NashvilleMike - Thanks for your reply and that link - I read through the whole thing, at first I thought some of it was more of the same stuff I had heard but as I read on I realized it was exactly what I needed to hear. I also appreciate that some of you are D300 shooters, with obvious experience and high standards (It does not help my photography by just listening to the compliments of my friends and family - God bless em )
Thanks for sharing some of your settings when shooting landscapes, like ISO and importing using Capture NX2. If you don't mind can you elaborate a bit on your reasoning for using NX2 for importing over something like Adobe Lightroom 2? Is it basically for retaining your custom settings?
Also can you elaborate more on a proper sharpening technique? I feel good about my "maturing" in post processing colors, I really used to take it too far.
And lastly, do you have any tips on customizing the in-camera settings (noise reduction, DLighting, sharpening, saturation...) for landscape use?
Hopefully I can make a bit more sense now that the work day is complete...
Topic 1: Raw Converters.
I will give you my reason for why I prefer NX2 over Lightroom/ACR but please understand that I *strongly* advocate you taking the time to explore other raw converters, looking critically at output, and making your own decision. Choice of raw converter is somewhat like religion and a LOT of folks, including admittedly myself at times, try to force our opinion down other peoples throats. It's much better if you take the time - and it will take time - to play and explore and you'll come up with your own thoughts.
That being said, I shoot 80% in a studio-type environment and 20% landscape. The biggest thing I am looking for in a raw converter is that the image that "comes up on the screen" closely resembles what I shot in my studio space including how I have set my camera. Since I use a customized picture control that was based off neutral and utilizes a custom tone curve (built via the Picture Control Utility - which is in both the free ViewNX software or the pay Capture NX2 softare) and this is my preferred "look", I prefer a raw converter that *completely* understands the Nikon camera settings. I have a variety of other customized picture controls that while not in the camera, are stored on the PC and I can apply those during the raw conversion. Since the Nikon raw conversion products allow me to utilize these picture controls - both the ones I have loaded and the ones on my PC, it is the preferred way for me to work. Also, even though the very latest version of ACR/Lightroom where you can utilize a color checker card to build a customized camera profile are VERY good and VASTLY improved over earlier versions (congratulations to the folks at Adobe for doing this - it's a significant improvement), I still find that I have a slight preference for the way the images look in ViewNX when they come up on the screen in terms of skin tone accuracy and tonal rendering. I should note that if I shot primarily landscapes that I might say that ACR/Lightroom would be good enough - it's only in studio work that I prefer the Nikon conversions. For landscape work I typically use either my customized picture control I use for studio work and then tweak colors slightly (my belief is that it is easier to add than to subtract) and occasionally, if the scene will "make sense" with it, I'll use the "landscape" picture control although I must warn you that this picture control often will have slightly over-saturated colors and a bit too much contrast and it's easier, again, to add instead of subtract, so it's not a shoe-in for the best "default" option in every case. But if you re-read all this I just typed - you'll see that a lot of things are situation specific in terms of what type of raw conversion I like. While it is true that I could create some customized presets in Lightroom/ACR, they wouldn't be ones I could load into the camera and thus aren't quite as useful.
But overall, if I had to, I could easily make do with the ACR/Lightroom conversions. In terms of detail - this is very subtle - and it's so subtle that I should clearly say I find the magnitude of this subtleness to be *less* than the difference between kit lenses and pro glass - I find the Nikon conversions do a slightly better job of retaining textural details - think things like fabrics in clothing, foilage, and so forth. Again - this is very slight and a lot of folks might not even see it. At this stage in the game, you might not notice - yet. Don't let this particular subtle aspect of my opinion force you in or out of a raw converter, in other words. As another note - note that the Nikon raw conversion products suck rather badly in terms of speed, user interface, and stability, at least on the Windows platform. Lightroom/ACR are far more stable and much quicker. I tend to shoot a lot but only convert a few "final" prints, so my workflow supports the slower-more methodical-but highest quality approach. If I had to produce more raw conversions in a shorter period of time, the Nikon raw conversion products would absolutely not be my first choice at all.
