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Your eye has an incredible ability to see in low light. This means that you can very often see details in shadow areas with your naked eye while your camera will render those areas as just black and featureless. Active D-Lighting applies postprocessing to your image in camera to brighten shadow areas in your image. Note that it doesn't just brighten the blacks in your image. It actually figures out where the shadowy areas are in your scene and it brightens those without washing out all of the blacks in your picture.
You control the Active D- Lighting setting from the Shooting menu. Scroll down and you'll find an Active D-Lighting option here. It defaults to off, and basically you've got a number of different levels of adjustment that will be applied to your image, from Low through Normal, to High, to Extra high, to Auto. Auto is going to actually analyze your image, and the camera is going to try to determine what the right setting is. I would start here with Auto and do some experiments and see what you think about it. If you decide that you don't like it, don't give up quite yet: maybe try dialing in just some small amounts.
Remember, these only affect JPEG images; if you're a RAW shooter, this is all irrelevant. You may ultimately decide naw, I would really rather be in control of all of my own image editing, so you would want to simply turn Active D-Lighting Off.
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