I both use and recommend Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 9, if you prefer working with a vector drawing application, and one powerful enough, using the right techniques to create a variety of mapping styles. Though I have several styles, my photo-realistic style looks like it might have been created in Photoshop. Not that other software might also offer a solution, I do professional map commissions, and rely on Xara for most of my mapping needs. Xara isn't free, but is available with a 30 day free trial. I'd recommend using the tutorials on the Xara site to get you underway, but I have many tutorials on my G+ community.
Here's my affiliate link to Xara Photo & Graphic Designer (link to a link, sorry).
Here's a link to my G+ community.
And welcome to the Cartographers' Guild!