We hear a lot of photographers (myself included) preaching from their proverbial pulpit about the benefits of accurate in-camera capture. To many, it may seem more a thing of personal and professional pride than anything else (which it is in part for sure), but it certainly has its technical and creative merits as well.
Before the advent of digital photography, the “fix it later” mentality was not an option. Sure, there was a certain degree of dodging and burning that you could do to obtain a moderately acceptable print from a less than desirable exposure, but for the most part, if you blew your shot, you blew your shot. I still believe that exceptional photography requires creative inspiration and technical exactness. This means having an understanding of how to properly record the scene in front of you with the photographic tools at your disposal. In layman’s terms, this means understanding how to make an accurate image. And for the record, “accurate” doesn’t necessarily mean a traditional representation of the scene–it simply means understanding how to translate your photographic ideals from your brain onto film or sensor, without relying on the computer to fix everything that you didn’t understand how to do, when you were supposed to do it.
For me, getting an accurate in-camera exposure means I can look at the image that comes out of the camera, and instantly know where my creative vision was. I don’t have to wonder what I was thinking, cause the writing is write there on my computer screen. I don’t have to fuss with sliders to figure out what the scene “actually” looked like, cause it’s all right there. Getting an accurate exposure means my post processing is kept to the absolute minimum–not because I abhor post processing, but more because my office chair isn’t that nice, and my butt gets sore from sitting in the same place too long. There. I said it. The above example from Grand Teton National Park shows the RAW file straight out of the camera on the left, and my finished, processed version on the right. It took me a grand total of about 3 minutes to get this image exactly where I wanted it.
In all reality, whether amateur or professional, there are very few of us out there who would rather be staring at a computer monitor, than witnessing the magic of Mother Nature in person.
Technically, the benefits of an accurate in-camera exposure are plentiful. Without getting super techie on all you faithful blog readers, I’ll just say this: the more you have to tweak your images, the more your images get tweaked. This means that when you try and pull mad detail out of your shadows after having underexposed your image, or try and bring down all those highlights you just blew, it shows. Sure, the web version may look like a potential NY Times cover, but as soon as you send it to an editor, or try and print it bigger than wallet size, the wheels start to fall off. Much like makeup can only cover scars for so long before it wears off, excessive PP on an inaccurate image only goes so far. Band-aids never were as good as a tourniquet, and some of those fly-by-night captures without proper attention to detail are gonna need photographic life flight if not remedied the next time around.
There are exceptions to this rule, especially with the advanced nature of many of today’s software programs, but by and large, accurate in-camera exposure is the only way to go. It matters not whether you have any professional aspirations with your photography whatsoever, your goal should be to understand enough about your passion that you are able to excel and achieve at the highest level for you. No matter who you are, accurate in-camera exposures should be your ideal and it certainly is within your grasp if you are, to this point, the full auto shooter. Be a pro, and get it right when you click the shutter.