Verdict: 4.5 stars
Exposure X5 is still the go-to tool for recreating the atmosphere and depth of analog film. Its presets are one of its best assets, and clearly developed with a keen creative eye and a love for past film and darkroom ‘looks’. But Exposure X5 is a modern image-editing tool too, with a straightforward but highly effective image browsing and cataloguing system, powerful everyday image editing, correcting and enhancement tools and some forward looking lo-fi, cinematic and contemporary looks too.
+ Simple but effective browsing and cataloguing tools
+ Beautiful analog film effects
+ Now supports LUTs
+ Virtual copies for multiple ‘looks’
+ Much-improved lens corrections
+ Flexible layer and masking system for building ‘looks’
– Adjustment layers, but no support for image layers/montages
– More expensive than some rivals
– Not the best at RAW processing, notably X-Trans files
Exposure X5 is an all in one photo browsing, organising and editing tool that specialises in analog film effects, darkroom techniques and vintage ‘looks’. It’s not lodged in the past, though – it also offers a growing range of contemporary effects and presets, not to mention a very comprehensive set of regular editing tools for everyday image correction, retouching and enhancement.
Exposure X5 is now published by Exposure Software. Alien Skin has changed its name to reflect its most important software application. Otherwise, though, it’s business as usual, and the launch of Exposure X5 has not changed the look and feel of the software in any significant way, but it has added some useful new features.
In principle, Exposure X5 sounds similar to rival all in one programs like ON1 Photo RAW and Skylum Luminar 4. In practice, it has a completely different character. The other two programs are great for dramatic effects (especially Luminar’s AI and augmented reality), wide-ranging tools and value for money. Exposure X5 is grounded more in classic photographic styles, subtle atmospheres and rich, evocative imagery. It’s less about digital spectacle, more about classical photographic techniques.
That’s not to say it can’t do drama. Its ‘Border – Negative (Kodalith)’ preset sounds as dry as dust, but it produces a high contrast graphic black and white style that is both captivating and an echo of the best chemical prints. The ‘Blue and Yellow’ preset, meanwhile, sounds equally technical, but gives color shots a glorious richness that goes beyond a simple saturation boost and uses complementary hues to add color contrast.
These are just two of a large library of preset effects in Exposure X5. This version adds yet more, including new ‘light and airy’, ‘season inspired’ and ‘complementary color presets (Orange/Teal, Red/Green, Purple/Yellow)’, plus more black and white film simulations including Ilford FP4 Plus, Ilford Pan F Plus, Kodak Recording 2475, and Polaroid Chocolate.
The point about Exposure X5’s presets is not that they use any magic tools, but that they’ve been prepared with a considerable amount of creative judgement and finesse. Its only serious rival in this respect is DxO, and here you really might be torn. DxO FilmPack 5 takes the same rigorous approach to film simulation as Exposure X5, and Analog Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro in the DxO Nik Collection are pretty spectacular tools in their own right. DxO PhotoLab, the engine at the heart of the DxO ecosystem, does not have Exposure X5’s organising tools, though, and the full DxO software costs a lot more.
The fact is, analog film fans should probably try both Exposure X5 and the DxO Nik Collection, each of which is pretty special in its own way.
How it works
Exposure started out as a Photoshop and Lightroom plug-in and can still be used in that mode, and as an external editor for Capture One, for example, but Exposure X has evolved so that it can also be used as a standalone program with its own integrated photo browsing and cataloguing tools.
Like Lightroom, Exposure X5 is a fully non-destructive photo editor. All the adjustments you make to your photos are ‘virtual’ and fully reversible. You can create new, ‘processed’ versions of your photos at will, while leaving the originals unaltered and intact. What’s different, though, is that its effects and overlays go far beyond anything you can achieve in Lightroom.
The only thing that Exposure X5 can’t currently do is combine multiple images in layers to create composites. For this you’ll still need a program like Affinity Photo or Photoshop – ON1 Photo RAW and Luminar 4 support image layers too.
One of the big complaints about Lightroom is that it makes you import your photos into its Library before you can work on them and doesn’t automatically update if you make changes outside of it, such as adding more images, renaming files or moving photos around.
Exposure X5 works in a very different, rather clever way. You still have to choose the folders you want it to organise by adding them as ‘bookmarks’, so you can’t just take a look at the contents of any random folder – you do need some kind of filing system.
The difference is, though, that Exposure X5 will react ‘live’ to any changes within these folders, even if they’re made outside the program. For many users this will be a much smarter system, and it’s one also used by ON1 Photo RAW and Skylum Luminar. The only danger is that if you use other software to move files, they might get separated from the adjustment data created by Exposure X5, which is stored in a subfolder alongside your images. If you have made adjustments, it is best to use Exposure X5 to move any files subsequently.
