Could Exposure X4 Be the Best Sub-$150 Alternative to Adobe Lightroom CC?

Looking for a photo-editing alternative to Adobe's Lightroom CC that won't break the bank? Today, I test-drive Alien Skin's new Exposure X4 editing suite for the first time. 

Every photographer is familiar with Adobe's Photoshop and Lightroom software. Over the course of 20+ years, it has firmly secured its place as the industry standard for editing and culling photos and processing raw files. For years, these two programs were offered as standalone products that any photographer could buy once and use for years without the need to update. All of this changed back in 2013, when Adobe shocked the photography community by announcing they would end their standalone software and transition the entire Adobe software catalog to a subscription service called Creative Cloud. 

As I write this article, you can currently subscribe to both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for $9.99 a month. While spending $120 a year might not seem like a big investment for professional photographers who depend on this software day in and day out, what if you are a semiprofessional photographer or an amateur photographer who only edits photos a few times a month? What other alternatives are there if you don't want to sign up for the software subscription model? The short answer is there are only a few full editing suites available. The second most popular raw processor is probably Capture One, but at $299, you would get a full 2 1/2 years of Adobe's software before paying off the license-free Capture One software. The other player in this space is Darktable. This open source software is free to download and does run on Linux (if you care about that), but also has a much higher learning curve than the other options. For the sake of this article and video, I'm only comparing Lightroom and Exposure, because they are the same price (for Lightroom 6's perpetual license) and have the most similar user interface. 

User Interface

I think I speak for a lot of photographers when I say the biggest hurdle when changing camera brands, lighting systems, or software suites is minimizing the learning curve. I've been a user of Alien Skin's Exposure Plugin for Photoshop for about 10 years now, and I am super familiar with their massive library of film stock emulators and tonal filters. If you've never used Exposure within Lightroom or Photoshop, I highly recommend downloading a trial copy and seeing how useful these filters can be in your existing workflow. When it was time for me to open the full standalone version of Exposure X4, I wasn't sure how easy it would be editing a raw file from the beginning compared to Lightroom or Photoshop's Camera Raw Engine. 

What I immediately noticed upon opening Exposure X4 was that it looked almost identical to Lightroom CC. It was shockingly similar! All of the windows, panels, sliders, and organizing labels were almost identical. This made the first 30 minutes of using the software super easy with little frustration. Unlike Lightroom, Exposure X4 loads your previews much more quickly, without the need of importing every single file. It's almost like using Photo Mechanic. Now that I've used Exposure on a few different machines, it also seems to be faster at processing my files than Lightroom, which has been notoriously slow despite how much hardware and resources your computer has on tap. I've yet to edit a full wedding on Exposure, but I have total confidence saying it would cut down the edit time by at least 10 percent if not more. 

Alien Skin Exposure vs Lightroom

I admittedly have a lot still to learn and discover in Exposure, but my initial response is this software makes the transition away from Lightroom about as easy as you could imagine. Whether it converts raw files better than Capture One or even Darktable is up for debate, but it is certainly easier to use immediately after an installation if you are familiar with Lightroom. 

The Filters

Alien Skin first appeared on my radar back in 2008 when I was looking for a way to give my wedding photos a unique final process. The software has come a long way over the years, but at the heart of Exposure is a massive set of film and video filters that can instantly give your photos a specific look with the click of a button. Some of these filters include black and white films like Agfa APX, Kodak T-Max, and Polapan. If you want to make your photos look like classic color and slide film, you have dozens of presets for Fuji FP, Fuji Velvia, and Kodak Portra. There are also tons of other effects like infrared film stock, Lo-Fi films, cross processing, color fading, and cinema effects.

Exposure X4 gives you dozens of filters and film presets

These are all highly customizable and can easily be used to batch process thousands of photos or fine-tuned for your final selects. Of course, Lightroom has some presets built into their software as well, but they are much, much more general and of course accessible to everyone who uses Lightroom. That being said, you can download thousands of presets for free online and import them into Lightroom, but if you want a one-stop shop for quality film presets bundled all in one piece of software, Alien Skin's Exposure is definitely the overall winner here. 

Layers

One thing that always frustrated me with Lightroom was that I could not apply effects and edits on different layers. Instead, I still had to rely on Photoshop to tweak specific parts of an image, blend multiple exposures, and maintain a well-organized, nondestructive workflow. Now that Exposure has introduced a layers panel, you almost get the best of both worlds with Lightroom and Photoshop all in one piece of software. I say "almost" because the implementation of layers in Exposure is still a little clunky and requires a bit of muscle memory to master the process, but overall, it is a feature I think will help distinguish it from other similar editing suites. 

