Review: Alien Skin Exposure
When it comes to photo editing, I'm a do-it-yourselfer. I like to set levels and color adjust by hand, tweaking until I get it just right. Many Photoshop filters I've tried leave me unimpressed -- they tend to clobber any subtlety in the image, screaming, "look at my dazzling filter effects!"
But Alien Skin's Exposure filter is... wow.
Exposure claims to bring "the look and feel of film to digital photography." I don't have any wistful longing for "the film look" but I was suitably impressed by their samples, so I downloaded the demo. It turns out Exposure isn't just about the film look — it's a superb tool for all kinds of photo correction tasks.
Exposure comes as two filters, one for color and another for black-and-white. The controls are similar between the two, but the details are specialized enough to warrant the split. I'll start with color.
The first panel gives quick access to factory and user-created presets. There's a bunch of films and processing techniques ready to play with. Ever admired that Fuji Velvia look for your landscapes? Click — instant vibrant Velvia colors. Hard-core film types should have fun with settings like "Cross Process E6 in C41 Chemicals." Then there's nice modification profiles, for example "sharpen brightness only" will ring a bell for hard-core Photoshop users.
Under the Hood
Beyond the master "Settings" panel are all your under-the-hood adjustments. You can start from scratch or from any supplied preset. These include:
- Apply color filter
- Tweak saturation, both master and per-channel
- Adjust curves, both master and per-channel
- Adjust contrast, both master and per-channel
- Boost/suppress shadows/midtones/highlights, both master and per-channel
- Sharpening similar to Photoshop's Unsharp Mask, option to sharpen brightness only
- Grain, separate amounts for shadow/midtone/highlight, adjustable size and color variation
...and that covers the whole gamut of tools you regularly use for photo correction.
Most of these adjustments are things you can do in Photoshop, too, but Exposure brings them together in a way that's greater than the sum of the parts. For example, let's say you've got photos that are medium-low resolution and you'd like to fix them up for print. Without Exposure, I'd suggest some combo of these Photoshop tools:
- Enlarge image to desired size.
- Apply Unsharp Mask to clean up the edges. Even better, to eliminate color distortion I'd convert to LAB mode first and sharpen only the L (luminosity, a.k.a. brightness) channel.
- Add noise, maybe 3% Guassian.
- Do some color tweaking, let's say I know from experience that my prints look better if I pop the colors a bit ahead of time.
With Exposure, after enlarging the image, you'd create a preset for all the modifications above. This beats a Photoshop action because you can tweak any step at any time, and see the results immediately. Exposure will even show you a left/right split of the before and after images. (Also top/bottom split, diagonal, etc..)
Black and White
While I mostly enjoy color photography, I was pleasantly surprised by Exposure's black-and-white filter options. In addition to standard B/W, you can use it for faux duotones.
The presets include the usual suspects of film and processing, e.g. "Kodak T-MAX 100" and "Kodak TRI-X 400 Pushed 1 Stop." Some presets like "Daguerreotype" and "Negative Blue for Infrared Contrast" are quite fun to play with. I admit I'd never thought of simulating infrared photos by using negative blue in the channel mixer — very clever!
Under the hood, the color settings let you select how to mix the RGB channels to produce the grey image (similar to Photoshop's channel mixer with the "monochrome" option set) plus settings for ink colors and shadow/highlight position (similar to Photoshop's duotone). Note that the result of Exposure's toning is not a true two-channel duotone, it's a RGB image. This will matter if you're printing a duotone with true spot colors.
No question about it, Exposure is a useful tool. It combines all the right photo adjustments into a slick package. There's great presets to start from, and lots of tweak-ability for the power user. Even if you know most of these tricks in Photoshop, Exposure is a great time-saver that can collapse a many-step process into one does-it-all filter, each step ready for instant tweaking.
The killer thing is this: I've been using Photoshop for 15 years and counting, I know it inside and out, and when I pull my best photos into Exposure I'm discovering even better tweaks. It'll make me think, "wow, those colors warmed up nicely, that's exactly what that picture needed" or "bumping up the contrast and adding some grain really makes that picture pop."
Because of that, Exposure adds more than simple convenience. It opens new creative doors, both for dramatic effects (Daguerreotype) and subtle ones (Kodak Ektachrome 100G). I highly recommend it for the avid photographer.