Once a folder is ‘bookmarked’, you can browse its folders and subfolders at will. But they’re also indexed and catalogued, so you can search for photos using keywords or other image metadata right across your photo library.
You can also create Collections to bring related images together ‘virtually’ rather than changing their folder location. A single image can only be in one folder, but it can be in as many Collections as you like.
Better still, in Exposure X4, Alien Skin added Smart Collections. With these, instead of adding photos manually, you simply specific a set of conditions – a particular camera or lens, for example, or a particular keyword – and Exposure X5 will populate the Smart Collection automatically with matching images.
Exposure X5 is not the fastest search tool out there – it can sometimes take a few seconds to scan a folder or find matching photos for a Smart Collection. Otherwise, it is very good at organising your photos. It’s easy to understand how it works, it’s pretty quickly for the most part, it’s flexible, and once you’ve specified a top folder for your photo collection, any sub-folders you add will be catalogued automatically.
Exposure X5 is a non-destructive photo editor. That means all its changes are stored as processing instructions in separate ‘metadata’ files stored in the same folder. They’re not applied permanently to the photo unless you export it as a new, processed file – the original photo remains unaltered.
Exposure X5 is like Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic, Capture One Pro and ON1 Photo RAW in this respect. It’s a great system because you can go back and change the settings at any time, and you can create ‘virtual’ copies with different settings, without creating duplicate photos on your hard disk.
Exposure X5 can edit any kind of image file, including JPEGs, TIFFs and RAW files. (It supports the vast majority of camera RAW formats, but you may have to wait a few weeks for support to be added for very new camera models). At the time of writing it still doesn’t support RAW files from the new Nikon D780, for example.
Alien Skin has added improved highlight and shadow recovery tools for RAW files in recent versions, which makes it easier to extract the maximum tonal information from your files. It’s still not quite the best RAW converter out there, however, particularly for sharpness and noise control. Exposure X5 does a good job with RAW files from regular bayer sensor cameras, but while it does support Fujifilm X-Trans files, they have a somewhat soft and noisy look compared to what you get from Lightroom and Capture One – Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom are good for wide camera/lens support and local adjustments, too. You can use Exposure X5 as a plug-in for LIghtroom and an external editor for Capture One if you’d rather use those programs for your RAW processing.
Nevertheless, Exposure X5 does do a decent job with most camera RAW formats and delivers more colour and tonal data than you’d get from JPEGs. It also applies automatic lens correction profiles, and these have been substantially upgraded in Exposure X5 with manual aberration correction tools alongside the automatic profiles, new chromatic aberration removal tools (which it badly needed before) and a special fringe removal tool for more obstinate color fringing.
Exposure X5 does not offer support for combining image layers, so you can’t add a new sky to a landscape, for example. But it does offer adjustment layers and masks for combining adjustments and effects. If what you need is a tool for enhancing single images rather than creating composites, it has all the power you’re likely to need.
You can create as many adjustment layers as you like, and apply the full range of editing tools and image effects to any of them. You can create layer masks manually using a brush tool, or with a gradient or radial mask tool.
Its strong point is its array of traditional ‘analog’ film and darkroom effects, but Exposure X5 is also a very competent everyday photo editor, offering curves/levels adjustments, sharpness and noise reduction, cropping, retouching, colour adjustments and – new in version 4 – comprehensive perspective correction tools for fixing skewed images, converging verticals in shots of tall buildings and more.
Exposure X5 analog effects and film looks
It’s a great all-round photo organising and editing tool, but most users will choose Exposure X5 for its library of analog effects presets. These are organised into Colour and Black and White categories and into sub-categories within these, such as ‘Cinema’ effects or ‘B&W film’ looks.
Each of these presets is made using settings applied in the tools panel on the right, so it’s easy to see how they’ve been achieved, modify them and create your own. You can build your own effects manually from scratch, but the presets give you a useful head start and also give you ideas for ways to process your pictures that you might not have thought of otherwise.
The key to many of Exposure X5’s signature ‘looks’ is its Overlays panel. This has three sections for Borders, Light Effects and Textures. You can use a Border overlay to add an authentic-looking negative frame or print border, and use Textures to apply dust, scratches or a mottled ‘distressed’ look.
The Light Effects tools have been updated. Originally designed to simulate the ‘light leaks’ of cheap or vintage cameras, these are now highly adjustable – you can move the effect around, change its zoom setting or opacity and even rotate the effect. From being simply a tool to make pictures look as if they were taken on an old camera, the Light Effects can now be used to add simulated window flare or a hazy low sun effect to any kind of picture to add atmosphere. There are new Lens Flare and Haze overlays (as fo version 4.5) for adding atmosphere to your images.