Unlike Lightroom that requires you to add gradients, masks, and retouching all to one single file, Exposure offers the ability to create different masks for each of these edits. Not only does this make it much easier to control each step of your edit in a versatile way, but it also helps you stay organized when revisiting files and tweaking nondestructive edits. I do wish Exposure would eventually allow you to align and blend multiple images all within one piece of software, but for the time being, having any sort of layer support within a raw editing suite is pretty exciting.

Raw Conversion Quality

Perhaps the most important element of any raw processing software is the overall rendering quality. As you know, every single piece of software interprets the proprietary raw information differently. Sometimes, one piece of software does better with shadow recovery and highlight suppression, while another gives you much more realistic colors. I have used Lightroom, Photoshop, CaptureOne, and now Exposure, and I have to say, each one of these pieces of software does render raw files a bit differently (Photoshop and LR are almost identical these days). Over the years, the gap between the final renders has narrowed significantly, and one could argue that the differences are as close to splitting hairs as possible, but they are indeed different. 

I wound up editing a handful of images in Exposure and Lightroom side by side and found that generally, Exposure did give me a little more latitude in the shadows and highlights (though not always), and the sharpening settings were fairly different too. With each photo, I was able to get the two images looking 98 percent identical. You might view this as Exposure not being much better or worse than Adobe's Raw Converter, but I see it as a big win for any software facing off against the industry standard. Overall, I can't say I see either editor as being definitely better than the other, but it is nice knowing you won't lose out on quality regardless of what option you choose. 

Final Thoughts

Even though I have been a fan of Alien Skin's Exposure plugin for Photoshop, I was more than a little skeptical when it came to using their all-in-one software for my initial raw edits. I have been using Lightroom as my sole raw editing software since Lightroom 1, and the thought of replacing it with another piece of software (even the highly praised Capture One) has always filled me with anxiety. I started my career as a wedding photographer and had to edit dozens of full weddings each year. Lightroom, although super slow at times, was the industry standard for culling, flagging, and editing thousands of raw files shot throughout an event or wedding. Up until a few years ago, there really wasn't another option available that offered all the features that Lightroom offers. 

Now that Adobe has completely transitioned into the software leasing model, it's no shock that software alternatives like Capture One and Exposure X4 are becoming more popular among photographers. Since I already subscribe to Adobe's Creative Cloud for Photoshop and Premiere, I doubt that I'll completely abandon Lightroom altogether. However, since I have multiple computers and Adobe is very strict on how many instances their software can run across multiple machines, I can easily see Exposure becoming the main editing suite on my travel laptop. I will, of course, continue to use the Alien Skin Exposure X4 plugin for Photoshop for my final edits. If you, however, have not committed to any raw editing software, or if you are looking to pull back from some of your monthly subscriptions, Exposure X4 is about as perfect of a Lightroom replacement as you could find. In fact, it might actually be better than Lightroom! My suggestion is to download a free 30-day trial of Exposure and see if it meets your own photo editing needs. 

Download a free 30-day trial of Alien Skin's Exposure X4 here and be sure to use the discount code "Fstoppers" to save 10 percent off your purchase of the full editing suite. 

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56 Comments

Previous comments
Ben D's picture

Ignace, Exposure X4 added a set of transform tools so you can make the corrections you're talking about.

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

Try DxO ViewPoint either as a standalone or as a plugin that can be used with multiple software or as an external editor for those that cant use PS plugins...

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

Can you import/translate your Lightroom catalog into Exposure?

Yes. We added a Lightroom migration tool in Exposure X4. You can bring over most Lightroom organizational info - keywords, ratings, flags, collections, and more.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

Nice, thanks for the info.

"It doesn't even have an import." That's quite a penalty on the scorecard. For anything that boasts "management" capability, ingestion should be high on the priority list. Attach a camera or storage device, click import, and the tool puts content into the appropriate places by a chosen scheme, so you know where it is, it's named consistently, and gets picked up by backup. The approach of just managing files wherever will over time lead to an inconsistent heap of misery and ultimately loss; the latter is not "if", but "when" you get to the moment that you realise you really needed that drive that just failed and always wanted to back up "later".

Exposure allowing to tweak gradients puts it far ahead of Capture One on the other hand, where handling of such "procedural" masks is plain awful and reminds of Corel's PaintShop products (not happy memories).

