If you haven't already tried it, do yourself a favor and download a trial version of Adobe Lightroom - especially if you shoot RAW files on your digital camera. Hey, you know what... don't even bother with the trial version, just go out and get the full thing. Buy it, use it, love it!
Who?: Adobe, the guys who make PhotoShop. Nuff said. In fact Lightroom started life as another programe - Raw Shooter - the best damn RAW conversion software on the planet! It was even better because when RAW Shooter first came out it was FREE. Yep, nadda. The guys at Adobe know a good thing when they see it, so they bought Raw Shooter and turned it into Lightroom... the best damn RAW conversion software on the planet!
What?: RAW conversion software takes RAW files from all makes of cameras, and allows you to process them in the same way a lab would process 35mm film negatives. You can easily change the white balance, exposure latitude (plus or minus up to 2 stops), curves, tone, b&w conversions, highlights and shadows - all in a 'non destructive' manner. That means that your original RAW file is never changed. Instead, a small file is 'attached' to it that tells Lightroom how to 'process' the file when it is converted to a jpeg or tiff for printing etc. Very cool.
Lightroom works on a module-based system. The Library module lets you import and sort your files (not just RAW, but jpegs and tiffs as well). The Develop Module is where you tweak invidual images to get them right - and then apply this in batches to other images if applicable. In Slideshow you can create exactly what it says, a Slideshow with music, fades and titles, which you can then save so that others can see it as well. Then there is the Print Module, and finally the Web Module where you get to make web galleries for uploading onto your own site. I haven't really played around with the last three yet, but I certainly plan to.
Why?: Shooting RAW used to be a pain, because it adds another (slow) step in the whole file process. But that was then, and this is now. Lightroom is very fast, highly intuitive , and with batch processing conversion is a breeze. Yes, it does add another stage in the workflow, but the extra detail, control and subtle tweaking that you can achieve with RAw vs Jpeg is well worth the effort IMHO.
When?: Weren't you listening before? Get it NOW!
Where?: You can download the trial from the Adobe website, or order a copy from your local software distributor. It's 'reasonably' expensive (about $500NZ), but when you start processing files with this software I think it's worth every penny I paid for it (and more - but don't tell Adobe that).
How?: I don't really have a 'How' - but I would say this: I have tried to use Apple's 'Aperture' software (which is supposed to do the same thing) for the past year, and I'm still struggling with it. I'm a huge Apple fan, and really wanted to like using 'Aperture'. But in all honesty I have to say that it's a bit of a dog. It does have a pretty cool loupe function, but that's about it (really). Lightroom is just sooooo much better in all respects. Shame.
Finally, I would also say that Lightroom, and most other high end digital software products for that matter, demands a pretty up-to-date system to run smoothly. They recommend 756MB of RAM to run it, and ideally you want 1Gig. As mentioned earlier, I think Lightroom flies through its work, but I'm running a high spec'd Core Duo iMac with 1.5Gigs of RAM, so it had better!
Unless you need to work with layers, text and thousands of filter effects (that you will probably never use), you can forget about PhotoShop and just get Lightroom. If you 'do' need to work with layers, then just get Adode Elements which, when combined with Lightroom, would set you up for almost any photo-editing job you would care to imagine.
As I said right at the beginning... Buy it, use it, Love it!