Exposure X5 has other tools for creating these film-like effects. It can simulate many different types of film grain, for example, with an amazing degree of control – although it does sometimes look as if the grain is sitting ‘on top’ of the image detail rather than eroding it in the way you might expect.
The big new addition in Exposure X4.5 was the new LUTs panel. LUT stands for Look-Up Table and it’s a way of applying an instant tone and colour shift to an image. Exposure X5 comes with a selection of LUTs and you can easily import more – I tried it with LUTS from Lutify.me. Read this Lutify Q&A to find out more about LUTs.
Exposure has implemented LUTs support perfectly, right from the start. You can organise them into categories and preview them ‘live’ in the LUTs panel before you choose which on to apply to your image. Exposure X5’s regular adjustment tools work as normal alongside these LUTs.
With Exposure X5’s other tools you can apply vignette effects with an unexpected depth of control and very sophisticated Bokeh effects using round or ‘planar’ zones of sharp focus to simulate a very tight focal point, shallow depth of field and tilt-shift lens effects.
There’s even a panel dedicated to infra-red (IR) glow and halation effects to add an ethereal glow to black and white shots or a soft-focus effect to colour portraits.
The rest of Exposure X5’s film ‘looks’ are applied using sometimes ingenious combinations of colour and tonal control applied in a subtle and intelligent way. Individually, its adjustments can appear small and relatively insignificant, but cumulatively they can produce colour and tonal shifts of great subtlety. Lots of programs have the same or similar tools as these, but Exposure X4.5’s designers seem to have harnessed them in a particularly harmonious and effective way.
What’s new and is it worth upgrading?
Some of the new features in Exposure X5 have already been mentioned, including the new lens aberration corrections, new presets and new film looks. But there’s more.
The masking tools now have a new 3D color masking feature, where you can control the tones affected by a mask according to their hue, saturation, luminosity or all three. It’s like the Color Range option in Lightroom and the luminosity masking in Capture One. This means, in principle, that you can adjust different and specific areas of an image without having to create an accurate mask. Another example might be using a linear mask to darken a sky and then using the tools to prevent a tall building reaching up into the sky from being darkened at the same time.
It’s not as easy to get good results as you might hope. It’s particularly difficult to control the ‘spill’ of adjustments into neighboring tones while at the same time avoiding harsh and unnatural transitions. It’s an idea that should work brilliantly, except that real life subjects aren’t always very obliging. The equivalent features in Lightroom and Capture One have the same issues. It’s actually quite rare to have an image with sufficiently clear-cut tonal transitions to respond well to this selective masking process.
Other new features in Exposure X5 include the ability to assign custom camera profiles to specific camera models and even ISO settings – handy for photographers with a color-managed workflow – and support for greyscale images. Most photographers these days will work in RGB even for monochromatic images, but there may be some who don’t. It’s now possible to flip images too – occasionally it is useful to apply lateral reversal.
So is it worth paying $99 to upgrade from the previous version? The step up in features from Exposure X4.5 is useful but it doesn’t definitely feel worth the upgrade price right now, though there is definitely value in keeping up to date with the latest version regardless, and there may be further X5.x updates along the way.
The less obvious reason for upgrading is that you get to stay up to date with the newest camera RAW formats. There’s no guarantee that every new camera will be supported, but you can check the current list of supported RAW formats on the Alien Skin website.
As a photo organising tool, Exposure X5 is straightforward, efficient and surprisingly powerful. It doesn’t offer multi-layer composites, panoramas, focus-stacking or 360 editing, but as an everyday photo enhancement, editing and retouching tool it’s rather good. Its strength, though, is its huge and evocative range of film-like effects and adjustment tools, and the subtlety with which you can combine them.
It’s a shame its RAW conversions don’t have slightly better noise control (notably for X-Trans files), but the new lens aberration and chromatic aberration options are a very useful step forward from the previous edition.
If you’re the sort of person who checks off a long list of required features against purchase cost and doesn’t really look any further than that, then Alien Skin Exposure X5 is unlikely to appeal. You can get the same tools and more for a good deal less money than this.
But if you’re attempting to capture atmosphere and an elusive analog ‘feel’, and you’re prepared to judge results by how they look rather than what they cost, then it’s worth every cent (or penny, here in the UK). Exposure X5 does have a few flaws, but they’re easily outweighed by the deceptive simplicity of its workspace and the depth, range and richness of the looks it can create.