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This review is based on use of Exposure X3 and a beta version of Exposure X3 Complete Workflow Update for Mac.
We’ve reached the point with image editing software that most basic features are covered. Correcting for exposure, saturation, and other settings are the expected baseline, which means applications need something more to differentiate themselves.
Some, like Skylum’s Luminar or Serif’s Affinity Photo (see Review: Affinity Photo 1.5.2 for desktop), are competing on price, along with the fact that they don’t require subscription plans.
Add to the mix Alien Skin Software’s Exposure X3. It’s competitive on price—$149 on its own, or $199 for a bundle that includes a couple of the company’s utilities, with no subscription—but it also includes several unique features that demonstrate the company is willing to tailor the software experience to how its customers use the product.
Like Adobe’s Lightroom family of products, Exposure X3 is both an image editor and an organizer for managing your photo library. You can preview thumbnails, rate and flag photos, assign keywords, and fill in basic IPTC metadata such as Title, Caption, Copyright, and contact information.
People who capture many images at a time and need fast turnaround will appreciate Exposure X3’s ability to import from multiple connected memory cards at once. You can rename files at import, specify custom destinations (and create presets for folder structures), and apply keywords and metadata during the ingest process. What it doesn’t do, surprisingly, is let you preview thumbnails of what’s coming in to cull shots before they’re copied to disk. It also doesn’t let you specify how to treat Raw + JPEG image pairs; you get both shots as separate images.
|Import photos from multiple sources in the same batch.|
Reviewing photos is aided by Exposure X3’s Quad and Six layout views, especially when you have several photos from the same capture burst where the subject is similar in each one. Four or six adjacent images in your library are displayed in a grid so you can compare differences between them, such as the expression on a person’s face. (There are also options to compare two or three images at a time.) If one stands out, you can pin it to the screen and compare it to others. The views are synchronized, so zooming in on one zooms them all at the same location in the image.
|Compare four similar images at a time in the Quad view.|
An important distinction about Exposure X3’s asset management features is that they’re directory-based, not catalog based. Applications such as Lightroom and Apple’s Photos keep track of where your photos are located on disk—sometimes all within the same library file or folder, set up by the software—and store metadata and edits about the images in a central catalog.
The advantage to this approach is that, as long as you continue to use that application to manage everything, all that data is more easily accessed by the software. You don’t need to worry about managing files, because the application does it for you. On the other hand, it means the metadata and edits don’t live with the image files. If you move an original Raw file on disk to a new location, for example, any edits you made would not go along with it. And in the case of Lightroom, moving the file in the Finder or Windows Explorer confuses Lightroom because it’s lost track of the image.
Exposure X3 doesn’t use standard XMP files, as many applications do
Exposure X3 takes a different tack. It reads images from the folders in which they’re stored, and writes edits to a separate sidecar file that lives in the same directory as the image file. When you view a photo in Exposure X3, the software also reads the information in the sidecar file and displays the edits noted there.
However, Exposure X3 doesn’t use standard XMP files, as many applications do. Within every directory of images, it creates a folder hierarchy, “Alien Skin > Exposure X3,” that contains metadata files ending in “.exposurex3” created for every image you edit. Those files use the same structure as XMP files, but can also include editing instructions that only Exposure X3 understands.
Some directory viewing software is just a visual way to traverse the folders on your disk, but Exposure X3 does use some centralized know-how to help you organize photos. The Collections feature lets you create virtual albums to group related photos that may exist in separate directories, such as shots from a single client captured over several photo shoots. Adding photos to a collection doesn’t move the files on disk.
