This should give us a better idea of the real capabilities of these programs in comparison to Photoshop.

Photoshop Creative Cloud

Let's edit a photo in Photoshop first. I'll include basic retouching and elements of photo manipulation, as well as styling the text. It's not possible to show all the functions of Photoshop during one edit, but I hope this mix will give you a good overview.

RAW Editor

My photo is saved in NEF format, which is a type of RAW file. When I opened it in Photoshop, I got a chance to edit the RAW properties directly in the default plugin, called Camera RAW. I could fix the exposure, contrast, highlights, and more, change the saturation or luminosity of individual colors, and even sharpen the image or remove the noise. I could access everything that the camera has saved, and manipulate it manually.

camera raw plugin

Frequency Separation & Actions

Using filters like Smart Blur and High Pass, I used the technique of frequency separation to clean up the skin. To make things faster, I could reduce the frequency separation to an action. Actions record what I do, and I can replay it all with a single click whenever I need. For cleaning the skin, I could use various healing tools.

frequency separation photoshop

Selection With Paths

I used the Pen Tool to select the edges of the body. Photoshop has many selection tools, but the Pen Tool is the most precise of them all. It allows me to "draw" a selection outline step by step, and modify every curve of this outline.

selection with pen tool

Refine Edge

My selection has hard edges, so I smoothed it out with the Refine Edge feature. It intelligently added strands of hair to my selection, so that the hairstyle didn't look like a hat.

refine edge photoshop

Layer Mask

To remove the selected area without actually removing anything from the original photo, I placed the previous layers in a group and applied a Layer Mask to it. The Layer Mask hides the selected area, and the original photo stays intact.

layer mask photoshop

Smart Filters

I cropped the image and placed a background photo behind the model. I applied a Gaussian Blur to it. Because it's a Smart Object, the actual image doesn't get blurry—it just appears so, and I can remove the blur or adjust it anytime I need.

smart filter photoshop

Photo Filter

I added a Photo Filter to the model to give her a greenish tint, fitting the background. The filter affects the contents of the group only, and because it's an adjustment layer, it can be removed or adjusted anytime without any loss.

photo filter photoshop

Selective Color

Using Selective Color, I could modify colors in the image separately and very precisely. I made the model even greener with it, changing the contrast at the same time.

selective color photoshop

Color Range Selection

I selected the red dress using the Color Range feature, and applied a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the selection. This allowed me to change the red to a more faded color. Because the adjustment layer has a mask, I used it to exclude the lips from this effect.

color range selection photoshop

Content Aware Fill

I noticed that a part of the finger was missing. I could recreate it automatically with the Content Aware Fill. It's not perfect, but in this area it will not be noticeable.

content aware fill photoshop

Smart Objects

I turned the whole group into a Smart Object—its contents are still accessible, but I can now add filters to it as if it was a single layer. I added a Gaussian Blur and then used a Layer Mask to remove the effect from the parts that I wanted to keep sharp.

smart object photoshop

Gradient Map

I added a Gradient Map to the whole image. It let me assign different colors to different levels of brightness in the picture, leading to unique color effects.

gradient map photoshop

Color Balance

Finally, I changed the Color Balance of the picture to create an even more interesting effect.

color balance photoshop

Text Editing

In Photoshop I can add text to the image, with lots of ways to modify it. I can change the distance between letters, their length and width, and even set the kerning. I can also add a Layer Style to the text—add a Drop Shadow, cover it with a gradient or pattern, add a Stroke, and much more. Such a Layer Style can be saved to use on any other layer with a single click.

text editing photoshop
photoshop before after

GIMP 2.10.10

Let's start with GIMP, since it's the most popular alternative to Photoshop. GIMP is an open-source editor created by its community, getting more and more advanced every year. It used to be infamous for its unintuitive interface with freely floating windows, but it's been fixed and today it's much more user friendly. So let's see how GIMP looks when compared to Photoshop!

First of all, GIMP doesn't open RAW files. You need a plugin for that. This, as we'll see, is a common problem when working with this program. Frequency separation works as it should, and there's a single healing brush available, enough for this simple task. It's impossible to save anything as an action or macro—you can write your own script or download a plugin.

The Pen Tool in GIMP works like a dream, and I would say it's even more intuitive to use than its Photoshop counterpart. But although there are many options to modify the selection, there's nothing similar to Refine Edge. I decided to clean up the hair with a Layer Mask, so I proceeded to group the layers... and here I was unpleasantly surprised. It's impossible to select multiple layers! I had to drag and drop them into the group separately. To make things worse, I stumbled upon a weird bug that makes it impossible to move layers when Camtasia Recorder is running.

gimp pen tool
GIMP's version of the Pen Tool turned out to be very comfortable to use.

Fortunately, the Layer Mask worked as expected, so I was able to remove the background non-destructively, without affecting the contents of the group. I cropped the image without problems, and added the background. Oddly enough, even though the image had been pasted below the model, during resizing it stayed on top. To see how the background looked behind the model, I had to lower the opacity of the resized layer.

