never went through this list of questions in order - so here goes
GH-Dave wrote: Questions:
Are you guys using hyper expensive high-end cameras to get these shots?
I would like to, but since the switch from film to digital began, I have moved away from high end bodies and treat them like computers: they depreciate very quickly as the technology advances and unless you get your money's worth out of a body in the first 18 months you own it, you will most likely regret having spent extra cash on it. I don't sell images any longer, and most of my output is web-only, so the extra quality of full frame sensor bodies is somewhat lost on my current use pattern. If you have the extra cash, you will definitely get better results with a full frame body, but at the expense of weight. Low light performance is the most important gain when going to full frame. You also get more options in the wide angle lens range, but that's starting to change with custom ultra-wides for DX becoming available. Other benefits of the high end bodies such as better auto-focus speeds and brighter view finders are features mostly relevant to sports shooting and don't really matter out in the woods unless you're into the wildlife shooting thing.
Camera manufacturers do certain things to the internals of their higher end cameras to separate them from the budget bodies, such as higher quality filters on the CCD, or higher bit depth recording and uncompressed storage of RAW images. The cost goes up, the difference between the cameras diminishes. Cost and weight go up as the visible returns of these features diminishes.
GH-Dave wrote: Color enhancement filters?
The only filters I packed this summer were a polarizer and a close-up filter that allows closer focus with a non-macro lens. I also have a 4X ND filter to cut light for long exposures (water falls), a graduated neutral Density filter to do pretty neat stuff with high contrast scenes (bright sky dark foreground), which replaces HDR by shooting it all in-camera. I don't use those filters often enough to worry about carrying them on a trip where weight is important.
If I was shooting black and white on film, I'd also pack a red and yellow filter, and for infrared, you can bring some IR filter, but the use of that is really limited on unconverted digital bodies these days. I'm contemplating to convert my D40 to dedicated IR shooting, but then you're basically hauling a 1.5 pound IR filter for a few custom effects shots.PolarizerQuality close-up lensPlain ND filterGradual ND filterIR converting a camera body
GH-Dave wrote: Photoshopping to bring out colors?
see above post on what I do. Shooting RAW images is the key to have the most image data available the camera can record, but it also requires post processing to tap into that data. You don't want to leave the decisions about contrast range and color balance to the camera's auto mode or some preset. I never bothered to buy one of those white balance filters that let you customize the camera's setting for each shot (you need a body that lets you do that to begin with - my old D40 didn't do that for example), but if you want to make sure you get the proper white point for the scene in front of you, and you have to the time to measure those settings, you can bring another filter
to do that, or at least a white piece of cardboard to use as a target to calibrate the camera. Doing that saves you the task of setting colors on a screen that may not be calibrated.
GH-Dave wrote: Expensive lenses.
I love expensive lenses, but they just are too heavy to bring on the kind of long distance hikes I prefer. They are a much better investment than expensive camera bodies, because the technology on that end of the system doesn't advance nearly as fast as the electronics attached to them. If you go with a full frame digital body, you can also pick from a number of classic manual focus lenses that are a great value, expecially ultra wide glass where auto focus is pretty irrelevant due to the depth of field you get with them. Glass is very important to get the best out of your body. Zoom lenses are pretty good these days in terms of sharpness and other fatures, but if you're a purist and want the best quality shot possible, you will need to look into owning a few prime lenses, which due to their simpler optical design will generally outperform a zoom in sharpness, flare, distortion. Recently such lenses have become rather expensive
, because only enthusiasts buy them. They are better than ever, though, and if you have a 5 figure budget for your gear kit, something like that should be in your bag. The good news for the lanscape photographer is that prime lenses from the late 80s and 90s work very well at a fraction of the cost of these new high end lenses.
GH-Dave wrote: How much tweaking of settings do you do to get those beautiful shots?
Not sure if my shots qualify, but I rarely do much tweaking at all. I may bracket a little if the light is challenging, or fire a fill flash in a people scene. If the image is important, I'll actually make sure I use a safe shutter speed, possibly even check the histogram (since the LCD doesn't really show how well you exposed highlights or darks). I'm sure I' do a lot more if I was out there for the sake of the photos. A tripod would be the first thing I'd use for every shot just to get that stability thing perfect. I also bring a small infrared remote to allow for shutter release without touching the body (flip up mirror, then release).
GH-Dave wrote: Does one have to use a tripod?
No, but it helps with low light and long lens shots, plus you can use it for HDR (if so inclined), and with a proper head for panorama shots that line up better than hand-held. Night timed exposures, ND-filter waterfall shots, self portraits when hiking solo, etc. I have a super light custom tripod made from a few old tent poles and a mini table top tripod, but for anything serious with big bodies and glass, you will need to spend some real money here to have a solid set of legs without a lot of weight (Gitzo carbon)
Will the 18-55mm lens that comes with the camera be adequate, or should I invest in a zoom lens if my older ones aren't compatible?
I used the Nikon 18-55 VR lens for most of my shots this summer. Not the greatest lens, but light and surpringly sharp for it's price. See comments about expensive lenses above - there's a difference with the good pro glass, but it is also the area where the budget becomes an issue. Perhaps a single prime lens in addition to a zoom, somewhere in your preferred focal range, bought used as a manual focus lens will give you that extra crisp punch on some images when you have time to set up and focus, zoom check detail, shoot again, etc - all a matter of how to get the most out of your gear without spending big.
Other notes - I don't bring a camera bag at all - not having a $2500 body on my strap means I don't worry about damaging it, and I have it ready to shoot at all times. I've carried bodies over the entire Muir Trail and there's barely a scratch on any of them. When it rains, I put a platic bag over it or stuff it in the backpack. Put some gaffer tape on the areas that may get scratched and just use the thing. I also carry a battery grip for the body so I can use AA batteries for power - much cheaper and easier to resupply than the default rechargeable batteries. Only matters on long trips, though.