Getting the shot right in the camera at the time of the exposure is always the goal. I talk with people who mistakenly settle for "getting it wrong" and rely on fixing it afterwards. That type of approach is not consistent, and forces you to sit at your desk pushing pixels. If you take the time to learn how to master your camera, you can nail the exposure in one shot and then use post-production to fine tune and polish your gem into a diamond.
It all starts with the in-camera choices you make.
Here are my camera settings for the captive Tiger:
Aperture of f2.8 on a 70-200mm lens on a Canon 40D. This lets a great deal of light into the lets a great deal of light into the lens, and fast. It also helps throw the background out of focus and bring the attention to the subject.
Shutter Speed of 1/320. Technically this was pushing my luck as animals twitch and move quickly. Ideally, 1/500th is the goal, but at times compromise is necessary. 1/320 was just fast enough to freeze the tiger standing still.
My ISO always starts at the lowest setting of 100. I raise it in small increments as needed based on the existing light. If it was a bit darker, the ISO could have gone to 200, 400, 800, or higher.
With my settings of 2.8, 1/320, and ISO 100, I had a great exposure with detail in the shadows and a good representation of the whites in the tiger. The histogram showed that no data was touching the right hand wall so there was no over-exposure.
My white balance was set to "Cloudy" as "AWB" was just too blue.
From Flat to Fab in Five Minutes
Because you've taken the time to get the shot right in-camera, post production is a quick process. As you can see, the file on the left is properly exposed, but lacks any real POP! This is normal when shooting RAW as you have an unprocessed digital negative. I opened my file in Lightroom 4, and applied the following changes:
1) Cropped about 10% from around Tiger
2) Warmed up White Balance and added +20 on the magenta tint to get rid of a greenish color cast from some artificial lights near the exhibit.
4) Added a small amount of contrast to deepen the black stripes.
5) Upped the amount of white in the white tones to add contrast to the face.
6) Added Vibrance
7) Brightened each eye with an adjustment brush
7) Added vignette