Thanks, Rob... Have you looked at some of my photos on Picasa? The original, non abridged versions are quite a bit nicer than those online.
I have an outdated Nikon D80, with a Nikor 18-200 VR lens. I almost always have a polarizing filter on the lens, and shoot almost exclusively at an ISO setting of 100. I use jpg format, fine...I don't mess around with RAW format stuff. I typically shoot at 0.7 to 1.3 stops underexposed. I keep my monitor screen set to show highlights; I review each photo (or group of photos) the be sure that I don't overexpose the highlights. Digital images when blocked (overexposed highlights) will contain no information in those areas.
I work with and share my photos with a bunch of other outdoor enthusiasts and amatuer photographers, they all comment on the color and saturation of my photos. I had another Nikkor lens that came as a kit lens with the body, it took OK photos, but never had the "pop" that this lens has. Sadly, (or maybe not!) I broke that lens when the camera took a tumble off a strongback of a canoe I was building.
If I were to charactrize the major factors behind my photos' appeal, I would say it is the lens, the absolute correct exposure, the ISO setting, and the polarizing filter, in that order, that make for better photos...of course all of these factors are meaningless without the right subject, lighting and composition.
Most of my photos are straight from the camera, a very few are adjusted for exposure only using Photoshop. I used to shoot transparency film exclusively (pre digital age) and also took some photography courses, any post camera manipulation was always unallowed. So I now end up taking multiple shots of the same subject, altering the exposure by 0.3 stops at a time. The digital formats allow me to "waste" film, so th speak...I could not have afforded to have so many film images, even though I used to buy my film in bulk, and develop and mount the slides myself.
Maybe I've already bored you and you stopped reading a paragraph or two above, I hope not. Maybe some of my experiences can help you and others acheive the images that you may be lookin for...
Nope! No boredom here! Although, I can see I need a digital photography primer. The next time my smart daughter comes home for a visit I'll ask her to recommend one and also ask her to help bridge the gap between my ears with what you've written above. Thank you for taking the time to lay it all out.
My little camera now is a waterproof Panasonic Lumix and dead simple. It works suprisingly well with the auto pilot setting. However, it's best shots are not any where near the quality of your work. In the daylight it's very hard to see just what is on the screen. I miss my old Canon 35mm SLR. As you say though; I can afford the film and developing with this new one!
Both my wife and our son have one of those Lumix cameras, very handy and compact, with surprisingly vivid images.
To give you an idea of price points, my outdated D80 can be found used nearly anywhere for around $250-$300.
The 18-200 lens, however, used or not, still demands around $700.
Other than the cost, there is a weight penalty, my camera and lens weigh in at 3.5 lb! That's quite a load when I'm trying to keep my overall pack weight less than 25 lb...Even so, I rarely go out without it.