This is the fun section! We get to talk about all of the nifty stuff that goes into making this hobby both really fun :) ... and really expensive :-/ ... feel free to skip straight down to my recommendations in the Complete Kits section ;)
For any sort of serious photography, you're going to need a camera with an interchangeable lens system. For as much as Trey Ratcliff seems to be perfectly happy getting by with a mirrorless camera these days, for my purposes, this means a DSLR. Choosing the right camera for you however, is largerly a financial decision. If you're serious about photography, buy the best camera you can afford. Whether that's a Nikon D3000 series costing just a few hundred dollars, a top of the line Nikon D4s costing over $6,000, or a ridiculously expensive medium format back like the Hasselblad H5D-200c costing $45,000, is completely inconsequential. The best camera is the one you have with you.
Small note before we go any further: I'm a Nikon fan. I know their gear the best and that's what I'll be talking about the most. I'll try to cover Canon a little bit, but keep in mind, everything I know about their gear is hearsay from my friends who have it, not personal experience.
That being said, there are perfectly good reasons for the massive differences in price points in the cameras listed above. The primary differnce is sensor size. More expensive cameras have a physically larger sensor, which allows them to collect more light faster than cameras with smaller sensors. The sensors in more expensive cameras also have a higher bit depth, allowing them to capture finer gradations between color tones.
In the DSLR world, there are two sensor sizes: Full Frame and APS-C. A full frame sensor is 1.5 time larger than an APS-C sensor. APS-C sensors are sometimes referred to as "cropped frame" sensors. Nikon's consumer oriented lines, the D-series camera with 4 digits in their name (D3000, D5000, D7000, etc.) all have APS-C sensors. Nikon's pro-sumer and professional series cameras, the ones with 1 or 3 digits (D600, D800, D4), all have full frame sensors. As discussed in the previous paragraph, since the full frame sensors are physically larger than the cropped frame sensors, they are better at gathering light. That means you'll be able to get clearer pictures in darker situations will a full frame camera than with a cropped frame camera. That advantage however, comes at a significant cost. Nikon's bottom of the line full frame camera is 3 times more expensive than their intro cropped frame camera. And that's just for the full frame body. The cropped frame camera at least comes with a kit lens. And, as I'll get into in the next section, full frame lenses are far more expensive than cropped frame lenses.
For the `Beginner` kit, I picked the 3000 series because it's Nikon's least expensive option. As a beginner, you need to learn how to use a DSLR, but you don't need to spend a million dollars before you figure out if photography is something you want to seriously invest in. And, while inexpensive, it's still extremely capable when compared to compact cameras.
For the `Serious Amateur` kit, I picked the 600 series because it's Nikon's intro to full frame option. It's starting to get expensive and you need a full frame camera when you start to get serious, but unless you've got money to burn, you're better off saving a couple thousand dollars while learning to appreciate the difference between cropped frame and full frame and investing in top of the line full frame lenses to use with your future top of the line full frame camera.
For the `Fully Loaded` kit, I picked the 800 series because for my style of photography, it is the best camera in existence (ignoring the absurdly expensive medium and large format offerings since I don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on a camera system). Even if I had the money, I wouldn't upgrade to the Nikon D5. For me, resolution is king, so the D810's 36.3MP sensor beats out the D5's 20.8MP sensor.
Just like camera bodies, what lenses you need is largely a financial decision. Lenses are what will put you in the poor house. The D800 is a mere $3,000, while a solid lens collection (if you buy everything new) will run over $10,000, and that's if you don't want/need any long telephoto lenses. If you have to choose between a better camera and worse lenses or a worse camera and better lenses, spend your money on the lenses. A digital camera body will be obsolete in a few years. A profressional Nikon lens will easily last 25+ years.
The most thing to pay attention to when buying a lens is to make sure it's compatible with your camera. As discussed in the previous section, there are two sensor sizes in Nikon's DSLR lineup: cropped frame and full frame. Different size sensors require different size lenses. Cropped frame lenses are smaller than full frame lenses. Thus, cropped frame lenses will not work on full frame cameras. Nikon calls their cropped frame cameras DX. Full frame is FX. Nikon includes "DX" in the name of lenses designed for the cropped frame, but omits any sensor size designation from FX lenses since you can use a full frame lens on a cropped frame camera.
Though full frame lenses will work on DX cameras, there's something else you need to know before you get excited and buy a full range of FX lenses. The crop factor of the sensor changes the focal length of the lens. Since an FX sensor is 1.5 times larger than a DX sensor, an FX lens' focal length is actually 1.5 times longer when placed on a DX camera. For example, if you put a 35mm DX lens on a DX camera, the field of view is a true 35mm (63.4 degrees from corner to corner). But, if you put a 35mm FX lens on a DX camera, the field of view becomes 52.5mm (44.8 degrees corner to corner). Note the significant reduction in field of view. That translates in real world usage to FX lenses being a bit more zoomed in than their DX equivalents.