I added blur to the background, but since there are no Smart Objects here, the image has been permanently modified by this. No going back, no way to adjust it. Similarly, I couldn't add color adjustments to the model without merging the group. I couldn't find anything similar to Photo Filter or Selective Color, so I used Hue/Saturation instead.

gimp resize image
This was frustrating. How can I resize the background properly, if I can't see what's in the front?

It's possible to select by color in GIMP, but it's imprecise and hard to adjust. Instead, I duplicated the layer, changed its colors to the intended color of the dress, and then used a Layer Mask to remove everything that wasn't the dress. 

There's no Content Aware Fill, but there's a plugin called Resynthesizer that is used instead for this job. In fact, GIMP had this function long before Adobe developed it! For some reason, though, the plugin still isn't included by default. And although it's very powerful when it comes to removing things, I wasn't able to use it to reconstruct the finger.

gimp no adjustment layers
All adjustments affect the layer directly, becoming a part of it.

To blend the edges of the model, I had to merge the layers again. I duplicated the layer and blurred it, then used a Layer Mask to reveal the sharpened part. Again, this is done permanently.

The Gradient Map feature exists in GIMP, but it's terribly unintuitive to use. First you need to create a gradient, which is a difficult task in itself for some reason (I had to create a pattern and convert it to a gradient, because I couldn't figure out the gradient editor), and then it simply gets applied to the image. There's no way to change its intensity. I lowered its opacity, but it made the shadows duller.

gimp gradient editor
What you see here looks like a gradient editor, but you can't simply click a marker and select a color. I still don't know how you're supposed to use it.

I changed the Color Balance, but I didn't manage to achieve the same results as in Photoshop. I wanted a subtle change, but the sliders reacted very strongly to my experiments.

It's possible to add text in GIMP, but the options are very limited. Also, there are no Layer Styles, only certain filters that simulate them. Because of this, after I added Drop Shadow, the text got as good as rasterized. It would lose its shadow if I decided to modify it.

gimp vs photoshop
When I finished, I noticed the reddish tint on the skin, but it was too late to adjust anything—all the adjustments have been long ago merged with the image.

Krita 4.2.2

Krita is another free, open-source graphic editor. Interestingly, it was created for digital painting and illustration, but volunteer developers have slowly added enough photo editing functions for it to be considered an alternative to Photoshop. As you'll soon see, in many ways it surpasses GIMP!

Krita opened my RAW file without any problems, but offered just a very basic editor to adjust it, without showing live results. Not enough to perform the preliminary editing. 

I couldn't use the frequency separation technique, because there's no High Pass filter or anything similar. I removed the blemishes with the Smart Patch Tool, which is a very basic healing brush. It's not possible to record actions or macros, but it's possible to write your own Python scripts if you have the skills.

krita healing brush
The healing brush is very simple, mostly for removing small blemishes.

I used a type of Pen Tool to create a path, but it turned out to be very simple—I couldn't adjust or move the handles after clicking, and there was no way to Undo a step. In fact, when the path got closed by accident when I was half done, Undo removed the whole path and I had to start anew.

There's no Refine Edge or anything similar, so I decided to smooth the hair with a Layer Mask. There was no problem with creating a group and adding a Layer Mask to it.

krita pen tool
You can draw a selection with something that looks like a path, but every point loses its handles once you place another one. 

Cropping works perfectly, but when I pasted the background and started resizing it, a familiar problem occurred—the background image covered the model in the foreground. The photo visibly lagged when I moved it across the screen.

I added blur to the background, and I was finally pleasantly surprised: Krita has non-destructive filters! It means that the blur didn't affect the image—it only appeared to—and I could adjust or remove it anytime. 

There's no Photo Filter, but I used a Fill Layer in Color Mode, which is basically the same, just with a little more work. When I wanted to select the red tones in the photo, it turned out I could only pick colors from the list. So instead I added a colorizing adjustment layer and masked the outside of the dress manually.

krita adjustment layers
The adjustments are non-destructive and have their own masks. What's strange is that a mask of an adjustment layer affects all the layers in the group—so black makes the adjustment and the layer below disappear.

There's no Content-Aware Fill or anything similar to fill a missing area. Just like in Photoshop, I couldn't add a filter to a group, so I saved this group as a File Layer—Krita's version of Smart Objects. Then I added blur to it—non-destructively, without affecting the contents of the layer.

Gradient Map exists and is non-destructive, but works very, very slowly, which makes it impossible to experiment with colors. It doesn't show a preview of its results, either. Even lowering the Opacity of this interactive layer took over five minutes! I thought it was a problem with the File Layer, but after merging the problem stayed the same. Adding a non-destructive Color Balance adjustment took a while as well.

krita gradient map
On the bottom you see the progress bar of... changing the Opacity of the gradient map. I can't do anything major while it's in progress, and it took minutes.

I can add text in Krita, but the options are very limited. The text is edited in a separate window, which makes it hard to adjust the size of the font to the composition. But, unlike GIMP, Krita has Layer Style options, just as non-destructive as in Photoshop.

krita vs photoshop
Even though all the adjustments were non-destructive, adjusting them proved to be very frustrating, as it required a lot of patience.

