Product Review: Alien Skin Software Exposure 4

August 8, 2012

By Dan Havlik

There’s something about film that photographers will never get over. It’s a love affair that seems to have gotten more passionate as traditional film stocks for photography have faded.

Get cornered by a film-loving photographer at a cocktail party and you’re likely to hear a lament about Kodak’s bankruptcy, the recent discontinuation of several notable film stocks, and the shuttering of traditional film labs left and right.

Which is why software programs like Alien Skin Software’s Exposure 4 continue to attract attention. Of all the simulated film plug-ins I’ve tried, Exposure 4 is one of the most extensive, offering an array of film looks for your digital images, including many that use actual stock names from Kodak, Fuji, Agfa, Ilford, Polaroid and others.

Though I don’t miss shooting with film as much as some of my friends, I love programs like Exposure 4 not just because they keep film styles alive but because they do it with such ease and aplomb.

Indeed, opening an image in Exposure 4 is like going to an all-you-can-eat analogue buffet and pigging out on Velvia, Scala, Kodachrome and dozens of others at the click of a button.

But like an all-you-can-eat restaurant, you can get full quickly with this plug-in. I’m also not 100 percent sure how good it is for you. With Exposure 4 though, it’s a probably best to just dive in and worry about that stuff later.

Exposure’s interface has gotten a revamp since the previous version and now it’s fast and as clean as a whistle, if a little bland. The blandness—a neutral gray background around your image, and basic sliders and one-click settings on the either side—didn’t bother me so much, though. In fact, I preferred it to most plug-ins, which try so hard to emulate Photoshop’s Lightroom that they often feel claustrophobic and cluttered.

Alien Skin Software also seems to have made some changes under the hood because Exposure 4 really hums. When you access the plug-in via the Filter drop-down menu in Photoshop, your image opens in a separate Exposure window outside of Photoshop. To go back to Photoshop, you have to press the “OK” button in Exposure, which automatically closes the plug-in. That’s a little annoying since you have to reopen it to return to Exposure. Can’t they just run side by side?

A thumbnail preview in the upper left-hand corner displays whatever Exposure effect is being tried on your image. The style is shown instantaneously on the thumbnail just by hovering your mouse over it. This is a super-fast way to get an idea of a film look before you actually apply it, but I did wish the thumbnail were a little bigger.

That’s a minor quibble since clicking on a particular effect, such as “Fuji Real – Pushed 1 Stop” to name just one of the myriad of factory presets, immediately applies the look to your full image in the main display panel.

There are so many presets—not to mention all the custom effects you can create and save—it can be overwhelming. There’s a helpful search box if you want to track down, for instance, only the “vintage” looks or all of the Fuji effects. There are also one-click buttons to let you see just the “Color” or just the “Black & White” effects.

While the left side panel has the presets, the right side offers you a variety of sliders and settings for customization. There are tabs to adjust the parameters of each setting and an overall intensity slider to determine how powerful you want, for instance, “Postcard – Extreme Blue Fading” or “Kodak Ektachrome EIR (color infrared)” to appear on your images.

You can also disable simulated grain (remember film grain?) from all the settings if you’d like or use the Age tab to add and control vignettes. Finally, you can set and save your own group preset if there’s a particular look you’ve created that you plan to use again.

You might find some of the new “Texture” additions a little cheesy. For instance you can add multiple varieties of “Dust & Scratches” and “Light Leaks” to your images. (Remember back when we were always trying to get rid of that stuff?) You’ve got to admire Alien Skin Software’s developers for creating these “error” effects; they do look authentic.

Other new additions to Exposure 4 include borders and presets for alternative photographic processes including cyanotype, lith printing and wet plate. It’s all a little dizzying but, like a Las Vegas buffet inhaled at midnight after a long day at the craps table, I enjoyed it while it was happening.

OK, perhaps I was being a bit too flippant with that last comment. As I mentioned earlier in this review, I have a fondness for film but not the same kind of longing for the “good old days” of analogue as some of my photographer friends. After playing around with Alien Skin Software’s Exposure 4 for just a few minutes however, I quickly remembered the eye-catching distinctiveness that specific film stocks added to my images and started to feel a little teary-eyed that the film industry has been in such a state of decline. On the other hand, Exposure 4 means many of these classic films are now just a mouse click away.

Alien Skin Software Exposure 4
Pros: Clean and fast revamped interface; many new film and photography effects including cyanotype, lith printing and wet plate; simulated film stocks very true to their originals
Cons: Some of the new texture effects such as “Dust & Scratches” and “Light Leaks” are a little cheesy; while the plug-in is impressive and fun, we’re not sure how often we’ll use it in our work
Prices: $249; $99 for upgrade from previous version