Photography has been my hobby for far too many decades - first on film; and now digital (for about seven years). I recently had occasion to use exposure bracketing seriously for the first time, when I was shooting difficult subjects (high contrast; large light value range; intense lights in shot; etc). Much to my surprise, the one stop underexposed shot was virtually always the best shot. I have since been experimenting with this and find that it applies to virtually all the shots I take. It also applies if the is a lot of sky in shot, and if there is very little. The colour range is more realistic; the level of detail is greater; and the balance much better.
So what is going on? Am I just getting old and decrepit with my vision crumbling? Do digital sensors react better to low exposures? Is the manufacturers calibration suspect? Something else?
So what is "correct" exposure for a modern digital system.
FWIW I use Nikon equipment; with all but one lens (a Tokina extreme wide-angle zoom) being Nikon. All the shots I refer to above were taken by natural light in the daytime; and a substantial portion of them were landscapes.
EDIT: To answer some of the commented points. The entire picture seems to be better when one stop underexposed. This applies to sky and landscape, and to the level of detail in all portions of the picture. It also applies to the colour balance.
My preferred shots are indeed consistently one EV lower than the camera regards as normal. I am shooting in RAW, and the difference in preferred shots shows itself as I start to catalog and post process my images on my computer. @AJ Henderson may put his finger on part of the reason when he says that the pupil adapts better to darker images than to ones that are too bright. I am not saying that the camera exposure is incorrect, but rather I believe I am getting better shots when they are slightly underexposed.#
EDIT and ANSWER
The various answers and comments have pointed me to the following elements of an answer:
- Virtually all my film photography had been negative film, rather than transparencies. This set my expectations as to what an image should look like.
- I had not been specifically processing my RAW files, but rather viewing them through default renderers, whether in camera, in my cataloguing software, or my image manipulation software. This meant that the representation depended on the particular renderer chosen, more or less at random.
- I had not fully understood the histogram and its use, and I was not using it regularly.
- Nearly all the photos I experimented on, while having wide contrast, happened to have very few values at the dark end of the histogram. This meant that underexposing them did cause clipping, but is was so minimal that it was unnoticable in many situations.
- It is only recently that I have been publishing my photos, exclusively in electronic form, and I am still only looking at electronic representations of the images.
All the responses to my question, answers and comments alike, have helped me improve my understanding of image characteristics, so my thanks to the respondents.