Exposure Software Exposure X6
$129-149 | exposure.software

Back in 2020, I reviewed Exposure Software's Exposure X5 and discovered much to love. A rival to the likes of Lightroom and Capture One, I found Exposure X5 to be blazingly fast and quite capable.

With a pretty affordable price tag and no subscription fees, it made for a very credible alternative to its more established rivals, especially for photographers on a budget. Now the follow-up, Exposure X6, is here, and I've tested all of its new features to see how they stack up.

Key takeaways:

  • Offers an equivalent to most of Lightroom's core features with no subscription and an affordable price tag
  • Even better performance than its already-swift predecessor
  • Loads of controls and a ton of quick-and-easy presets
  • More auto controls get you in the ballpark quickly
  • Noise reduction is now tuned to your camera model
  • Less broad Raw support than its Adobe rival

Available immediately, Exposure X6 can be purchased from Exposure Software for $129, which is an increase of $10 over the previous version. A free 30-day trial version can be obtained here. Those who purchased Exposure X5 after July 15, 2020 can upgrade for free, while earlier customers can upgrade for $89. A bundle including Exposure Software's Blow Up and Snap Art tools is priced at $149

A familiar interface with some worthwhile improvements

If you've used the previous version, you'll feel right at home with Exposure X6. While some updating has taken place, its non-modal design and layout are much the same as those of Exposure X5, and most of the tools are still in the same locations, along with some new additions.

So what's changed? The styling has been subtly improved with no more pseudo-3D buttons, icons and dividers. Borders and gaps between panels have also disappeared, and the result is a cleaner aesthetic. At the same time, the accent color has changed from an attention-grabbing orange to a less distracting blue.

Exposure X6's user interface is similar to that of its predecessor, but with a subtly more modern look that does away with frills like 3D effects and unnecessary borders.
Click or tap here to download the full-size image of Exposure X5's interface; click or tap here for Exposure X6.

Pen and touch control also seem to have improved since I reviewed the previous version, although I still find sliders can take a couple of tries to 'grab hold of' on a touch-screen. (And it seems as if X5 may also have improved in this respect since my review, as comparing it side-by-side with X6 I didn't note a significant difference.)

Exposure X6 now supports GPU processing

When I reviewed the X5 release, I found myself deeply impressed by its performance, but Exposure X6 is even better. It can now offload many tasks to your computer's graphics processor, and Exposure Software says that many editing operations have tripled in speed.

Exposure X6's new haze level slider is a handy addition, but blocks up foreground shadows far more than Adobe's dehaze filter. Here, the bow of the ship is buried in deep shadow in Exposure's version (left), which aims for the same level of dehazing in the distant skyscrapers as the Adobe Camera Raw version (right).

Obviously, the performance gain will vary significantly depending on your GPU. Those of you with high-end graphics cards can expect to see a much bigger step forwards than readers with onboard graphics. And with performance throttling more of an issue in laptops due to heat concerns, desktop users will also have an edge.

A big step forwards in processing speed

With that said, I compared Exposure X6 with its predecessor on my 2018-vintage Dell XPS 15 9570 laptop running Windows 10 version 1909, processing the same 40-image, 1.3GB batch of Raws from 18 different camera models.

Some more complex adjustments like bokeh simulation felt a little faster, but not radically so

Exposure X5 required at least 101 seconds to process the batch when relying solely on my laptop's 8th-gen Core i7-8750H processor. By adding my Nvidia GTX 1050Ti GPU into the mix, the newer X6 version slashed this by 36% to just 65 seconds. And that's despite processing changes in the newer version resulting in a 14% increase in output file size to 565MB.

As for previews, I couldn't detect any difference in performance for most basic adjustments as X5 was already pretty snappy, functioning in near-real time. Previews for some more complex adjustments like bokeh simulation felt a little faster, but not radically so.

Noise reduction that's tuned to your camera

One specific preview, though, felt significantly slower than before. Where noise reduction previews only took a second or so in X5, Exposure X6 can take several seconds after slider adjustments to display an NR preview on my hardware.