Exposure has an extremely robust and comprehensive tool for copying images from a camera card. You can create presets for destination folder and file names to enforce a consistent organization. Exposure will also automatically add keywords, metadata, or populate collections. You can download our 30-day trial to check it out.

"No import" refers to being able to quickly navigate to a folder of photos already on your computer and immediately start working with them. You don't have to invoke an import function to get Exposure to see your photos.

Ah, that's fair then. Definitely going to give it a try.

in our family we no longer use adobe products. and im happy there are good alternatives to them.

Does it have any features similar to VSCO keys for quick exposure and colour temperature adjustments? I often edit around 1000 images in a sitting, and these features are invaluable.

I've been using X3 for a few months but I'm not a fan of the import process. There's no preview or real ability to select different images from a memory card. Rather, it just imports every image from that location.

Ben D's picture

That is being addressed.

I've also found Exposure X3 and X4 to be an excellent mix of features and cost in the ex-Lightroom race. I spent some time and cash evaluating alternatives here (https://technewstt.com/bd1150/) and while Capture One is an excellent alternative and probably Lightroom's true competition, I wasn't as happy with its browsing features as I was with Exposure. If they added a way to map key commands from LR to Exposure so I could keep my muscle memory, I'd be totally happy.

I tried it for 10 days, but it is too limited compared to Lightroom. The first problem is that you can't do HDR and panoramas with Exposure. I shoot landscapes, so that's already a big thing. Then there's the number of functions. For example, there's no dehazing. That's a really useful tool as I'm often in the mountains. To me, it's a clone of lightroom, so what's the point ? Might as well get the real thing. I do agree though that the individual mask thing is useful and should be in LR as well.

J Maloney's picture

Facial Recognition in Exposure X4
I am looking for software that lets me do facial recognition, saves me key-wording time and effort and hard codes the subjects names into the RAW files Meta Data. I want other people to search for images on their computers without having to use Adobe or ACDSEE or other programs.   I prefer not to pay a monthly fee.  Does your software do that?

Jeff Maloney

Ben D's picture

Hey Jeff, not currently. I work with Alien Skin and will create a request for that feature, or add your comments to an existing one if there is one.

Is there a way to import lightroom presets into X4? I use a few custom ones and would like to keep them before making the switch - I have the ACR versions also.

Thanks, useful. The more options out there to compete with the current trend of subscription only services the better in my opinion. I’ll be downloading the trial version for a good look.

Michal Minárik's picture

"Could Exposure X4 Be the Best Sub-$150 Alternative to Adobe Lightroom CC?" - It could be but, for example, i find Zoner Photo Studio much more versatile and able to compete with Lightroom.

LEE SHELDON's picture

It seems that respondents and author of article are unaware that you can still purchase stand-alone copies of Lightroom and Photoshop etc., if you know how to properly to navigate the Adobe site, I have done so myself within the last twelve months.
Trust this info. might be of use.
LEE

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

Problem with Adobes "standalone" software is that Adobe do not update them anymore, LR6 do not get updates for new cameras... only way to get around it is to convert the Cameras RAW files in ACR first and then import the DNG to LR6...

mar par's picture

Software looks good but currently using ON1 photo - I see no need to change. Also use Topaz Studio which is great for single shot adjustments.

Since this is labeled a Sponsored article does that mean the author was paid to say its good?

Another reviewer mentioned that there was no chromatic aberration correction. Is this true? And if not, will there be an update to add it?

Thomas H's picture

This is one of the best product reviews I have seen so far, thank you so much. I was not even aware of their software. "The web" speaks of Adobe mostly, as if only Adobe would exist. My solution of choice so far was Capture One. The V12 was expected to come out any day, and now it did...

In this context let me also mention Corel and After Shot https://www.aftershotpro.com/en/products/aftershot/pro/, what is the former Bibble, and of course the PaintShop Pro (a former Jasc product), what was always the "would like to be" equivalence to Photoshop. A research on Youtube will easily point to some videos comparing identical edits with Paint Shop and Photoshop. Clearly, the price is right: https://www.paintshoppro.com/en/products/paintshop-pro/ultimate/ but I do not have the competence to compare it seriously to Photoshop. Maybe someone with sufficient skill could test it one day, if it could really provide a professional with comparable results.

On1 Photo Raw is perhaps a more interesting and complete replacement option for LR. It also runs as a plug-in to PS and LR or as stand-alone and offers fully non-destructive editing and blistering fast previews and organization. It’s also cheaper than X4 with free or inexpensive updates.