Topic 2: Sharpening technique
There are a lot of ways to sharpen an image. Most folks start out with unsharp mask, and used properly (and likely faded to luminosity), this is still a viable way. Lightroom and ACR have extremely powerful sharpening tools in the sharpen (or is it "detail", can't remember offhand) tab page during the raw conversion - and you likely could get pretty good just using these. The key is learning to sharpen what makes sense and not sharpening the rest. If you're shooting a scene with a brick church against a plain blue sky, it makes no sense to sharpen the sky, but it makes a lot of sense to sharpen the bricks, right? Read up on things like "Capture Sharpening" and "output sharpening" and you'll get a good sense of things. Again, like religion, people have some very strong opinions on it and they will try to cram down your throat their view. It's best to ingest (my fancy word for the day, lol) all the theories and then (again) take some time exploring what works best for you. Personally, these days I use the focus magic plug-in as my sharpening tool 99% of the time - go search for it if you want. But that's must my way. Some folks use the pixel genius photokit sharpener plug-in, some folks use focal blade plug in, some just use the smart sharpen in photoshop, some use the tools in lightroom, some use other stuff. The key is to learn when you've gone too far and to back off. There have been, in the early life stages of photoshop post processing, far too many over-sharp unrealistic prints that tend to have a brittle look to them. Real life isn't about overly accented edges. My own personal reference happens to be what an 8x10 chrome looks like on a lightbox or what a large format print looks like - there's a sense of realistic detail, but your eye isn't immediately drawn to the edges in a "wow look how sharp this is" manner, but more a "wow, this is a really realistic scene that looks like I could fall into the print" manner. Look at work that is better than you - if possible, go to a gallery showing by one of the known masters and look at the prints. The more you ingest (getting my mileage out of that word, eh?) in terms of other peoples quality work, the better your reference standard will be for your own. Don't fall into the trap of "sharpness is everything" because once you study the very best output, you'll find IMO that the tonality and dimensional qualities of the print/image mean more than just how impressive every edge is. A lot of photographers (including many on the forums everywhere) don't understand this and only chase sharpness. There is much more to it, but that doesn't mean you can skip learning how to sharpen properly. It does mean you need to learn how to evaluate your own print/images and learn how to keep the image so there is a sense of balance and integrity so it looks realisitc. That will, again, take some time.
Topic 3: D300 settings I use
Again, I'm a strong believer that a serious student needs to arrive at their own conclusions and not use a template from someone else.
However, I personally use:
ISO 125 or 160 (the more the scene has highlight detail I want to keep the more I use 160. The more the scene has large expanses of continuous toned things like skies or more things in darker tones, the more I use 125)
No active d-lighting
Customized picture control (most subjects), or Landscape (if it's a sunrise/dawn/dusk type picture that will benefit from extra 'pop')
No noise reduction except "long noise reduction" is turned on.
White balance is often "auto" for most outdoor stuff or a customized preset for the lighting at the time.
In-Camera sharpening: NEVER above +4, ever, ever, ever, ever.
I use an MC-36 remote trigger, always with mirror lock up.
Topic 4: Tripod and Lenses
Your Manfrotto and Bogen head is a good start - I went for a while on a similar Manfrotto and an Acratech head. I produced very nice images from it. There was a subtle yet noticeable improvement when I moved from that to a top-end Gitzo 5530S tripod and RRS BH-55 ballhead, even with my wide angle lenses, and more noticeably so with my longer/heavier glass. When we are striving for technical mastery, it is achieved by making sure every possible aspect is maximized, so it ends up being a sum of these "subtle but noticeable" improvements in the end.
Lenses - my suggestion is to maybe consider the 16-85 zoom - I tried one with a D90 I had for a while and it had a very nice image quality. It would be a definite step up from the kit glass, but not quite the pro glass. You also might try living without autofocus and consider something like a 105/2.5 AIS lens - excellent image quality, and mating that with the 18-35 zoom and the new 50/1.4 (or better yet, the new 60/2.8G macro) in the middle - a lot over budget, but that would be a near-pro quality kit without the 4+ grand pricetag. As you earn more in your life, put the money towards glass first and once you get settled in, then you can start playing with the body-of-the-month club guys and get whatever Dxxx is out then. Until then, concentrate on the technical mastery and once the cash comes in, the glass. It will make far more difference.
I hope this helps - just remember that technical mastery doesn't come immediately - it is literally a lifetime pursuit. I've got a bachelors of science degree from RIT, have shot most every format of camera out there, printed almost every type of print there is, and have been in this since the mid 70's, and even with all that knowledge (and I'm considered quite good technically by my peers), there is not a day that goes by that I can't learn something new from someone or improve my craft - it really is never ending, no matter how good you get or where you sit on the large curve of technical knowledge that is out there. Keep an open mind, don't get caught up in the religion-like battles for certain ways of doing things, and enjoy the fact that it is a constant learning process and I think you'll do fine. And that's only the technical side - improving the artistic side might be harder!!!