Before Alien Skin released Exposure as a stand-alone application, it was known for its presets that simulated the looks of film stocks and other effects. Those are all there in Exposure X3, and the results are quite good.
|Exposure X3’s many presets simulate the looks of old photo processes, favorite film stocks, and more.|
Want to preview how a preset will look before you apply it? Mousing over the preset thumbnails reveals the effect on your image, but you can also “audition” up to four presets at a time by selecting an image and dragging the presets you want to open slots.
|Compare presets to the same image before applying your pick.|
In addition to the basic editing adjustments (tone, color, and so forth), Exposure X3 also includes controls for controlling grain and creating vignettes that introduce variation such as distortion and lump size for more organic results. An IR panel introduces the soft hazy signature look of infrared photos with sliders to control color contrast and the degree of halation (light spread). A Bokeh panel includes a multitude of controls for adding selective focus. Exposure X3.5 brings the Color tools into the present with the addition of granular Hue, Saturation, and Luminance controls, as well as white balance controls listed in Kelvin units and with camera Raw presets.
One feature I stumbled upon is the software’s batch editing feature, which resulted in me accidentally making the same adjustments to several shots at once. Instead of making edits to one photo and then copying them to other images, you simply select all the images you want to change in the grid view or the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen. As you make edits to one, the adjustments are applied to all of the others.
When you make any adjustment, as with Lightroom, the effect is applied to the entire image. Unlike Lightroom, Exposure X3 supports multiple layers, enabling you to isolate adjustments on their own layers. In fact, local adjustments such as brush strokes or radial or linear gradients automatically appear as new layers. Each layer has an automatic mask that hides the adjustments until you expose them with the brush or gradient tools.
If your images are stored in a shared location, such as a Dropbox folder, someone else running Exposure X3 can view the photos
The Portrait Touch Up preset demonstrates this: when you apply it, Exposure X3 creates three layers designed to whiten teeth, smooth skin, and enhance a subject’s iris. Paint over the affected areas to reveal the effects. You can’t apply blend modes between layers, as some applications allow, but you can choose an opacity level for each layer.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that Exposure X3 stores metadata in its own sidecar files? All of the editing information is also stored in the same place, creating an interesting collaborative possibility. If your images are stored in a shared location, such as a Dropbox folder, someone else running Exposure X3 can view the photos. The adjustment data exists in the text-only sidecar files that are updated on both machines as they’re changed.
You’ll want to make sure you’re not both editing at the same time, which can overwrite edits, but it allows you to work on an image together over the phone or in alternating sessions without having to send file revisions back and forth.
Working with layers and local adjustments in Exposure X3 is a bit of a mixed bag. When editing Raw .RAF files from my FujiFilm X-T1, there was noticeable lag when using the brush, which meant I became accustomed to painting an area and waiting a beat for the result to appear before moving on. The lag was more pronounced when viewing an image at 1:1 zoom; an onscreen Rendering progress indicator showed up often. Even when reviewing images, I saw pauses as the software processed my Raw files.
This was a surprise, because I came to Exposure X3 with the expectation that it tended to do a better job handling the Raw files from Fuji’s X-Trans sensors. The update from version 3.0.6 to 3.5 did improve performance somewhat, but the lag is still noticeable.
I became accustomed to painting an area and waiting a beat for the result to appear before moving on
I also loaded some Nikon .NEF Raw files from a D90, as well as Sony .ARW Raw files from a Sony a7R III. Performance was just fine on the former, and a little slow on the latter’s significantly larger (86 MB) image files. But the X-T1’s images, which max out at 16.3MP (compared to the larger 24.3MP files from the Fujifilm X-T2, which I didn’t have to test) still performed the slowest.
For context, I tested Exposure X3 on a late-2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, outfitted with 16GB of RAM (the maximum the machine can handle) and the Radeon Pro 460 graphics processor with 4GB memory (the top-line GPU upgrade when the computer was offered). This isn’t the most powerful Mac available, but it isn’t a slouch, either.
With the caveat that I’m not a software engineer, I suspect one possibility for the lackluster editing performance is that Exposure X3 doesn’t seem to be making use of the high-performance GPU. (You can check this by opening Activity Monitor, switching to the Energy tab, and looking at the Requires High Perf GPU column.)
I was also surprised that the Shadows control seems subpar. Yes, it brightens shadow areas, but it does so by flattening the entire image more than you’d expect; it feels like using a blunt instrument instead of a surgical one.
It’s a reminder that even basic features need attention, as well as the differentiating ones.
Photographers looking for non-subscription software that does more than basic editors.
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