For most usages, the crop factor making FX lenses 1.5 times longer than their rated focal lenght is a detriment, but there are a few usecases where it's actually a benefit. In sports and wildlife photography, getting closer with a longer lens is significantly easier than getting closer with your feet (if, especially in the case of sports, it's even possible to get any physically closer to the players).
In the case of landscape photography, where ultra-wide-angle lenses are truly appreciated, a crop factor is not only the antithesis of what you want, it means you're paying significantly more for a less useful lens. Nikon's 14-24mm FX lens is ~$2,000. That's a lot of money to pay for the equivalent of a 21-36mm DX lens, especially when Nikon's 10-24mm DX lens is ~$800. So, it's less than half the price and more than twice as wide. If you have no intention of upgrading to an FX body, it'd be pretty silly to waste the money on the 14-24 when you could get the 10-24 plus another lens for the same amount.
Long story short: only buy lenses specifically made for your sensor size.
Investors note: I highly recommend starting off with a DX camera and kit lenses to allow yourself to decide whether photography is something you want to invest deeply in. I do not recommend buying a ton of DX lenses to compliment your starter camera. When you eventually make the jump to FX, all of those DX lenses you bought are nearly worthless for two reasons. (1) you can't use them on your shiny new FX body. And, more importantly (unless you're made of money) (2) DX lenses have significantly less resell value than FX lenses. I do however recommend buying FX lenses if you're planning on making the jump to FX. I was able to pick up the 50mm and 28-300mm FX lenses while I waited for the D800 to be released. That way, as soon as my D800 showed up, I already had two lenses I was comfortable with ready to use with it.
Longer story slightly less short, i.e. Full Guidelines:
Filters are both completely unnecessary and wholly mandatory. If you're a beginner, do not buy any filters (not even a UV filter). You need to learn the basics of exposure and composition before you start making the process more complicated. If you've mastered the fundamentals and are looking to try something new, filters are a great way to expand your creativity. The most common type of filter you'll see being employed creatively is a Neutral Density (ND) filter. ND filters reduce the amount of light in a scene, allowing you to significantly slow you shutter speed. In full daylight, a 10 stop ND filter can take your shutter speed from a tiny fraction of a second to upwards of 30 seconds. Exposures that long are how people smooth out waterfalls and cause crowds and cars to streak across the frame.
For the `Serious Amateur` kit, I picked out a Tiffen variable ND. It offers between 2 and 8 stops of light reduction. Variable ND filters are a good way to learn how much light you want to remove from a given scene to achieve your desired effect. However, due to the nature of how ND filters work, they will always produce an inferior (if almost unnoticeably so) result to a fixed ND filter. That's why, for the `Fully Loaded` kit, I picked out a collection of B+W ND filters. The 3, 6, and 10 stop filters will give you enough range to achieve any effect you want, and you can stack them, giving you up to 16 stops of light reduction.
In the first paragraph, I mentioned UV filters and they deserve further discussion. Do not buy a UV filter. At best, cheap UV filters will degrade contrast. Expensive UV filters will do so next to nothing, you'll never see the effect. UV filters are often sold as protectors for expensive lenses. Don't fall for this trap. Your lens came with a protector. It's called a lens cap. If you don't want to risk damaging your front element, put the lens cap back on between shots. The clinching argument against UV filters for me was, "You wouldn't want to shoot all of your pictures through a window, would you?"
There are a few styles of photography for which a tripod is not necessary. For everything else however, a good tripod is worth its weight in gold. Or rather worth the inverse of its weight in gold, since a ridiculously heavy tripod is almost worse than not having one at all. You'll notice that price is inversely proportional to weight. That is, as they get lighter, they tend to get more expensive. The best tripods are all made out of carbon fiber and are absolutely worth the asking price if you're serious about doing some hiking with it.
Expensive tripods are sold as legs only. A ball head is what you put on top of the tripod and hook your camera into. Until you start using massive telephoto lenses, a good solid middleweight ball head is all you really need. Good ball heads all have an Arca-Swiss connector for you to connect your camera to. The trouble is, I'm not aware of a single camera in existence with an Arca-Swiss connector built in. This necessitates an L-bracket. L-brackets screw into the bottom of your camera and allow you to connect your camera to the ball head either in the horizontal or vertical position. The trouble is, L-brackets have to be custom engineered for each camera and thus generally cost a metric boat-load.
Remote shutter releases are essential for two things: removing camera shake and timing shots. While you don't need a full blown intervalometer unless you want to shoot time-lapses or star trails, having one does help with ultra long exposures (anything over 30 seconds). I'd personally rather have the timer do the counting for me instead of relying on running a timer on my phone and having to manually stop an exposure, but I'm all about working smarter not harder. The tradeoff here (if you haven't guessed it already) is cost. A bog standard remote shutter release will run you about $30 while a non-third party branded intervalometer will be closer to $150 In theory everything that an intervalometer does, you can accomplish with a remote shutter release. The question is, how many times do you want to manually actuate the shutter over the course of a four hour long star trails shoot?
