Alien Skin Exposure started out a long time ago as a plug-in for simulating the look of classic fashioned films and processing techniques, but it’s evolved into something a whole lot more. It still has a large library of film effects at its core but it can now operate as a standalone application, not just a plug-in, and it has its own built-in browsing tools too. What was once a plug-in could now be the only image-editing tool you need, so our Alien Skin Exposure X2 review is long overdue.
Exposure X might not be as well-known as Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One Pro, DxO Optics Pro and all the rest, but it surely deserves just the same attention. Its presets look marvellous, its tools are extensive and it’s bang up to speed with the latest software developments.
These include fully non-destructive editing. All your changes, even those which use ‘bitmap’ effects like dust and scratches, textures and light leaks, are stored as processing metadata in the same folder as your photos. These remain unaltered throughout, so if you want JPEG or TIFF versions of your edited photos, Exposure X2 exports them as new files.
It can also work with RAW files as well as JPEGs, with no intermediate ‘development’ stage. Alien Skin publishes a list of Exposure X2 supported cameras. It doesn’t stop there. It also offers automatic lens corrections, a feature most software vendors would shout about. Here, though, it’s something you almost stumble across in passing. If you’re interested, check out Alien Skin’s list of Exposure X2 supported lenses.
Exposure X2 doesn’t just do film effects, either. These form the core of its effects presets and many of its tools, but you can use it for regular image-editing and enhancement too, and replicate modern digital looks as well as classic styles.
Exposure X2 image browsing
Unlike some rival applications with a series of workflow ‘modules’, everything in Exposure X2 happens within a single user interface. This is where you carry out the two main activities – organising and editing.
The organisational tools are relatively basic but also powerful in their own way. Exposure X2 uses a simple folder-based browser rather than the catalog approach used by Lightroom and some other apps. Folder-based organisation is intuitive and effective and many photographers are perfectly happy to sacrifice a little organisational power for the sake of simplicity. I’m not one of them, but I know plenty who are.
Exposure X2 does add a few features to the folder browsing experience to make it more speedy and effective across large image collections. It’s based around the Folders panel, which shows image folders exactly as they’re stored on your hard disk. You can move folders and rename or trash files just as if you were using the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer.
When you click on a folder, Exposure X2 displays its contents as thumbnail images. If the folder contains further sub-folders, you can view the contents of these too, by clicking the ‘Include images from subfolders’ icon at the top of the Folders panel. This means you can view a whole year’s worth of images at a time, for example – they’re all displayed in the main window in a long scrolling list broken up by headings for each of the folders.
This does make a difference to Exposure X2’s effectiveness as an image search tool. You can use flags, ratings and colour labels to identify your best photos or those you want to edit or export, and with the subfolder display option you can filter a folder of images or a whole year’s worth, for example.
However, there are things you don’t get. Exposure X2 can do fancy things like editing image metadata to change the image capture time (handy if you forgot to set the time and date correctly on your camera) but it doesn’t support keywords – which is quite a surprise.
You can’t create albums/collections, either, or smart collections, so while Exposure X2’s browsing tools are pretty quick and effective for a certain kind of workflow, it’s still some way from being a full-blown cataloguing tool.
Exposure X2 effects tools
It’s early days for Exposure X2’s organisational tools, but its analog effect simulations and presets are well established. Here, though, Alien Skin has found new ways to present, apply and edit them that make a big difference.
Essentially you have three ways of creating an effect – and Exposure X2 uses the same system as most other effects apps.
First, you can select an effect preset ‘off the shelf’ from the Presets panel. These presets are organised first into sections (All, Color, B&W, Favorite, User) and then into categories with each one (Bokeh, Bright, Cinema and so on). Each category expands to show thumbnails of its effects applied live to your photo.
Second, because each of these preset effects is assembled from a selection of individual tools, you can edit these settings manually to tune the effect to your liking. If your photo was underexposed, for example, you can adjust the Exposure slider in the Basic tool panel, or if the Vignette is too strong you can soften it in the Vignette panel.
