By Alyssa Gregory

Open Source Image Editors … for Designers?

By Alyssa Gregory

It would be really tough to convince me that there is an open source image editing application out there that can replace Photoshop or Illustrator. I’m just so used to Adobe, I don’t see myself being able to switch to an open source alternative permanently. But having said that, I believe there is a place for open source image editors, even for designers. Here are three examples why this may be the case for you.

Situation 1: You’re just starting out as a freelancer and don’t have the funds to purchase top-of-the-line software yet. And when you do, depending on the type of education and training you’ve had, there may be a very steep learning curve for getting up to speed on how to use them. Your work can’t come to a screeching halt as you learn the ins and outs of Photoshop.

Situation 2: You’re a developer or designer who doesn’t do much graphic work. You only need a limited amount of functionality in your image editor, and you don’t want to invest in an Adobe product.

Situation 3: You have a PC and a Mac, and you use one sporadically but occasionally need to do some light graphic work on the second machine. You can dish out the money to buy another version of Photoshop/Illustrator or you can find an open source application to meet your needs. This is actually my situation. I have a PC and a Mac, I use my Mac 75% of the time, but I do need to switch to the PC from time-to-time for various reasons. I’ve been maintaining versions of Adobe CS4 on both machines and it’s expensive.

So, you’re going to give open source image editors a try. Where to start? Here are three open source options and what you can expect from them.

Probably one of the most used open source image applications, GIMP has a well-rounded list of features, and there is even a tutorial on how to setup GIMP to mimic Photoshop’s configuration. Some of the features GIMP has includes:

  • Painting tools including brush, pencil, airbrush, clone, etc.
  • Gradient editor and blend tool
  • Unlimited number of images open at one time
  • Full alpha channel support
  • Layers and channels
  • Editable text layers
  • SVG path import/export
  • Transformation tools including rotate, scale, shear and flip
  • Supports all of the major file formats

It’s multi-platform, although on a Mac you need Mac OS X and X11 installed (it was developed under X11 on UNIX). I’ve downloaded and tried out the Mac version. It does have a lot of functionality, but there’s a bit of a learning curve, too. Some tools in GIMP are intuitive if you’re a Photoshop and Illustrator user, others not so much. GIMP doesn’t support CMYK, which may be a major downfall, depending on your needs. But the wide-range of functionality balances that a bit.



Paint.NET started as a Microsoft-mentored project by a college senior and is no longer open source, so it doesn’t fit perfectly on this list. But it’s free and has a lot of features that make it a good alternative if you are working on a Windows machine. Features include:

  • Simple, intuitive, and innovative user interface
  • Layers
  • Effects such as blurring, sharpening, red-eye removal, distortion, noise, and embossing
  • Adjustable brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, curves, and levels
  • Simple tools for drawing shapes
  • Unlimited history

It’s not made for a Mac so that may be a negative for some, but I gave it a try on my PC. It’s really easy to use…almost deceivingly easy with the amount of functionality it provides. I especially love the unlimited history feature and tool configuration. Coming from a Photoshop background, there is almost no learning curve, but I suspect even those new to image editors would be able to jump in without too much difficulty.


Inkscape is a multi-platform (with X11 for the Mac) open source vector graphic application for creating and editing SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic) files. Like Illustrator, Inkscape offers a wide range of object-based tools and functionality:

  • Drawing tools including pencil, pen and calligraphy
  • Rectangle, star, spiral shape tools
  • Text tool
  • Moving, scaling, rotating, skewing transformations
  • Layers
  • Gradients and patterns
  • PNG and PostScript export
  • Perfectly compliant SVG format file generation and editing

I downloaded Inkscape and immediately loved it. It has a really nice UI, features that rival Illustrator and a very extensive website with tutorials, articles, showcases and lots of support. I would add Inkscape to your list if you want a fully functioning SVG editor. I’m not sure I’d entirely replace Illustrator just yet, but this is a perfect occasional alternative.


Have you tried these or any other open source image editing applications? I’d love to hear from the regular users. As you get more experienced with these programs, do you find they compare even more to the big names?

