Product Review: Alien Skin Exposure 6

October 10, 2014

By Theano Nikitas

With a faster processing engine and redesigned interface, Alien Skin Exposure 6 is a great tool for adding creative pop to your images. A new Bokeh module—pictured here—lets you simulate the blurred background that comes with a shallow depth of field.

Alien Skin, known for quirky plug- ins like Eye Candy, updated its photo-centric Exposure software earlier this year. Now in version 6, Exposure offers even more benefits to photographers who want to customize the look and feel of their images. As in earlier versions, there are hundreds of black-and-white, color and Lo-Fi film emulations along with various other effects to choose from. The new additions and enhancements make Exposure even more appealing.
Version 6 is a fairly major update with a number of notable improvements, including a significant speed boost, thanks to a rewritten processing engine. While version 5 required mouse clicks on image presets to get a full-size preview, in version 6 they’re instantaneously displayed by hovering the cursor over the thumbnails, or in the new list view in the Preset Browser. The adjustment sliders are more responsive as well.
Users of earlier versions of Exposure will notice a slightly different user interface (UI) in version 6. Version 5’s pale gray background has been replaced with a dark gray that better offsets the main image for more accurate editing and styling. A Basic control panel has been added, allowing users to edit standard imaging parameters such as exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, clarity, vibrancy and saturation from within the application. This control panel isn’t designed to replace your main image-editing software, but it’s a welcome convenience if you need to make quick and easy adjustments.
Bokeh, previously a separate plug-in, is now built right into Exposure 6. As its name implies, this feature is designed to simulate the out of focus backgrounds that come with a shallow depth of field. The Bokeh panel is equipped with tools and presets for lens and motion blur, with various controls over placement of the effect, aperture shape and rotation options.
Alien Skin has also expanded the selection of lighting effects, borders and textures. Custom borders and textures can now be imported, another welcome addition for users who photograph objects and surfaces to create their own textures.
We tested Exposure 6 both as a standalone application and as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop CS6 on a 2011 Apple MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM, running OS X v. 10.7.5. The performance improvement between version 6 and 5 is immediately noticeable. Instant full-size image preview is one of the main benefits of this latest version, especially if you don’t have a particular preset in mind for any given image.
With one exception, the increased speed was evident throughout the Exposure 6 workflow. Images shot with the 12-megapixel Nikon D3s that were only lightly edited took five to eight seconds to save to the computer’s desktop—not terrible, but surprisingly slow, considering the speed with which other tasks were processed.
Overall, the user interface is intuitive and easy to use, even if you’re new to the software. Callouts explaining Exposure 6’s various features and functions are only a mouse-over away.
The darker background surrounding the image display is an improvement; the striking contrast helps separate the image from the surrounding screen area when viewing and editing images. The pale gray interface in version 5 was so light that it was distracting, and when converting an image to black and white, the image sometimes seemed to blend into the background.
Perhaps the most difficult feature to master in Exposure 6 is Bokeh. If you’ve used Bokeh 2, then you should be all set. Otherwise, be prepared to spend time exploring and experimenting. A good place to start is with the traditional lens presets (found in the Bokeh control panel and the preset browser), which include fast (f/1.2–2.8) lenses from Canon, Nikon and Zeiss, among others. That’s the easy part. Using the planar and radial controls for placing the bokeh effect exactly where you want it, however, is more challenging. Precise placement requires patience and practice. Once you have that skill down pat, you can advance to fine-tuning other Bokeh presets like motion and twist, grain matching, aperture shape and rotation. Bokeh is certainly a useful tool for some photographers and select images, but Exposure 6 offers so many other creative options that you can easily bypass this feature if you don’t have the time to invest in getting up to speed.
Exposure 6 is a solid update to its predecessor. While not all the feature additions—such as Bokeh and some light effects—will appeal to current and potential new users, it’s well worth the price for three reasons: the increased performance, the Basic control panel and the new user interface. Without question, Exposure 6 is an excellent film-emulation and effects application, and a favorite of ours. Any photographer who wants to explore various film looks should add it to their software toolkit. Alien Skin offers a fully functional trial version on its site, along with numerous tutorials, making it easy to explore the program thoroughly before you reach for your credit card.
PROS: Speedy performance; new UI; new Basic control panel; Generally easy and intuitive to use; excellent selection of black- and-white, color and Lo-Fi film emulations; ability to import and share custom textures and borders.
CONS: Fairly steep learning curve to the new Bokeh feature. 
PRICE: $149; $69 (upgrade from any version)