#1. "RE: Software Question" In response to Reply # 0
I am not sure any other software would be easier to work with. There are many new concepts in editing digital images and when they are digested, each editor has its own quirks that then need to be mastered. I have used Photoshop for years and there was a huge learning curve. I recently bought Elements 10 and found it another big learning learning curve even though they are both from Adobe and use many of the same tools. I am not sure how much of the curve was due to my tired old brain. It may depend on what you want to accomplish. If you want one button solutions, the results may not be very good. If that is your approach, learn the camera very well and make it get you close to what you like. I hope this helps and I hope many others will give you more suggestions.
#2. "RE: Software Question" In response to Reply # 0
(I can't tell from your Profile whether you use Windows or MAC (and of course GIMP is available for both). If you're a MAC user then please ignore this Windows-centric reply )
I agree with you that GIMP isn't the easiest software to work with!
For a totally FREE viewer+editor which works quickly and intuitively, but which also had some big limitations (see below) you could try FastStone Image Viewer
Although "FastStone" is primarily (IMO) a darned good image viewer, it does also have some nice editing tools.
If you can work around FastStone's limitations, or work with them, then perhaps you could use the two programs in partnership, keeping GIMP for the stuff that FastStone can't (yet) do or that it doesn't do sufficiently well.
Here's what I think are it's biggest limitations as a 'serious' image editor:
FastStone's main flaw is that it doesn't yet 'know' about ICC color profiles other than sRGB. More significantly, it doesn't even 'TAG' our edited-sRGB files with the sRGB profile when we save them to disk. But if you never use Adobe RGB or any other of the alternative color profiles in your workflow then this might not matter to you.
FastStone can display and manipulate our RAW/NEF files OK, using the embedded .JPEG in the RAW file, but it can't actually 'process' our RAW files. It can open and make changes (apparently) to our RAW images, but in this case it is simply operating on the .NEF's embedded .JPEG - not on the image's RAW data. I see from your other posts that you include RAW format when you shoot, so if you also take simultaneous High Quality JPEGs with each photo, then (if you aim to use FastStone to edit them) you should check your camera settings & preferences and be sure to use the higher quality of the two JPEGS (the embedded JPEG or the 'buddy' one) as your starting point for editing.
It offers quite good Curves and Levels adjustments, but when we use FastStone's "Adjust Lighting" or "Adjust Colors" sliders to edit an image, we get instant feedback on screen, but there's no accompanying histogram to tell us whether we've over-reached or blown-out the colours or highlights.
When we save our edited files from FastStone, it retains a very minimal but accurate sub-set of the EXIF data that was contained in our original image (it keeps our shutter speed, F/stop and exposure information, plus some of our lens data, and some other useful details) but (like many (or all?) of the free editors I've seen) it throws away ALL of the Nikon Maker Notes, ALL of the IPTC data and ALL of the XMP data block. Again, these lost layers of metadata (like the XMP stuff) might not matter in your current workflow at all ...
On the plus side, FastStone has got a respectable Clone and Heal tool, and two different Sharpening tools, plus a Crop tool and various other effects and filters - but I'll stop here ... !!!
Hopefully that's enough to help you decide whether it's a "tool for you"
(Another free program that is quite tantalising and is more like a conventional Editor is Paint.NET. It is probably more powerful (or 'differently' powerful?) than FastStone but I can't recommend Paint.NET until it properly handles the embedded EXIF and IPTC data in our files. The current version plays very badly with this metadata by losing portions of our original information while inserting some of its own into its saved files. Paint.NET is also completely 'blind' to ICC colour profiles (whether sRGB or any other profile). So until the long-anticipated Paint.NET Version 4 arrives, it's simply not ready IMO for 'serious' use.)
On the other options - namely the non-free but cheaper-than-Photoshop editing programs - we all like and dislike different things in our editing tools, so as KenL says, it's tough to make recommendations!
I've tried almost everything that's available (for Windows) and (as I'm not a fan of Adobe's products, for reasons unrelated to this post) I "make do" myself with the excellent Capture NX2, and with DxO Optics Pro ... neither of which - I think you'd agree - is "cheap" to purchase, nor to maintain with their non-free upgrade cycles. But to me, their cost is well justified by their respective feature-sets, and they're both satisfyingly UN-bloated products so I'm not paying for features I'll never use.
And as always, there's no "really free lunch", nor even a nearly-ideal-yet-affordable lunch!!
Good luck in your search Susan, and perhaps other Nikonians have other favourite & affordable suggestions.