Photo Editing Software
Do you really need it? Yes. Unless you are using film and have your own dark room, photo editing software is required.
Photoshop is the standard software used by hobbyists and professionals, but it is quite pricy and difficult to use (it is not user-friendly). Don't have over $500 to spend on software? Don't have hours to learn how to use it? No problem! There are good alternatives that are completely free.
First, all digital cameras have built-in editing software. Some are very basic and give you very few options. Others are more sophisticated and have the ability to do common post-processing functions. I'm very impressed with the built-in software on Pentax's latest DSLR cameras--you could get away with not even owning a computer! All the post-processing tools you need (and some you don't need) are right there on the camera.
Even with 3G and 4G cell phones you can get free photo editing "apps" that allow you to post-process right on your phone.
Nowadays, most computers come with simple photo editing software. You can only do very basic post-processing, but sometimes that is all you need.
Your DSLR camera also likely included photo editing software (in addition to the built-in software) that can do common post-processing functions. Some are better than others. All of them have at least the basic functions that you need.
Another option is Google's Picasa, which is a free and easy-to-use photo editing software. It has all of the essential editing functions and is a very good photo organizer. It's certainly worth trying and you might find that it does the trick.
If Picasa doesn't have all the tools you desire, try Paint.net, another free photo editing software. Here is a little secret: 90% of what you can do with Photoshop you can also do with Paint.net. It's not as user-friendly as Picasa, but it has a lot more tools and options. Really, Paint.net is all that you need and it is what I recommend when someone asks what software he or she should use.
You could spend $100 and get a program similar to Paint.net, such as Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro. But why spend $100 when you can spend nothing?
GIMP is another free option that can do 99.5% of what Photoshop can. My opinion is that both Photoshop and GIMP are overkill for most photographers, and the complexity and learning curve of both will slow you down more than it will help you. Anyway, Photoshop will cost over $500 and GIMP is free. If you don't think Paint.net has all the tools you need, try GIMP before you break the bank on Photoshop.
Sure, you can spend over $500 on photo editing software, but for 99.99% of photographers out there a free software will more than suffice. And in many cases, the free software will be easier to use. Talk about value!
But what if I want HDR or portrait touch-up software?
If you think you need it, buy it.
However, it is best practice to get the picture correct in the field and have as little post-processing as possible later. You could literally spend hours fixing one picture with software, or you could spend a couple minutes carefully getting it correct in the camera--which is best? A lot of photographers waste a lot of time trying to fix their mistakes in Photoshop or some other software instead of learning how to take the picture right to begin with.
Take the photograph correctly and you'll spend a lot less time in front of the computer.
99% of those who use HDR (high dynamic range) software do so because they don't know how to craft a great photograph--they use a gimmick instead. Check out these websites: here, here, here and here.
There are a small handful of photographers who are successfully using HDR; however, those photographers are using three (sometimes four) different softwares to get it to look right and are using HDR in moderation. They already knew how to craft great photographs prior to HDR and are spending a lot of time and effort to make minor improvements to their images.
Most photographers that use HDR software are not creating successful photographs. Most have poorly toned, over-saturated, fuzzy, and noisy photographs with halos and sometimes cartooning. But because they don't know what a great or even good photograph is they have no idea that their images are poor.
Learn how to craft great photographs first, then try HDR.
That is, if you are even still interested in HDR. There are common alternatives that have been around for many, many years. The most talked about is the graduated neutral density filter. Another is to simply use negative film, which has a greater dynamic range than digital. The best alternative is to actively seek great light. Or, perhaps, use all three of those approaches. Then you won't be spending hours and hours on a computer combining images.
JPEG vs. RAW
RAW is a file format that you can choose that is uninterpreted. With JPEG, your camera, based on what settings you have chosen, interprets the data from the sensor, presenting you with an image and discarding everything unused. RAW has yet to be interpreted, so nothing is discarded. You don't have a photograph until the RAW file has been interpreted with photo editing software.
The advantage of RAW is that you can choose how you want the image interpreted later at home while sipping coffee. You have complete control over white balance, saturation, contrast, and a few other things.
The advantages of JPEG are smaller file size (takes up less room on the SD card and saves quicker) and there is less post-processing work needed (since the data has already been interpreted by the camera).
Which is best?
My opinion is that you should use JPEG and not RAW. If you take the picture correctly to begin with, there is no need to interpret the data later. All DSLR (and even many digital point-and-shoot) cameras give you the controls you need to get the picture right when you take it. The only reason you may want to give yourself the ability to interpret the data later is if you are unsure of how the different options (such as white balance) should be set and you know you have one, maybe two chances to get "the shot". It may be best to "play it safe" and use RAW. Even so, many DSLR cameras will allow you to save the image as both a RAW file and JPEG. If the JPEG is not correct you can then use the RAW, or if the JPEG is correct you can simply delete the RAW file.
For most photographers, the use of RAW just adds more work--more time in front of the computer and less time behind the camera. But if you feel RAW is the best option for you, by all means use it.
In How To Get Started In Photography, Part 6 we will discuss other equipment that you may need.