Alien Skin Exposure X4
$119 | alienskin.com/exposure

A screenshot of Exposure X4.

When I reviewed Alien Skin Exposure X3, I noted several features that make it unique among other photo editing and organizing applications, such as its extensive library of professional presets, a quad-layout interface option for reviewing multiple similar shots at once, and a novel way of storing nondestructive edits on disk.

The changes in this release address some prior rough edges, add features and refine the experience of processing your photos

Although the new Exposure X4 version 4.5 feels more evolutionary than its version number would suggest, that’s not a criticism. The changes in this release address some prior rough edges, add features that are now expected for this class of software, and in general refine the experience of processing your photos without feeling like the software is getting in the way.

Performance and Fixes

In Exposure X3, I was surprised by laggy performance when editing photos, specifically working with the Raw files from my FujiFilm X-T1 and its 16.3MP X-Trans sensor. Using the brush to paint adjustments was like watching a movie with dialogue out of sync: I’d paint an area, wait for the software to apply the effect, paint another area, wait, and so on. The problem wasn’t as pronounced with Canon or Nikon Raw files, though it did show up to a lesser degree on large Sony Raw files.

The improvement between that experience and Exposure X4 is noticeable: the lag is gone

The improvement between that experience and Exposure X4 is noticeable, even with larger Raw files from today’s cameras, including the 26MP FujiFilm X-T3. I’m using the same computer (a 2016 MacBook Pro with 16GB of RAM and the Radeon Pro 460 graphics processor with 4GB memory), and, happily, the lag is gone.

There’s still a pause when opening Raw files or switching zoom levels, as Exposure X4 loads the image data, but even that seems improved with this version. I see the once-ubiquitous “Rendering” badge less often now.

The Shadows control, which was oddly heavy-handed in the previous release, now behaves as you would expect, manipulating just the tones in shadow areas instead of lightening or darkening the entire image.

Unedited (aside from simple Black & White conversation) version at left; shadows adjustment at right.

New Organizing Features

When importing photos from a memory card or camera, Exposure X4 now includes image thumbnails so you can choose which photos to copy - a seemingly essential feature that was missing in previous versions. That fills out the Copy Photos from Card dialog, which also allows you to select multiple cards or directories at the same time, make backups to a separate location during import, and assign metadata to the images.

Preview and select which photos to import.

The new Smart Collections feature displays photos based on criteria you set, such as revealing all photos captured with a 50mm lens rated three stars or higher. As you add photos to your library that match those specifications, they’re automatically added to the smart collection.

The feature does have one limitation I’d like to see fixed. When defining capture time as a criterion, you can enter only specific dates. So, for example, you can define a smart collection that shows all flagged photos captured between May 1 and May 31, but you cannot specify a less-specific range such as “the last 30 days” or “one year ago today.”

The only flaw in smart collections is that date ranges must be defined as specific dates, not general ranges such as "the previous month."

Exposure X4 populates its library by reading folders on disk, as opposed to some applications that move images to a central library, which means it’s always on the lookout for file changes. (Lightroom, by contrast, requires any file management be done within the app, or else it loses track of where photos are stored.) Exposure X4 is quick about updating folders when new images are added to them.

Exposure X4 populates its library by reading folders on disk, as opposed to some applications that move images to a central library

That’s the basis for a new Monitor feature for tethering purposes. Although Exposure X4 doesn’t include a direct camera tethering option, if you have software running that can shuttle image files directly from the camera to a folder on disk, the response is fast enough that photos appear in the library almost instantly. When you instruct the application to monitor a folder, it adds the ability to assign metadata and rename files as they’re ingested.

Monitoring a folder lets you assign metadata and rename files as they arrive via a tethered connection.

I also discovered, by accident, that Exposure X4 does a good job of keeping edits and metadata together with original files if the images are moved on disk. To recap the program’s method of handling this information: edits and metadata are stored in special sidecar files, nested in folders in the same directory as the photos. When I moved some images to a different folder in the Finder on my Mac, Exposure X4 automatically moved the associated sidecar files to the new location.

