The conversation has gotten significantly fractured over the past couple of days what with TypePad's unfortunate DDoS troubles (apologies again for the interruption—not that I could do anything about it, believe me), but one last small point about exposure: as is true of lenses, it's not quite as important as it used to be. Excellent lenses and proper exposure are still important with digital—just not quite as important as they were in the days of film.
Average and inexpensive lenses are getting better all the time, and the visual qualitative differences between really superb lenses and just very good ones are diminishing. Similarly, with the power of post-processing and the quality of current sensors (especially as regards highlight recovery and shadow noise), recovery from an exposure error is often easier than it was with film, so the difference between an ideal exposure and one that's in the ballpark has also diminished somewhat.
Of course, this introduces another problem. As it gets easier to recover from an error, it reduces the penalty for making those errors—which tends to inadvertently encourage less care and more sloppiness.
As I used to do with film, I recommend occasionally trying to optimize a test shot, to help you understand the kind of quality your system* is capable of under ideal conditions. (Back in the day, I did this a time or three with students who thought their problem was with their cameras. For photographers who aren't normally studio shooters, shooting in the studio occasionally can serve the same purpose.) Every now and then, make a really careful picture—use base ISO and the optimum aperture of your lens, use a tripod, bracket focus, bracket exposure, and find the best file and study it. It can help "calibrate your brain," to get a handle on what your everyday technique is aiming for.
(Thanks to Timo)
*By "system" I mean your whole setup, from camera, lens to processing workflow.
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Featured Comments from:
Roy: "Assuming one's using a camera with an EVF and consequently capable of displaying a live histogram (of course the histogram's derived from the JPEG engine etc., etc.) and that one is shooting RAW (why on earth wouldn't you?) I find it hard to understand why exposure would be much of a problem these days."
Mike replies: I didn't say it was a problem...I said it is an interpretative choice. (Or at least that's what I was trying to say.) That means that sometimes there's reason to switch away from "camera recommended" exposure to some other value. And of course even very capable meters can still sometimes be fooled.
KeithB: "Chimping is not good for exposure since the brightness on the LCD can vary with the backlight setting. Some cameras even adjust the backlight value based on ambient light. Syl Arena, in his Canon Speedlight book, says that chimping is good for relative exposure (is the flash lighting things enough?) but not absolute exposure. For that, the histogram is your friend."
Dave Levingston: "You reminded of a story from my newspaper days back when we spent most of our time hunting mastodons. Steve Pyle, the newspaper's chief photographer (later of AP in Minneapolis, if I remember right), showed up at a fire in an old run-down hotel. Knowing the firefighters, he was allowed to go up a ladder to an upper floor where he stepped through a window just in time to see two firefighters carrying a very old man in the classic firefighter seat carry. Steve pulled up his Nikon with a 24mm on it and snapped one frame before they were gone. Then he looked at the camera and saw that it was set for 'sunny 16' ƒ/16 at 1/250th.
"He knew that was the picture. So, he went to the darkroom and pushed the hell out of the film using heated up Acufine. Then he put it in the rapid fixer and turned on the light. As soon as the film started to clear he rinsed it and ran to the enlarger. He used the density of the uncleared film to make a print. He only got one crack at the print because the negative was destroyed by the enlarger's light. It was the front page photo of the day."
Mike replies: That took courage at both ends of the process.