Exposure X6's noise reduction is now tailored to your camera model and sensitivity. At left above is a Sony A7 image at ISO 10,000 with noise reduction disabled. At right is the same shot with profiled color and luminance noise reduction plus smoothing enabled, aiming to minimize noise while not sacrificing any fine detail.
Click or tap here to download the full-size image without noise reduction. Click or tap here to see the full-size image with noise reduction enabled.

That's likely because its underlying algorithms have grown much more complex. Exposure X6's noise reduction is now tuned to the specific camera model and sensitivity, and the list of supported cameras is very lengthy. In all, 650+ cameras and camera backs are included, even old and relatively obscure models like the Contax N Digital, Epson R-D1 and Ricoh GXR.

Exposure X6's new profiled noise reduction supports a whopping 650+ cameras and camera backs.

NR is improved, but not yet in DxO's league

If a camera is profiled, you can control color and luminance noise levels separately, and also separately adjust smoothing. (The smoothing slider can introduce some weird artifacts if pushed too far, so a soft touch is recommended.) If your camera isn't profiled or you choose to disable its profile, you'll get the same four brightness, detail, color and smooth sliders as in X5.

In practice, I found Exposure's noise reduction a noticeable improvement in terms of control and image quality, albeit at the cost of performance. It's not yet in the same league as DxO Labs' impressive PRIME / DeepPRIME NR – which admittedly is even slower – but it has very nearly caught up to Adobe.

Another crop from the above image shows that pushing the smoothing slider too far can lead not just to loss of detail, but also to some funky artifacts. Note the unsightly line that's appeared just inside singer Ben Folds' upper lip, chin and the bottom of his nose, which starts appearing from beyond about 2/3 the maximum smoothing level.

In part, that's because its grain pattern is finer and less mottled-looking than that from Exposure X6, but even more so it's because Lightroom's preview is so much faster, making it easier and quicker to fine-tune your results. I'd like to see Exposure Software work on their preview speed, or perhaps take a leaf out of DxO's book and let you preview NR on just a small section of the image.

Improved shadow/highlight sliders and added haze control

Also new for Exposure X6's 2020(v3) process version are updated algorithms underlying the highlight/shadow sliders and a new haze level slider. The updated highlight/shadow sliders don't differ radically from their predecessors, but work well and aim for more consistency and accuracy while minimizing color casts and hue shifts.

Compared to Lightroom's equivalent control, though, the new haze slider seems more prone to simultaneously blocking up deeper shadows in an already-contrasty foreground at the same time as it improves the contrast of more distant subjects obscured by haze. So while there's definitely scope for improvement, I think it's a worthwhile addition.

More auto controls help put you in the ballpark

Another welcome change is the addition of more auto controls that help to put you in the ballpark with a minimum of fuss. You can now automatically set exposure, white balance, tone, dynamic contrast and haze level, either for single images or batches.

Exposure X6's basic panel sports new dynamic contrast and haze level sliders. Up top, the Auto button will adjust five different aspects of your image automatically -- white balance, exposure, tone, dynamic contrast and haze level. The hamburger menu to its right (found by clicking the lines next to 'Auto') will let you select which of those aspects should apply.

Like Lightroom, a single click is enough to let the algorithms do their thing. But unlike Adobe's app, you can also choose to enable or disable each of these five auto controls individually, and if you subsequently click the Auto button, only your chosen auto controls will be applied.

Exposure X6's auto enhance controls help get you in the ballpark with a minimum of fuss. At left is the result of auto exposure, white balance, tone, dynamic contrast and haze level adjustments. At right is the original, uncorrected image.

More lifelike Auto results than Lightroom

I found the auto controls to be pretty effective. Compared to their Lightroom equivalents, which default to a rather punchy, consumer-friendly look, Exposure X6 tended to have a softer touch that yields more realistic, lifelike results.

