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Most of us who are amateurs have limited budgets for photography. When it comes to buying software, we need to be prudent and frugal. I've made both good choices and bad ones.
There's one software item that we all may be tempted to neglect. If you intend to print photographs or share them on the internet, you must calibrate your monitor. Calibration allows your computer to speak the same language of tones and colors as the rest of the universe. I put off that step for a long time because I didn't want to spend $300 on the task. That was foolish. If our monitors aren't calibrated, the photos we post on the internet will not look like what we see on the screen. Prints won't match what we see on the monitor. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that you're basically wasting your time processing your images if your monitor isn't properly calibrated.
A friend commented that when she belatedly tended to this chore, she was dismayed to see what the images she'd been posting on photographic forums actually looked like. I had the same reaction when I finally calibrated my monitor. The quality of my new photographs improved immediately and significantly in the eyes of others. I had to go back and re-process most of the old photographs that were worth keeping. Don't do as I did. Calibrate.
Lightroom was a late acquisition for me. If I were starting over, though, it's the first program I would buy. It is a parametric processing tool that works in a fundamentally different way from layers-based programs. I managed to say that as if I really understood it. Here's a useful overview of the differences, from people who actually do understand the technicalities. http://dpbestflow.org/image-editing/image-editing-overview If I were a betting man, I'd bet that the future belongs to parametric processing tools such as Lightroom.
Views vary, but I love Lightroom. It is much easier to learn than a layers-based program. After a year, I'm pretty proficient with it. It took about three years with my layers-based program to reach the same feeling of adequacy. Lightroom allows you to do most of your processing on the RAW image, which offers some major advantages. Can you tell that I'm a fan? I now do 95% of my processing in Lightroom. If I could make that 100%, I would.
But I can't. With Lightroom, you can't select the pixels of a certain tone or color and adjust only those. It doesn't modify pixels at all. You can't combine different exposures, which I do a lot. You can't add a contrast mask or a Gaussian blur layer. Those adjustments—and a number of others—require a layers-based program.
When it comes to layers-based programs, all 'real' photographers use Photoshop. I suppose that makes me an unreal photographer. I use Corel's Paint Shop Pro. I've had it since before I got serious about photography. It came pre-packaged with a computer with a free-trial offer. I tried it and bought it. Paint Shop Pro is a sort of Photoshop Light. From what I've read, it appears to be a somewhat more-sophisticated tool than Photoshop Elements.
These days, Corel tends to bundle Paint Shop Pro with other features, and offers it for around $100. It's a good program. In light of the price, it is a remarkably good program. Whether it would suit you depends on your goals. My approach to processing is painstaking, but generally restrained and conservative. I want to refine my photographs and make them look their best. I seldom want to make radical alterations in my images. For photographers with similar goals, Paint Shop Pro might well be all they would ever need by way of a layers-based program. It has some limitations. For example, there are certain kinds of masking functions that can't be performed without demoting the image to eight bits. There are usually ways to work around the program's limitations, though, and the program is surprisingly sophisticated and versatile when you consider its price.
I've studied several books on processing. They're all geared to Photoshop users, but I can usually figure out how to do the same things in Paint Shop Pro. I suspect that's also true with regard to other inexpensive alternatives to Photoshop. Photoshop is, of course, a much more sophisticated program than Paint Shop Pro. If money were no object, I would buy it. One reason is that Corel appears to have little—if any—interest in improving Paint Shop Pro for more advanced users. Paint Shop Pro gets the job done, though, and I've never reached the point where I wanted to spend $700 on Photoshop for the difference.
Photomatix is an HDR program. It does an admirable job, once you learn how to use it. Most of the awful HDRs we've all seen are not indicative of what Photomatix will do. I got Photomatix because I shoot a lot of landscape photos in the harsh light of the Southwest. Often, there's a dynamic range that my camera can't capture in a single shot. I thought HDRs might provide a good solution. To some extent, they do. Still, I've never much liked what Photomatix does to the colors in an image. My attempts to fix the colors in other programs are never entirely satisfactory. These days, I deal with high dynamic ranges by combining exposures in Paint Shop Pro, if possible. I use Photomatix only if I can't find an acceptable way to combine images, or if I'm working in black and white and don't care what Photomatix will do to colors. Photomatix is a good tool to have, but acquiring it won't be a high-priority item for most of you.
Here's a very recent shot that offered a number of processing challenges. The scene had a very high dynamic range. I used all three of my image-editing software programs on this one, which is unusual for me. The image began with the combination of two exposures in Photomatix, via exposure fusion. That step was necessary to get adequate shadow detail. The image was then adjusted extensively in Lightroom. It was completed with a number of adjustment layers in Paint Shop Pro. It then went back to Lightroom for some color tweaks.
You may or may not like the image or the processing, but it looks the way I wanted it to look. That's all we can ask from our software.
No photographic software works well if we don't learn how to use it. Many photographers never do. There's no substitute for study and practice. I've studied several books on processing, and I've practiced the techniques I learned from those books. Books on digital photography tend to become dated fairly quickly, so you might want to rely more on the library than on the bookstore. John Beardsworth's Advanced Digital Black & White Photography helped my processing skills move beyond the rudimentary level. My bible for layers-based work is Eismann & Duggan's book, The Creative Digital Darkroom. Buying that book may have been the best investment in processing I ever made. As for Lightroom, I don't know of an equivalent book that's as good. That may be because Lightroom simply doesn't have as many complications. Adobe's online tutorials regarding Lightroom are quite good, and teach you most of what you can learn from others. The rest has to come from practice and experience.
If I had it to do over again, I'd start by acquiring Adobe Lightroom and a monitor-calibration device. That would cost maybe $600. I'd add one of the less-expensive layers-based programs as soon as I could afford it. If I couldn't handle $600 at the start, I'd get the layers-based program and the monitor-calibration tool, which would run about $400. Then I'd add Lightroom as soon as I could.
There are differences in photographic software. By all means, buy the best that you can afford. In the end, though, what matters most is getting the most out of what you have. With Lightroom and any adequate layers-based program, most of us can accomplish what we need to accomplish in processing, if we put in the time and effort necessary to learn how to take advantage of what the programs offer.