“To be the best, you have to beat the best” is a well known mantra among athletes and competitive types. When it comes to image organizing and editing software, Adobe’s Lightroom is, if not the best (we won’t start that argument), then clearly the program that many others seek to dethrone.
The latest contender is Alien Skin’s Exposure X. Don’t let the X fool you. This is actually the eighth, not the tenth, edition of the program. But the X does mark a significant evolution in the program as it morphs from a first-rate preset and film emulation application into a more ambitious image management and editing solution.
Exposure X dramatically expands the program’s ability to organize and edit images. To that end, you can now import images into your PC from a memory card and add color tags, flags and star ratings to images and filter photos using those tags. You can copy, move, rename and delete files and folders from your PC within Exposure. There’s also much wider support for camera RAW formats.
While the bulk of the new tools are centered on image management, Alien Skin did make some significant improvements to its editor as well by adding a white balance eye dropper, new temperature and tint controls and a new detail panel with noise reduction and sharpening tools.
Lest you think Alien Skin completely forgot Exposure’s raison d’etre, they also threw in three new presets: Petzval, Pinhole Camera and Freelensing.
Alien Skin is taking dead aim at Lightroom with an update to Exposure that emphasizes photo organizing and non-destructive RAW editing.
Exposure relies on your PC/Mac file and folder structure to organize images—there are no catalogues, collections or other layers of abstraction between you and the photos stored on your computer. The upshot is that the program loads more quickly than Lightroom and gets you to your images much faster. This catalogue-free approach also means that Exposure won’t slow down over time whereas Lightroom will as its catalogue grows. There are steps you can take to keep Lightroom from bogging down, of course, but none of this extra work is required in Exposure X.
By default, Exposure X will automatically open a dialogue window when it detects a memory card. The import options are straightforward, with functions to rename images, batch-apply metadata such as copyright and the option to delete images when they’re done transferring.
While finding images in your file tree is quick, Exposure X’s filtering and organizing tools are still relatively basic. You can bookmark folders for quicker retrieval and sort images by flags, colors, camera make and edit time but not by shutter speed, ISO, aperture, etc. You can’t keyword images or compare them side-by-side, either.
Images can be exported from the program with the ability to add a suffix to the file name. However, if you want to resize an image upon export, it’s a hassle. The program only provides dimensions in pixels, not inches or centimeters, and won’t dynamically constrain height/width proportions as you tweak one of those values.
Exposure X aligns all your editing tools in a single panel running down the right-hand side of the program. There are no modules to flip between so, again, you’ll work faster here than in Lightroom. Any editing tool set, such as exposure, bokeh, etc., can be collapsed and reordered, even moved to the left side of the screen, for a customized workspace.
Exposure delivers non-destructive edits to your images and generates a folder of sidecar files with editing instructions in the folder housing your originals. Those sidecar files won’t be readable by any other program besides Exposure. You can also select “edit in…” from the right-click menu and finish your work in a third-party editor of your choice—at which point Exposure outputs a TIFF file with any edits you’ve made in Exposure applied to them. You can add additional editing programs and change the output format from TIFF to JPEG in the settings.
Exposure supports a wide range of RAW file formats encompassing most of the top-tier professional cameras. But it doesn’t (as of this writing) support Hasselblad or Phase One/Mamiya medium-format cameras.
We put Exposure X’s noise reduction and exposure tools up against Lightroom to see how they handled tricky images—in this case either poorly exposed or noisy Canon RAW files. When it came to noise reduction, we noticed that Exposure X tended to preserve detail in the image even if it meant retaining more noise, whereas Lightroom afforded more leeway to remove noise from the image, even at the expense of some detail. When editing exposure, Lightroom proved more effective at recovering details from shadows. Lightroom edits were applied much more quickly to images, too.
While Exposure X does offer image orientation tools and cropping, we think Lightroom’s are easier to use. You won’t find lens corrections or, oddly, a histogram in Exposure X either.
That said, Exposure X does offer some simple edit presets that Lightroom doesn’t have and that we appreciated. For instance, while you have the typical sliders for color saturation (shadows, midtones, highlights, reds, yellows, etc.), Exposure also provides a drop-down menu of easy-to-identify color actions such as “boost all, leaving faded skin.”
While we’ve spent the bulk of this review tackling what’s new in Exposure, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that its core value remains unchanged, and that is its ability to apply, and customize, a truly extensive range of film and lens presets to your images. In this, Exposure remains at the top of its class and if you covet only those tools, you can still install the software plugin for Photoshop and Lightroom and leave aside the organizing and image management.
Whether the standalone version of Exposure X can serve as a substitute for Adobe Lightroom ultimately comes down to your needs. Exposure X is quicker to load and far easier to use than Lightroom and while it doesn’t have all the filtering and organizational tools that Lightroom boasts, it checks off many of the important boxes. With its now extensive (though not comprehensive) RAW file support and non-destructive editing, you can tackle a fair amount of Lightroom’s post-processing workflow in Exposure X, if not always as well. That said, there’s still much it can’t do that Lightroom can—from tethered shooting to support for medium-format camera RAW files, lens profiles, and mobile syncing/editing.
If you’re buying Exposure for the first time, the $149 price tag is more expensive than a year of Adobe’s Creative Cloud photo plan, which bundles both Photoshop and Lightroom and is updated fairly regularly. However, Alien Skin doesn’t leave its users in the lurch—owners of Exposure 7 can upgrade to X for free and owners of older versions of the program pay just $99 for X.
PROS: Easy to use; fast and intuitive organization; excellent library of film presets; great user interface
CONS: Noise removal and exposure edits not as effective as Lightroom; lacks histogram and keywording; limited metadata search; no side-by-side image comparisons
PRICE: $149; $99 upgrade