Photopea

Photopea is a web-browser app developed by a single person and available completely for free. And although something web-based may not sound like a Photoshop alternative, in my opinion Photopea comes closer to it than GIMP and Krita. Because it was designed to open PSD files without merging anything, it offers support for Smart Objects, Smart Filters, and adjustment layers.

Photopea opens RAWs, but offers just a very basic editor. Still, it was enough to make some preliminary changes.

It's possible to perform frequency separation just like in Photoshop, and there are three types of healing tools. Photopea supports actions as well, so it's possible to create frequency separation layers with a single click.

photopea filters
Photopea has all the most popular Photoshop filters, with the same names.

The Pen Tool exists, but only for drawing shapes. I used the Polygonal Lasso Tool instead to select the outline of the model. It's impossible to create a precise selection this way, because the points can't be modified and Undo deletes it all. However, because there's the Refine Edge tool, it was possible for me to fix the selection afterwards. The only problem was that the function worked very slowly.

photopea refine edge
Refine Edge is a little tricky to use, but with enough work it can give a similar result to its Photoshop counterpart.

I grouped my layers and added a Layer Mask to the group—no problems here. Cropping works as it's supposed to, and I was able to paste the background image... as a Smart Object! I could also resize it with the model staying in the front. This is something that neither GIMP nor Krita could manage.

I added a Gaussian Blur to the background, without affecting it—it has been added as a Smart Filter that can be adjusted and removed. I was also able to add a Photo Filter and Selective Color as non-destructive adjustment layers, clipped to the model only.

It's possible to select by Color Range, but I couldn't make it work the way I wanted, so instead I added a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the whole model and painted the selection on the mask instead. Painting turned out quite laggy in this high-resolution file.

photopea non destructive
Everything perfectly non-destructive right until the end!

I was able to reconstruct the missing part of the finger with the Content Aware tool. Then I converted the whole group to a Smart Object to add a filter to it—it worked perfectly. I added a Gaussian Blur and painted on the mask to reveal the sharper parts.

It's possible to add text in Photopea, and there are a couple of useful options not present in GIMP or Krita. Layer Styles exist in a form very similar to Photoshop, so I could add a Drop Shadow non-destructively.

photopea vs photoshop
The tool similarity helped me achieve quite a similar end result.

Summary

Let's sum it up. I've created a table of the functions used in the test, as well as a couple more. I assigned a point value to each:

  • + means the program has this function in a form similar to Photoshop. 1 point.
  • ~ means the program "sort of" has this function. It may not be as good, or only available with a plugin. 0.5 point.
  • - means the program doesn't have this function. 0 points.
Photoshop's function GIMP Krita Photopea
RAW files support
~ + +
RAW editor
~
~ ~
Precise selection with paths
+ ~ -
Refine Edge
- - +
Frequency separation support + - +
Actions (macros)
~ ~ +
Selecting multiple layers
- + +
Grouping layers
+ + +
Adding Layer Mask to group
+ + +
Cropping
+ + +
Placing new image as Smart Object
- - +
Resizing layer in the background
- - +
Non-destructive filters (Smart Filters)
- + +
Photo Filter
~ ~ +
Selective Color
- - +
Content Aware Fill
~ ~ +
Select by color
~ ~ ~
Turning group of files into Smart Object
- + +
Gradient Map
+ + +
Color Balance
+ + +
Advanced text editing
- - ~
Non-destructive Layer Styles
- + +
Channels
+ + -
Liquify filter
+ + +
No ads
+ + -
CMYK mode
- + -
Non-destructive adjustments
- + +
Canvas Rotation
+ + -
Quick Mask
+ + -
Batch editing
~ - -
3D features
- - -
Cloud storage
- - -
Frame animation
+ + -
Integration with other programs
- - -
Skin tones selection
- - -
Vanishing point editing
- - -
Perspective grid
- + -
Perspective crop
-
-
-
Field Blur
-
-
-
Integration with stock photos library
-
-
-
Total: 40
17
22
21.5

Conclusion

According to the numbers, each of the free alternatives is only about half as good as Photoshop. Of course, it's not really a conclusive result—after all, it all depends on what functions you really need on a daily basis.

But that's the thing. GIMP has some of the functions of Photoshop, but not all. Krita has some of these other functions, but lacks some of the ones that GIMP has. And Photopea has a lot of crucial functions, but is frustratingly slow with bigger images. Speaking of speed, none of the tested programs worked as smoothly as Photoshop. They either forced me to stop working when saving, or took precious seconds to update the preview of an effect, or didn't offer any preview at all.

In the end, that's what Photoshop really is—a time saver for photographers and designers. A program designed to make work as efficient as possible, with everything in one place and every tool optimized for convenience of use. No matter whether you work with raster, vectors, text, 3D, or video, Photoshop has something for you. And if it doesn't, your work can be easily integrated with other apps from Creative Cloud.

This, I think, is why Photoshop is called a program for professionals. Not because you can do something in Photoshop that you can't, with enough time and effort, in GIMP or Krita. It's because it saves time—and for a professional, time is money. Free programs, as absurd as it may sound, are simply not worth it.

And what do you think? Maybe you are a professional using one of the free alternatives? And if you work in Photoshop, what made you choose it over the free options?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.