  • Donna Benjamin (

    Inkscape is a brilliant tool. I’ve never really used Illustrator extensively so I can’t compare it, although I can say I found it easier to surf the Inkscape learning curve and start getting the job done than I did when I tried Illustrator some years back.
    As a former Photoshop user, GIMP initially took some getting used to – but I’m now more comfortable with GIMP than with Photoshop. I leapt from MacOS to Linux about 7 years ago, and I had no choice but to get acquainted with these Free Open Source applications.
    Ultimately, they are great tools, and great designers will accomplish great things with them. Sure, there’s a new learning curve to navigate, because it is different to what you’re used to. But for anyone prepared to learn something new, the time effort will be well rewarded.
    There’s nothing like finding a bug, or requesting a feature and diving into the deep end of the community by talking with the developers and getting that bug fixed, or feature added in the very next release. Working with the development version of the software and experimenting with the bleeding edge also means you’re part of the feedback loop. That’s what I like most. Some people are attracted by the price (it’s unbeatable) but it’s the freedom where you’ll find the true difference.
    As for application comparisons? It really comes down to what you’re used to, and how far out of your comfort zone you’re prepared to step to discover something new. :)

  • Anonymous – not open source, but free-ish and runs on everything. Bitmap, vector, colour lab. I used the Beta and liked it, despite being a Photoshopper.

  • NPSF3000

    Learnt from scratch solo and love it, recently had to use fireworks to make a dvdcover… so much harder to use…

  • You could also try GimpShop – a version of GIMP that is configured to look, feel and act like PhotoShop.

  • There’s also blender, which is a 3D program (I think it is open source) that’s also cross-platform.
    “Blender is the open source, cross platform suite of tools for 3D creation.”

  • Vikingdread

    Another nice free vector drawing software is Creative Docs .NET

    It can be found here:

  • RoguePlanetoid

    I use InkScape to create paths for XAML as the notation for Paths for Geometry is the same as SVG – so it is very useful for this purpose if you don’t have Blend (or cannot afford it!)

  • Does Inkscape support subtracting one shape out of another? I think thats my favorite thing about Ai.

  • Yes, Inkscape supports various set-oriented operations on shapes (or, rather, paths) including subtraction.

    Inkscape is easy to use even for a non-designer like me. That also goes for GIMP, which I find more intuitive and easier to use than Photoshop. I don’t doubt that Photoshop is far more capable, but I don’t need those capabilities. :) Besides, Photoshop isn’t available for GNU/Linux, as far as I know.

  • I’m Situation 4. I’m horrible at graphics, and even if I did own Photoshop (and could use it) I would still be horrible at graphics :P

    I’m a Linux user, and do very minor graphics work, so Gimp is fine for me.

    Good article.

  • Craig

    I use Paint.Net all the time. For a developer who only needs to do occasional graphics work it is great. I have tried Gimp but it’s UI is very confusing and I always give up shortly afterwards.

  • Brandon93s

    GIMP is great if you cannot afford Photoshop or simply need an alternative. It is very similar to Photoshop, and remains free. I believe there is a number of plugins for it as well to increase performance and add numerous features. It has been a long time since i have used it, (Version 1.0) – but it is now in version 2.6 and looks like it has improved A LOT.

  • Asthma Health

    I loved the beta when I used it. Even lots of my friends got convinced about it because they know me – I hardly ever love and rave about something, but I did about the beta.

  • any not fogetting the java open source imagej

  • Florent V.


    I’m not a designer or graphic artist. When I use graphics tools, it’s for prototyping or for cutting up webdesigns. I use GIMP on a regular basis, Photoshop from time to time, as well as Inkscape and Fireworks. I don’t use Illustrator.

    Here are my thoughts on one of these tools, The GIMP.

    GIMP is a good tool, the UI is quite nice and effective but if you want it this way you need 1) to forget about Photoshop UI and 2) to use it on Linux (it’s not build for other systems, you need a GTK/Gnome environment and virtual desktops to use it effectively).

    What GIMP is not about: vector graphics and designing for print. (You can do it to some extent, but it’s better suited for designing screen graphics.) It’s not as good as Photoshop (and definitely not as good as Fireworks) for designing web graphics, since it lacks simple dynamic stuff such as layer or object effects, but you can get a lot of things done.

    What GIMP is great at: taking flat PNG exports and cutting them up, recomposing images, sprites and the like. If you’re a front-end developer who has to work with somebody else’s designs, it might be a good tool for you.

  • essexboyracer

    GIMP cant do CMYK, hence it is not suited to print, but it is good at finishing graphics for web and as an alternative to photoshop in the same capacity. I use Inkscape to do rough layouts for pages and love it. Very occasionally it crashes and I hate the way the text editor works, but is a fast and efficient alternatve to fireworks (or whatever it is called now). Totally agree with Donna Benjamin’s post

  • ygandy

    I like this article . Brilliant!

  • theken

    PurYel has a collection of eleven open source image editors in their directory:

  • ganeshseg

    Good Posting. I love this post.

    Best Web Design

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