All digital images can be improved by software manipulation of the image data. Some images may, upon quick inspection, look good without changing any values. But critical examination will always find some manipulation that will make the image better. This is a strong, but very important statement. It is saying that to get the best out of your best images, you are going to spend some time working at your computer. I am not going to spend much time comparing your software options; just letting you know what I have found to work best. There are plenty of options out there, but these do it for me.
- Lightroom ®
I use Adobe Lightroom ® for 90% of my photo editing. The latter versions of this program have gotten so good, that there is often no need to do further edits after finishing the photo in Lightroom. I won't say that learning LR is super easy but compared to some alternatives (like Photoshop ®), it is a dream to use. It is intuitive enough that you can just start using it, but I recommend doing some reading for the first 6 months of use. There are several good books on using LR. My favorites are First Read: "The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 book for Digital Photographers" by Scott Kelby. This is an easy to read "get started book". Second Read: "The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 Book" by Martin Evening. This is a detailed reference book that has all the details of all the menus and exactly what they all do. Third Read: "The Digital Negative" by Jeff Schewe. This has some of the finer points of squeezing the best out of your digital images. Don't try to race through the reads, but rather sip from the books as though they are fine wines and savor the information over a period of time. This way more of it will sink in and be meaningful to you. Your skill with LR will gradually improve over time. After a not very long period of time it will become a friend that is very easy to talk to.
Lightroom is divided into modules that are listed along the top of the screen. The module that manipulates the image itself is call the "develop" module. I won't attempt to teach LR (read the books), but this is where you will spend most of your time making edits. The other modules are one click away. These include a "library" module for organization. As your collection of photos grows to thousands (even many thousands), the importance of organization will be apparent. Good organization allows you to put your hands on any of your photos in a matter of seconds. There is a "print" module that is fairly sophisticated for making the additional image adjustments needed for a fine print. Other modules are less used by me, but you may find them useful.
Making Photo edits on a computer is only useful to a printer if there is a strong correlation between the manipulations that you make and see on the computer screen and the appearance of a print ultimately produced by your printer. Using trial and error to get a print to look like what is on your screen is no fun at all (I would say nearly impossible). To eliminate the trial and error, it is necessary to use "Profiling". Profiles are a series of adjustments made to a digital file so that all print and projection versions of the file will look the same to an observer. Your computer will make the adjustments for you, but it will be your responsibility to make, or download the profiles that you need. You profile your computer screen using a hardware device that measures the light output vs a known digital input. This is an automatic process that you start and then sit back and wait for it to finish on its on. Similarly you have to profile the print media/printer/ink combination so that the printed output is known relative to the digital input. This latter profile may be available from the paper manufacturer on-line, or you may have to have a "service" make the profile, or if you are really into digital printing, you may make the profile yourself with specialized hardware. Lightroom has provisions built -in to make use of your measured color profiles. Lightroom also lets you choose a "color space" within which to represent the colors of your digital image. Without going into the why of it, using "Adobe RGB" in the preference menu is usually a good choice for your color space. If you want to future proof your images, the "Pro Photo" color space may be the best choice. Either will serve you well. Read the books above for more details concerning the "why".
- Photoshop ® CS/CC (beyond LR)
At some point there will be some change you want to make to an image that cannot be accomplished in LR. Adobe Photoshop can be described as the LR Develop module on steroids. I have been an on-again, off-again user or Photoshop since version 4. I stll am not completely comfortable using the application. It has so much capability that it overwhelmes the casual user. When I need the capability, I use it, and marvel at what it can do. Some of the capability is used infrequently by me, so I usually find myself reading about a particular function in one of the "how to" books each time before I use it. With that said, I still find Photoshop an indispensible tool in my workflow. Functions like "content aware fill" where an area of your image can be selected and then filled with wholly believable (invented) content from the surrounding area is almost like magic. Also, when layers and masking is required, PS is usually your best solution. Reference books from the authors above are great resources for learning about PS. Lately Adobe has started making both LR and Photoshop CC available on a subscription basis. For about $10.00/mo. U.S., you can subscribe to both software programs and always have access to the most up to date versions. If you can afford the cost, and have a capable computer, this option makes a lot of sense to me.