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Photography software: where do I get started?

One of the first things photographers look for after purchasing a new digital camera is a good software to manage their images. These programs can do a lot more than make your images look better, though they do that very well. They will also help you organize the images so you can find them later, email them to friends and family and even have them printed. Most of the programs can be divided into two categories; free and not free, but all of them are, sooner or later, compared to the granddaddy of them all: Photoshop.

Adobe Photoshop (PS) is a remarkable tool that is the standard of the industry for artists, designers and photographers the world over. It has a dizzying array of features and adjustments that allow you to create breathtaking images and use them in a variety of settings. However, this great power comes with a steep learning curve and an even steeper price tag. While other programs on the market work hard to offer the most useful tools in PS, they all are variations of the original with adjustments made to features and price.

Adobe’s own theme-in-variation is Photoshop Elements (PSE). It contains many of the same features as its big brother but at a fraction of the price. This is a great choice if you think you may one day choose to upgrade to PS as the tools work the same in both programs. As a matter of fact, newer version of PSE are essentially old version of PS with a few less tools.

Paint Shop Pro claims to have most of the features of Photoshop at a fraction of the price. It certainly has more features than PSE at a similar price but does lack many of PS’s more esoteric flexibility (3D imaging, for instance.) Some feel it is a bit easier to use and is set up to appeal more to traditional artists. However, it handles many tasks differently and is therefore not good training for future PS users.

In the world of free imaging software, GIMP is king. Originally designed for Linus systems, it will now run on any popular system with much of PS flexibility. I find it cumbersome and complicated, but that’s because I went the PSE/PS route. Those who started with GIMP feel it is a fabulous program with no monetary investment.

Picasa is free software from Google and will allow you space to keep your images (much like flickr) and some rudimentary tools for adjusting your images. It’s a great place for beginners to get started to learn some of the capabilities of similar programs though it lacks many of the features of more complex programs.

A new addition to photo imaging software is web-based programs. All of these programs are initially free though most will charge you once your memory requirements exceed a certain threshold. Photoshop has their own version called “Photoshop Express” though it has very limited features, more closely resembling Picasa. Better choices include Picnik, Splashup and Phoenix. Picnik is nice because it is integrated with flickr; Splashup and Phoenix have many of PS’s more useful tools, like layers and compositing.

There has never been a better time to get started in photography. With so many free options it is easy and inexpensive to get started and learn exactly which features mean the most to you. Then you will have a much better idea whether or not the paid features in the bigger programs are worth the extra money.

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