Third, you might decide to build a custom effect of your own, or to use Exposure X2 simply as an image enhancement tool. In this case, you can ignore the presets, go straight to the manual tools and start working – you can save custom user presets too.
These tools are pretty powerful, particularly when you’re recreating analog film and darkroom effects with borders, light effects and textures. Exposure X2 also offers bokeh and vignette effects. In this version, though, Alien Skin has added a layers system for combining effects and filters and with local adjustments via layer masking tools. You only get a masking brush – adding gradient and radial mask tool would be better still – but it’s a start, and it greatly extends the effects and the control this program offers.
There is so much to experiment with here that it could take a very long time to exhaust Exposure X2’s repertoire. It feels like it’s designed more for image ‘artists’ rather than technicians, which is part of its appeal.
What’s new in Exposure X2
The new layering system isn’t the only thing to have changed. There are new preset categories too, including Platinum Print presets with ‘expanded midtone greys’ and a range of toning effects, plus new Bright presets with reduced contrast for outdoor portraits and weddings.
The export system has been given an overhaul with a Quick Export feature for multiple simultaneous exports using presets for Facebook and Twitter, for example, and preset you create for your own purposes.
Selective presets now give you greater control when copying and pasting adjustments between images, and this works particularly well with the new layering system.
Alien Skin has also expanded the camera and lens support in its latest update, to include new cameras from Fujifilm, Canon and Samsung and new Fujifilm lenses. It’s now possible to turn the automatic distortion correction on and off, should you want to, adjust the amount of distortion manually or even swap to a different lens correction profile.
Exposure X2 is a very interesting and exciting application. Its features and tools are expanding rapidly, so inevitably it’s entering new territory where it faces well-established rivals, and there are – for now – some gaps in its features. The browsing and organising tools really need keyword support and perhaps album/collection tools to offer a convincing alternative to the likes of Lightroom, and it’s a real shame that you can’t create ‘virtual copies’ of photos to try out different looks without creating new files.
But the fact that it can now operate as a standalone app, not just as a plug-in, and offer a full end-to-end workflow, is really impressive, as is the fact that it can open and edit RAW files just as if they were JPEGs – although, good as its results are, I think I’d rather run my RAWs through a dedicated RAW processor first. Exposure X2 left my Fujifilm RAF images looking rather flat, but it’s not alone in that respect (Lightroom’s default RAW profiles can be especially lacklustre) and selecting one of the Fuji film simulation presets fixes it easily enough. I’m not convinced Exposure X2 processes out chromatic aberration as well as Lightroom, DxO Optics Pro or Capture One Pro, but for an all-in-one app, its RAW conversions are pretty good.
And you do have to admire Exposure X2’s analog film effects. Exposure X2 really does capture the spirit and feel of analog photography and embraces the full history of photographic processes, right back to Ambrotypes, Daguerreotypes and Autochromes. It does this using a selection of adjustment tools that also lend themselves to regular image enhancements.
Exposure X2’s closest rival is probably ON1 Photo RAW 2017, which also offers an end-to-end workflow. Photo RAW 2017 can also create layered image montages, though Exposure X2 has – for me – a better and more cohesive set of editing tools, especially for recapturing atmospheric analog looks. MacPhun Luminar operates on a similar principle, but it’s designed for more contemporary digital effects.
There’s also DxO FilmPack 5, which produces some really nice analog looks but is scuppered by its lack of localised adjustments, and Google Analog Efex Pro, which delivers some weird and wonderful effects and is completely free as part of the Google Nik Collection but only works properly as a plug-in.
If you love analog film effects, you really should take a look at Alien Skin Exposure X2 – but download the trial version and give it a proper test before you decide, because at its regular price of $149 it’s certainly not the cheapest analog option on the market.
It’s subtler than Analog Efex Pro (a bucket of iced water tipped over your head is subtler than Analog Efex Pro), it feels neater and more effective for analog effects than ON1 Photo RAW 2017 and it’s way more powerful than DxO FilmPack 5.
And even if you decide its browser-based organisational tools are not for you, and that you prefer to process your RAWs elsewhere, don’t forget it also works as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop.