This photo has nothing to do with the post, but hey! it's pretty and this is possibly the most schizophrenic post I've done, so why not?
First, the intro that I wrote before becoming overwhelmed and deciding that I needed to watch a movie instead of tackling the impossible...
So, let's take a hypothetical reader who just installed Photoshop on his computer—we'll call him "Mark." (You see, readers. This is what happens when you leave comments. I might actually do a tutorial with you in mind.) Photoshop can be overwhelming. Too many menus and functions. You can buy a book, and probably should, but choose wisely. Some books try to be all things to all people and end up jumping from stylized typography to drawing tools to curves until you just give up. I've always been puzzled by the tutorials in most Photoshop books. "Let's cut out this clown's head, paste it in the middle of a desert, make flames come out of its mouth, add some text with cool 3D effects and drop shadows, and turn it into a web page!" OK, I made that up. But only because I don't have one of those books on hand. Next time you're in a bookstore, flip through a few and you'll see what I mean. Ask yourself if you would ever do any of those projects. Yes, they're supposed to teach principles, but why not teach them in more of a real-world scenario? For me, "real world" means photography, so I prefer books that focus on photography such as Martin Evening's weighty tomes. They're not exactly curl-up-by-the-fire reading (unless you're the type of person that reads encyclopedias for fun), but they are a great reference tool.
I still stand by my reading suggestions (in whatever edition is the most current), but for more immediate satisfaction, I will identify 3 staples of my own real-world Photoshop use. If my "starters" tutorials are little recipes, this is a look into the pantry.
Lasciate ogni speranza...
And now, here's the part where I interrupt myself and explain why it is indeed overwhelming after all.
I thought I was going to boil it all down to 3 elements. If I had they would have been:
It always starts with command-J (or Ctrl-J for PC), which duplicates your background layer. I know it sounds extremely basic, but when I first started doing Photoshop, I would often forget which layer I was working on. Had I actually continued the course of this post, I would have explained the difference between making changes to duplicate layers v. making changes to adjustment layers, and by about 1 a.m. I would have just told everyone to buy the book Layers.
I use curves more than anything. My "adjusting tone and color tutorial" shows a technique that need not be limited to photos of happily engaged people sitting in dead grass. If you experiment with the individual color channels and with the "all channels" s-curve (see step 8 of the same tutorial), you will be working on a technique I use in most photos. When I attended an Amy Dresser webinar, I saw her lasso highly-feathered selections dozens of times just to make subtle curves adjustments to each.
If you can't selectively apply adjustments, there's really no point in doing Photoshop. Quick masks are a good place to start because it is a very intuitive technique.
Had I really gone into detail with each of the above, I would have an endless post, so, yes, it is overwhelming. I still think the layers, curves, masks thing is important, but my desire to show "real-world" retouching has led me to conclude that I should start sharing start-to-finish retouching that isn't based on one tutorial. Nothing could be more honest than to walk you through my actual process. And so, I'm adding a new feature to take-out photo: the real-life retouch. Once every couple of weeks I will show the steps I take from RAW to retouched. Sometimes I do very few adjustments, sometimes I do dozens. I'm not promising an Amy Dresser webinar or anything, but I like the idea of de-mystifying the process and I'm guessing that it will lead to more specific "starters" tutorials as well. It may turn out to be underwhelming, but sometimes underwhelming is exactly what we need.