Compared to an out-of-camera JPEG from the Canon 1DX II, Exposure X6's auto enhance algorithms (top) use a softer touch than those of ACR (bottom), which defaults to a consumer-friendly, punchy look with higher contrast and saturation.

My only real complaint is that while there's also a new exposure bias slider that will let you bias the auto algorithms up to two stops in either direction, there's no preview of what the effect will be as you make your adjustment. That can result in some unnecessary trial and error as you fine-tune your settings.

The updated Advanced Color Editor is even more powerful

One last significant change in Exposure X6 makes a feature that was introduced in the preceding version even more powerful than ever. The new Advanced Color Editor is a bit intimidating initially, as it looks even more complex than X5's equivalent 3D Color Masking tool. But the amount of control it gives you is very impressive.

The new Advanced Color Editor can make quite radical changes with minimal effort. In the version at right, I changed the blue car to green, and the Chevy logos from gold to blue within perhaps 15-20 seconds. It's not perfect -- traces of the original colors remain at their edges -- but this could likely be fixed with a few minutes more work.

With just a few clicks, you can sample both your source and target hue, saturation and luminance values from the image with eye-droppers or set your chosen values directly. And you can do so multiple times at once for different color ranges, then brush the effect out of specific areas of the image which you don't want altered.

The ability to completely change the color of a subject with just a few seconds work -- turning a blue car into a green one, for example -- is pretty cool. But honestly, I think this tool is even more useful for finer, more granular adjustments, making it easy to hone memory colors in your image to match their real-world equivalents.

Plenty of minor tweaks too, including on-import DNG conversion

Exposure Software has also made a few more minor tweaks for version X6. Of these, I think the handiest is the ability to convert your Raw images to DNG without leaving the app.

It might look a bit intimidating, but Exposure X6's Advanced Color Picker is an extremely powerful tool, whether for subtle adjustments to specific color ranges or much more radical adjustments.

You'll still need Adobe's DNG converter software installed, as Exposure X6 relies on this to do the grunt work on its behalf. But you can now either convert individual images from the right-click menu of their thumbnail, or batch-convert all your images as you're importing them to Exposure, saving you time and effort. And you can still choose the JPEG preview size, whether or not to embed the original Raw file or fast load data, and whether or not to compress converted DNGs.

An even better Lightroom alternative, and a worthwhile upgrade for existing users

Once again, I find myself impressed by Exposure X6, just as I was by its predecessor. At a relatively low cost and with a perpetual license which frees you from being nickel-and-dimed to death by subscription fees, it offers great image quality and a very generous feature set. And it does so while mostly matching or even exceeding its Adobe rival in terms of performance.

Exposure X6 offers pretty decent image quality right out of the gate. The only editing here was a click of the "Auto" button, and Exposure has done a nice job extracting lots of fine detail.

Are there some things I'd still like to see changed? Sure, in particular I'd like to see better preview performance for noise reduction. Plus, Adobe still leads the way in terms of the sheer number of cameras and Raw formats it supports.

I'm really rather impressed by Exposure X6. It comes pretty close to Lightroom's image quality and performance, yet will start saving you money within a year or so of purchase.

And I still find Exposure's non-modal interface leaves me doing a lot more scrolling than I'd like. But even as-is, I see this as a very credible rival for Lightroom, especially for the photographer on a budget.

If you're looking for a way to reduce your expenses, and your camera is supported – which you can check here – I highly recommend downloading the preview and giving it a try yourself.

What we like:

  • Comprehensive, photographer-centric image editing with support for layers and local adjustments
  • Better performance than ever
  • More auto controls and a generous raft of preset looks
  • Now boasts haze control and camera-tuned noise reduction
  • Very affordable and no subscription necessary

What we don't:

  • Heavy non-modal interface means lots of scrolling
  • Narrower support for cameras and lenses, especially smaller brands
  • Noise reduction preview is a bit on the slow side
  • Haze control blocks up deeper foreground shadows
  • Noise reduction smoothing can introduce unsightly artifacts