New Editing Features

The editing improvements bring Exposure X4 in line with modern photo editors. You can apply color lookup tables (LUTs) to affect how colors are translated and to apply distinct looks. The advantage of a LUT, compared to a preset, is that LUTs don’t affect any other editing controls; once a LUT is applied, you can then build adjustments on top. The application includes nearly a dozen sample LUTs, with the ability to import more.

Get different looks by applying LUTs.

Exposure X4’s Overlays panel now includes light effects to superimpose colors, simulated light leaks, sun rays, and others. Now some of those effects can be freely moved, scaled, and rotated. With controls for zoom, opacity, and blend mode, you can make an effect as dramatic or as subtle as you wish.

This is a before/after view of applying an editable light effect.

There’s also a Transform panel that includes controls for stretching, scaling, and rotating the image.

If you still have years of Adobe muscle memory, you’ll quickly realize that Exposure X4 doesn’t share any keyboard shortcuts: pressing G reduces highlights by –5 instead of switching to the Grid view, for example. But now you can remap every shortcut in the preferences if you want to, or just see which keys perform which actions.

The editing improvements bring Exposure X4 in line with modern photo editor

Speaking of Adobe, Alien Skin added a Lightroom migration tool to Exposure X4, but be aware that Lightroom’s adjustments don’t carry over as editable settings. Instead, there’s an option to save edited photos as new files, which you can use as reference if you need to re-edit the original in Exposure. Still, metadata, color labels, and ratings all transfer. That’s not an ideal situation, but one can safely assume that the bulk of your editing going forward will be on new images, not ones in the library.

Odds and Ends

Review similar shots in quad-layout mode.

Some of my favorite features aren’t new, such as the ability for collaborators to edit the same image by storing it (and its associated sidecar file) on a shared local volume or cloud drive, as long as only one person is editing at a time to prevent conflicts. Also helpful are export presets for generating photos formatted for social networks; Exposure X4 now also includes print presets.

One item on my feature wishlist remains unchanged: Raw+JPEG pairs are still treated as separate images. I’ve softened my stance on this over time, as there are situations when you may specifically want a JPEG adjusted in-camera (such as shooting in a black and white simulation) while keeping the original Raw file. However, I’d still like to see options for handling Raw+JPEG pairs get a bit smarter, such as having an option to import only raw files, or to view them as a single shot with the ability to choose which version you wish to edit.

You can remap every shortcut in the preferences if you still have years of Adobe muscle memory

I also ran into a weird problem that ate up several hours of diagnosis. Sometimes, the Folders panel—and therefore, my library—would not appear when I launched Exposure X4. It turns out to be part of a feature, but one which looks like a bug. When the application is opened as a plug-in from within another program, such as Lightroom Classic, the Folders panel and the Crop tool are disabled, because the expectation is that you’re only editing. Opening Exposure from a third-party launch utility, in my case LaunchBar, makes the application think it’s being opened as a plug-in. This situation isn’t triggered when opening Exposure X4 using the macOS Spotlight shortcut (Command-space).

Conclusion

Exposure X4 is a solid update that shores up some areas that needed attention and builds on a photo editor that already stands apart in interesting ways. And most important, Alien Skin improved the performance in areas that make a difference.

Exposure X4 is available as a single purchase, not a subscription

I can’t wrap up this review without noting that Exposure X4 is available as a single purchase, not a subscription, which I think is still a motivating factor among many photographers. It costs $119 for Exposure X4 itself, or is available as a bundle for $149 that includes a couple of other Alien Skin utilities. Upgrade pricing for earlier versions of Exposure is also available, and you can try the software for free during a 30-day trial. It runs on Mac OS X Yosemite or newer and Windows 7 64-bit or newer.

What we like:

  • Improved performance, specifically with Raw files
  • Review photo thumbnails during import from memory cards
  • Import from multiple cards simultaneously
  • Improved shadow and highlight recovery
  • Smart collections
  • Monitored folders improve tethering options
  • LUT support

What we don't:

  • Raw+JPEG pairs still treated as separate images
  • App confusion when opening it from a launcher utility

Who's it for:

Photographers who want sophisticated editing and organization without a subscription or a central-library structure.