Alien Skin has announced Exposure X3, the latest version of its all in one photo cataloguing, editing, enhancement and effects software. It boasts a series of new features which make it an even stronger competitor in the enthusiast/pro image-editing market.
Exposure X3 is designed not just to provide everyday photo enhancements, but also to recreate the powerful and evocative look of classic analog photography, simulating classic films and darkroom techniques, as well as grain, vignettes, textures, borders and light leaks.
It can also work as a plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom, but it’s in the standalone app’s organisation tools that Alien Skin has made some of its biggest strides, with Collections, keywords and a side-by-side mode for comparing images.
New organising features
Collections are a way of gathering together related images ‘virtually’ without changing their location in the folders on your hard disk. This is a great feature to have in a program that’s still essentially a straightforward folder browsing tool – you get many of the advantages of an image cataloguing system but without having to import your images into a catalog.
Exposure X3 doesn’t offer smart collections yet, where the collections are displayed according to chosen search criteria, but that’s no doubt on Alien Skin’s radar. You can arrange collections into a hierarchical filing system, though, rather than storing them as one long linear list.
And Exposure X3 does now support keywords, which has been a bit of an omission up until now. This will make it much easier to search for images within folders, collections and across your whole image library. You can choose whether or not keywords are embedded when you export image files and, like collections, keywords can be arranged into a hierarchical system.
Exposure X3 also makes it easier to review and cull your images straight after a shoot, using its new side-by-side display modes. Many image browsers let you compare a selection of similar images side by side so that you can select the best, but Exposure X3’s implementation is typically thorough. You’re limited to a maximum of four images at a time, but within this you have a great deal of flexibility. When you zoom in and pan to check for details, for example, all of the images zoom and move in unison. And you can ‘pin’ your favourite image and then choose others from the filmstrip to compare it to.
New editing tools
Cleverly, this same split-screen display can be used to ‘audition’ up to four different presets at a time. This means you can compare effects directly before committing to one or the other, instead of using the old method which was to select an effect, undo it if you didn’t like it and try another – hoping you can remember the first well enough to make a proper comparison.
This is actually a really clever idea that can save a lot of trial and error. It makes it easier to try out Exposure X3’s great range of preset image effects, which are right at the heart of this program’s power. And this new release goes a step further with the introduction of Virtual Copies.
Increasingly, these are becoming a standard fixture for non-destructive image-editing programs, so it’s great to see them appearing here too, because they really make the most of the potential this software offers.
With Virtual Copies, you can try out a new version of a photo without creating a new file and gobbling up space on your computer. Instead, the adjustments are saved as processing metadata rather than as a new image. You can create as many Virtual Copies as you like from one photo to produce multiple artistic interpretations of the same image.
There’s one more highly significant addition to the editing tools. Exposure X3 uses a system of internal adjustment layers to apply effects and local adjustments cumulatively, using layer masks. Until now, masks were created using a simple freehand brush tool, but now Exposure X3 gets radial and linear masks too. This makes a huge difference. You can tone down bright skies, lighten dark foregrounds and create precise vignette and ‘relighting’ effects much more quickly and smoothly than before.
With these new features you might argue that Exposure X3 is simply playing catchup with programs like Lightroom and Capture One, but don’t forget this is not a professional cataloguing program, it’s a creative, artistic effects tool first and foremost, so its new organisational abilities in particular go above and beyond what you might expect.
How it works
There are two ways of using Exposure X3 – as a plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom, or as a standalone tool to replace both.
In standalone mode, its folder-based filing system is fast and efficient and the new support for Collections, keywords and side by side comparisons makes it a great tool for browsing and culling the results from a shoot and selecting the images you want to edit.
That would typically be the first step in your workflow. You can then go on to organise your images more thoroughly with Collections and keywords and choose which images you want to edit further.
You can go about this in different ways. You can take the typical ‘Photoshop’ approach and use regular image adjustments including white balance, curves and sharpening to enhance your images in the normal way.
Or, you can choose a specific ‘look’ from Exposure 3’s large library of preset effects, and that’s where this program really shines. These effects are built up from various combinations of settings in the tools panel, so you can use them ‘straight’ or reverse-engineer them with your own manual tweaks and adjustments.
The internal layers system means you can combine different presets and blend them with layer masks. This combination of instant preset effects and manual mode offers a quick and efficient way of getting your own custom ‘look’.
All of these adjustments are stored non-destructively, so you can go back and change them at any time. But do bear in mind that, as with all non-destructive editing apps, your changes will only be visible within the software itself and are only baked into an image file when you render (export) a TIFF or JPEG of your edited image.
Exposure X3 runs pretty well on my modestly-specced MacBook Pro. Image browsing is fast and image effects render quickly. I did run into split-second lag on some sliders with more complex effects, but nothing too irksome.
You can work directly on RAW files, too. Exposure X3 uses automatic lens correction profiles behind the scenes to straighten out lens distortion, and there are manual controls if there’s no profile for your lens.
It didn’t take out chromatic aberration in some of my RAW files, unfortunately, so a checkbox or slider to fix that would have been good. I am quite picky about RAWs, though, so I’d probably do my RAW conversions elsewhere anyway, but that’s just me. Certainly, being able to edit RAW files directly is useful, especially for localised adjustments, because you can recover highlight, shadow or colour information simply not present in JPEGs.
The localised adjustment tools work very well, especially with the addition of the radial and gradient mask tools. Exposure X3 doesn’t have the powerful dynamic range controls of Lightroom or Capture One Pro, but local adjustments are a perfectly good alternative and can encourage you to do the ‘right’ adjustments for each image rather than relying on indiscriminate global adjustments.
There are a couple more things it would be good to have, such as perspective adjustments, the ability to stack and group images and maybe a cloud synchronisation and mobile app – but it’s easy to get sucked into wanting more and more when this software already does so much.
On the subject of cloud syncing, Exposure 3 has one very useful feature – it saves all its adjustments as metadata files inside a folder alongside your original images, and not in a centralised library file.
This means that you or someone else can view your images on Dropbox, Google drive or iCloud drive on another machine, running another installation of Exposure X3, and see exactly the same adjustments.
Alien Skin Exposure X3 has come a long, long way from its origins as an analog effects plug-in. The addition of standalone capability and now quite powerful image organising tools mean you could use this software for your complete end-to-end workflow. Many enthusiasts and professionals don’t need the database-driven cataloguing systems of Lightroom and Capture One Pro and are happier with the more easily understood folder-based filing system used here – especially since users now get the advantages of Collections and Virtual Copies.
Exposure X3’s effects are beautiful and varied, and its approach is subtler and less frenetic than some. There are no wildly exaggerated HDR looks or over-the-top colour manipulations here, thank goodness.
There are certainly cheaper all-in-one tools than this one, but Exposure X3 has a breadth, a clean efficiency and a ‘class’ that makes it feel well worth the money.
Alien Skin Exposure X3 is available to buy now from the alienskin.com website for $149, or $99 if you’re upgrading from a previous version. There’s also a 30-day free trial.