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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