Quite a few years ago I reviewed the original Alien Skin Exposure Photoshop plugin for Nikongear.com. It was probably one of the first reviews I ever wrote. I used Exposure film simulations in almost every bit of processing I did back then to the point where it was almost like it become an extension of my editing signature. I was especially fond of the Velvia and Kodachrome 64, as well as the Konica 750 IR and Ilford B&W film simulations.
Over the years I stopped using Photoshop and with it went my extensive use of Exposure. Somehow it stayed off my radar until just the other day when I saw on my Facebook Photography List that they have now released Exposure 5 which also operates as a stand alone program. I thought I would give it a try.
You know that song from the Rocky Horror? The one where they all stand around with their hands on their hips, doing pelvic thrusts and jumping to the left? Yeah, they called it the "Time Warp". Well, there should be a warning label on this software to let users know that they may just find themselves going through the time warp once they start playing with it. Let me explain.
There are so many film simulations and other customisable bits to this piece of software that if you're not careful you'll find yourself totally losing all track of time. I opened up an image at lunchtime on my first day of trying it out and before I knew it dinner time had arrived and I was nowhere near done with checking out all the cool things I could do to this very mundane image of mine.
There are not only a myriad of film simulations available, but now you can also customise them in terms of the amount of grain you want on them, the size of the grain, whether you want to push the process by up to three stops, the roughness of the grain, the amounts of it there are in the shadows, mid-tones and highlights and even its relative size to the film format you're simulating.
If that's not enough to send you off into a form of semi-lucid wonder there are also customisable settings for the tone curve, focus (think sharpening settings), colour, Infra-Red, vignettes and borders & textures to play with. You can save any of your settings under these parameters as a preset too. That's just in case you don't find the ones Alien Skin have already loaded for you to be enough. The borders and textures are pretty funky, but I suspect they are only there for those people who like to make art out of what would normally be rejected images. They certainly do lend an air of credibility to some of my less inspired moments behind the viewfinder.
OK, with that said, let me walk you through some of the features and the interface.
click to enlarge
If you're a Lightroom user you're going to recognise the interface immediately. It looks and (almost) behaves exactly as Lightroom does. There's a couple of collapsible panels on either side of the screen. The one on the left shows you a whole bunch of presets together with a small preview of what you can expect them to do to your image.
This is actually a very cool way of doing things because there is also a search box in there, so if you want to find any of the presets that emulate Ilford, just type it in and they will appear in the panel. You can also set up the preset panel to show two or three columns of previews, which is great if you are working on a small screen. I have this installed on my 13" MacBook, so when I am away from the 27" extended monitor things get a bit tiny. Nice touch from Alien Skin.
On the right side of the screen is the Time Warp panel. OK, sorry, let's call it the "Customisation Panel" just in case it scares those of you with attention deficit issues off. This panel has a Navigator window with a little square you can drag around to focus on any part of the image if your view is zoomed in a bit. Speaking of zoomed in views, you can choose from a myriad of different presets for the zoom level as there isn't a slider for setting that.
Just below the Navigator you will see a slider for "Overall Intensity". What this does is exactly what it says, but it doesn't affect only one of the customisations, it affects them all. You can adjust the intensity of any of the individual customisations from within their own interface panels.
The customisations you can play with are as follows:
There's a lot of sliders and stuff in here that look kind of intimidating to me. Things like Density, Luminosity, Colour Sensitivity, etc, etc... There are also presets in here and you can save your own settings as a new preset if you're not as daunted as I am when it comes to messing around with colour.
This is something I am not that afraid to play with and the interface will be quite familiar to anyone who's used an Adobe product in the past 5 or 10 years. There's a curves graph you can twist and bend to your liking, as well as eyedropper icons you can click on to select the areas of your image that you want to make pure black, white or set at the mid grey point, as well as sliders for the contrast, shadows, midtones and highlights.
Another cool aspect of this customisation parameter is that you can set up a split tone between two colours for duo-toned images, choosing from just about any of the colours in the gamut of your image to play with.
This is not dissimilar to the Photoshop Unsharp Mask settings where you can sharpen or blur images using a series of three sliders for the amount, radius and threshold.
The grain customisation settings are very cool. You can select from a number of presets that Alien Skin have put in there as a starting point, then work out what looks best to your eye by playing with the sliders as mentioned earlier on in this review.
If you're looking to make things glow in the light, this is the place for it! The IR purists will cry foul. Whether you chose to cry with them or not is entirely up to you.
The settings to control the amount of vignetting you want range from the size of it right down to the ominously named "Lump Size". Go crazy.
Border & Textures
This is where it all began to fall apart for my sense of reality. After you've gone through the customisations above, you reach the bottom of the list and suddenly you find yourself being able to choose from a multitude of borders, light effects and dust & scratch simulations. There are truckloads of them that can be selected and manipulated in terms of their orientation and brightness inversions (black or white). The Instagram crowd will be in their element with this.
How To Work With Exposure 5
As I said at the beginning, you can run this program as a stand alone application, or as a plugin to Photoshop and/or Lightroom to suit your particular workflow. As a plugin the options are exactly the same as the stand-alone.
You can also set it up to run batches of filters if you're that way inclined. Very simple. Just tell it where the images are and once you've selected the ones you want to process it adds them to a development queue. Hit the Save button and it will ask you for a destination folder. The next step sends a processed image to the desired location.
When you're working with Exposure 5 in its stand alone guise, the file output will match what you feed into it. So, for instance if you bring in a JPG, you're going to take out a JPG, or if you bring in a TIFF you'll get back a new TIFF. It doesn't overwrite your original file.
In Lightroom you right-click on an image, select Edit In>Exposure 5 and it will ask you what format you want to edit that RAW file in, whether you want to do it with existing Lr edits or not, plus a few other options. Once you're done in Exposure 5 the treated file is brought directly into your catalogue in the format you specified at the beginning. Neat.
I'm not sure how it works in Photoshop, but if memory serves me it used to create a new layer with the adjustments on it, which you could then save as a PSD or flatten and save in a different way.
Here's some examples of my bad photos with an "artsy" twist.
Vignette with big blobs and border (Fuji 1600 Neopan, I think?)
Can't remember the film type, but the border is cool!
Some Before & After Samples
I went a bit nuts on this one, using a light leak filter and a grunge border.
With this shot I opted for a Tri-X400 pushed 2 stops B&W conversion with a plain border.
Exposure 5 has definitely come of age and it offers users a lot of different ways to fiddle with images to get more sparkle out of them. It's not a cheap plugin, weighing in at $200 (more than Lightroom itself), but if you have an existing license from any of the previous versions you get the upgrade at $99, which I think is entirely fair considering the quality of the app.
You can get a demo or buy the plugin from Alien Skin's website.
If you've tried it yourself, please leave your own comments and sample images as replies here. I will add more samples as I go.
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I did some property photography down our south coast yesterday. This place is right on the beach, so I did a 180˚ panorama standing near the shoreline. Not the greatest bit of stitching Lightroom has ever done - you can see where it messed up the horizon on the ocean.
By Luc de Schepper
I've been working with Lightroom for about three years now and besides the sub-optimal Fuji X-Trans RAW conversion I'm fairly happy with the results. However, with my Olympus RAW files I have the impression the results could be better. I've tried Olympus Viewer software, the results are ok but it's glacial slow speed is a deal breaker for me. So tonight I tried DXO. And first impressions are very positive with Olympus ORF/RAW files. See the examples below, please view original size.
Anyone else with DXO experience?