Memory cards are one of the few categories were it doesn't pay to spend boatloads of money on top of the line gear. Unless you're shooting 4K video (which the current generation of DSLRs isn't capable of) there's a definite point of diminishing returns on memory card speed. The internal buffer in your camera is the limit on how many shots you can take rapid fire, not the speed of your memory card. A memory card will never be faster than your internal buffer, so once you buffer is full, you're done taking continuous full speed shots, period. Get a card rated for 1080p video and don't waste a penny more. Do however, get two or more cards and get them as big as you can afford. There's nothing worse than running out of memory in the middle of an epic shoot! That being said, don't buy super cheap knockoff brand crap either. You'll get nothing but trouble from it. If you stick to brands like Lexar and Sandisk, you'll be ok.
Purchasing a camera bag is just as much about style as it is functionality. If there's one section you can safely ingore, and just go buy whatever you want, it's this one. That being said, I do have a little experience to share. If you're primarily going on short day trips where you're not carrying large amounts of gear for hours on end, it litterally doesn't matter what bag you get, so long as it has a reasonable amount of padding and you think it looks good. If, on the other hand, you are going to be lugging gear for hours on end, then ergonomics plays a huge role in bag selection. My first bag was a sling style bag that went across the body and put all of the weight on one shoulder. This was acceptable when I only had two lenses and primarily carried the camera itself in my hand. The amount of weight on my shoulder was negligible. It wasn't until my lens collection started growing that I started to notice the amount of weight I was putting on only one shoulder.
|Beginner||Serious Amateur||Fully Loaded|
|Filters||Don't worry about filters for now :)||
Tiffen 77mm Variable ND
|Optional Filters||Again, don't worry about this yet :)||
Tiffen 77mm Circular Polarizer
|Ball Head||The Manfrotto 294 includes a ball head :)||
Markins Q-Ball Q3i
Markins Q-Ball Q20i
|Remote Shutter Release||Nikon ML-L3||
Lexar 32GB SDHC
Lexar 64GB SDXC
AmazonBasics Backpack for DSLRs
Lowepro Flipside 200
There are a few companies that make dedicated photography hiking packs, but no one makes a better hiking pack than companies who specialize in hiking packs. Thus, I've gone to a hybrid solution.
The equivalent storage from a photography specific hiking pack would cost about $400 and be an inferior hiking pack. When you're hauling that much weight for a full day (or week), the design of the pack is vastly more important than the 15 seconds you'll save with a photography specific pack.
Along with the primary gear, there are a lot of little things that can make your life a lot easier and more comfortable.
All of this gear is expensive. Get yourself an Amazon Store Card (not the Visa). Then you'll get 6, 12, or 24 months interest free to pay off the amount. I've bought a considerable number of lenses this way. Suddenly that $2,000 lens isn't such a shock to the wallet when you can pay it off over the course of a year or two. Don't go past the interest free period though. They'll take your house, first born, pets, and anything else you hold dear ... and by that I mean, you'll owe them back interest on the original amount at an interest rate most would consider inhumane. So remember, Amazon Store Card: good, not paying off the entire amount prior to the end of the interest free period: very bad.
While Amazon likes to sell their Prime service based on the ability to watch unlimited streaming TV and movies, you should care about the free 2 day shipping. I've lost count how many times that's saved my butt. Without a major camera store nearby, free 2 day shipping is as good as it gets for me and with as much as I buy through them, the cost of the service is more than made up for.
One of the most important aspects to photography is also one of the most overlooked. Shoots are generally not short and if hiking is involved, you're going to get hungry. I don't know about you, but when I get hungry, I can't think straight. For me, the most important non-photographic essential when out on a shoot is snacks. Personally, I'm a big fan of Nature Valley Oat's 'n Dark Chocolate Granola Bars. They're calorically dense and taste amazing. But whether you like granola bars or not, bring some sort of snack with you. You'll be glad you did :)
Get yourself a solid pair of hiking boots. The last thing you want is for your feet to start hurting in the middle of your epic hike down the Grand Canyon. Even if your aspirations are less grand, a solid pair of boots (bonus points if they're waterproof) will save you a lot of headaches (and foot aches) and just generally make the entire experience far more enjoyable.
If you're going to be doing a lot of time-lapse work or star trails (or both), the next piece of gear everyone else will be seriously jealous that you have and they don't is a camping chair. Something softer to sit on than the cold ground is nearly invaluable at the top of a rocky mountain.
If you're going to be doing said time-lapse/star trails over night, then a mere camping chair is insufficient. You're going to need a hiking pad and sleeping bag. And, if you're serious, a hiking pillow. And, if you're seriously serious, a hiking tent. Personally, I prefer to sleep out among the stars, next to my tripod, but admittedly, I've never done it where insects were even a minor concern. I did sleep out underneath a massive swarm of bats once though. The echolocation was fascinating to listen to :)
Last, but certainly not least, get yourself a nice pair of hiking pants, a couple nice hiking shirts, and a bunch of pairs of nice hiking socks or awesome socks from The Sox Box. While I won't go so far as to link to hiking underwear, something more athletic than plain cotton is generally appreciated. And, no one ever went wrong wearing a great looking explorer hat!