Alien Skin Exposure 4: Our Favorite Photo Enhancing Plugin

Alien Skin Exposure 4: Our Favorite Photo Enhancing Plugin

I've been a big fan and user of Alien Skin Exposure software for many years now. A couple months ago Alien Skin asked if I would review their newest version of the software and although it took me quite a while, I'm finally done. Basically, Alien Skin has taken what I have always considered to be the best photo enhancing software available and they have made it even better.

Now I'm not going to pretend to have tried every piece of photo software out there. Maybe there is a comparable program that is faster, cheaper, or has more options but so far I have not run across anything that can compare to Alien Skin Exposure 4. In my opinion this software is the best at what it does for 3 very simple reasons; It's the fastest plugin I've ever used, it has an incredible amount of high quality filters, and it gives you complete control of each filter.

What does it do?
The most simple explanation is that Exposure 4 is a set of filters that mimic the look of film. I personally use Exposure on every image that I shoot to give that image a "look". Images right out of the camera can look pretty plain. With a couple clicks of my mouse and about 15 seconds I can take a common looking image and make it look "finished". If you've ever seen a movie before it's color graded you know what I mean.

How does it work?

Exposure 4 is a plugin for Photoshop and Lightroom. In Photoshop you simply click on Filter/Exposure 4 and within seconds a new window opens with the picture that you are currently working on. I love moving this window onto my second monitor so that I can still see Photoshop on my primary monitor. On the left you will see four hundred fifty four (yes, you read that right) different filters. When you click once on one of these filters you see an instant preview of that effect on your image. Most programs would take at least a few seconds to do this but Exposure's previews take no time to show up. You can then click on the image to toggle between the picture with and without that effect. You can literally try hundreds of different looks for your images in a couple minutes. Over time you will begin to learn which effects work best for which pictures and in my case I can usually open Exposure, pick my effect, and then apply it in less than 30 seconds.

Once you pick your effect you can move to the right side of the window to fine tune your look. Every possible option you would want from filter strength, to color control, to film grain, is at your disposal and each change that you make has an instant preview. Once your happy you can apply your settings and Exposure will either write over the original image or it will create a new layer with the edited image above and original below.

Black and white VS color






Exposure is broken down into 2 separate plugins; one for black and white filters and one for color filters (keep in mind you get both with your purchase). It kills me to when I see photographers simply desaturate and image and call it "black and white". A high quality black and white image is hard to produce but Exposure 4 will give you 177 different black and white filters to work with. Above you can see 4 very different examples of a black and white conversion.

Subtlety is key




As a wedding photographer I always have to remind myself that my images will be viewed for hundreds of years. Yes, it's sometimes tempting to be extra trendy but for my weddings I prefer a more classic, traditional look. Many of the other plugins or batches I've used in the past have been far too extreme for me to use with my wedding photography. Exposure has a great balance of filters; with some of them adding just the slightest enhancement. Notice in the image above I've added a filter that makes the bride pop without looking too "different".

Polaroid and vintage effects




screen shot of adding light leaks (solid tube)

The vintage look is really popular right now and Exposure 4 does not fall short in this area either. If you like the lofi look, Exposure 4 includes 25 Polaroid filters and an additional 25 vintage filters.

Using Exposure 4 with Lightroom 4
I was hoping that as I was editing a wedding in Lightroom I could simply add effects to each image as I go. Sadly, it is not that simple. To add an effect to an image or a group of images Exposure 4 must first export that Raw file or files into a separate Jpeg. This takes a lot of time with my D800 files. Because of this I only found it useful to edit a few images at a time rather than opening up every single image at once. I was hoping that Exposure 4 would be the ultimate way to color grade and entire wedding but it's too slow to be practical. Instead, I've decided to continue my old method of editing a wedding in Lightroom, exporting the Jpegs, and then running a batch in Photoshop that puts the same Exposure "look" on each image.

Other effects


If you want to go beyond a simple filter, Exposure makes that extremely simple as well. In the top example I've added a light leak to the upper left of the image to not only enhance the picture but also hide the guy in the background. Directly above I've added some scratches to the flower picture to give it a more realistic vintage look.

How much does it cost?
Exposure 4 cost $249.00. This may be a deal breaker for some of you but if you shoot for a living, this is a small price to pay. Luckily you don't have to take my word for it. Instead, I would suggest using the 30 day free trial to see if this software is worth it for you.

The good
Extremely fast
Hundreds of effects
Total control over each effect
Works in Photoshop and Lightroom

The bad
Not great for editing hundreds or thousands of images at once
Cannot edit RAW files (must be converted to jpeg or tiff first)
Fairly clunky and slow when used with Lightroom

Alien Skin Exposure 4 is the best photo enhancing software I've ever used. If you are the type of shooter that works on individual images one by one, I would highly suggest trying Exposure 4. If you are a wedding or event shooter that wants to edit a large number of images at once, Exposure 4 will not be as quick. Luckily you don't have to take my word for it because Alien Skin allows you to try out each of their programs for free for 30 days.

Lee Morris's picture

Lee Morris is a professional photographer based in Charleston SC, and is the co-owner of

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Why on earth doesn't it work with RAW files? Converting multiple files to TIFF is a ball ache to say the least.

I thought the same thing until I really thought about the way Lightroom works. In Lightroom you can make a million changes to a RAW file but it doesn't actually make these changes until you batch them out. So I'm sure they could make it work with a RAW file but it would be the original, "as shot" RAW file. The flaw with this is that you don't want to add an effect to the original RAW you want to add an effect to the file AFTER you fix it in lightroom. To work on this "fixed" image, Exposure has to allow Lightroom to export it into a working "fixed" file.

Lightroom is a Non-Destructive image editor so the look isn't baked in untill the end. The look untill baked is stored in a meta-data file outside of the original image. Would depend on: 1) Lightrooms ability to interpret the plugin data look seperate from the meta-data it's been appended to. 2) Create a second meta-data file for the plugins effect and manually load it seperately because the plugin may not be able to run sandboxed inside of lightroom and run native code. Not a programmer but that seems like the reason this isn't currently done that way.

With that said, Nik Color Efex and Silver Efex Pro both work the same, converting from RAW to  TIFF before editing, they are by far my preferred plugin programs. 

digital looks to perfect or why does people love that instagram and other stuff to make it less perfect?
millions of photographer using the same exposure 4 effects.. that´s not what i call creative.
maybe people use instagram, exposure and co. because out of camera all digital images look so similiar. but then when everyone uses a plugin the images will look similiar again...
keep in mind.. only because you have a plugin you don´t have to use it on ALL your images!!

I would like to debate this point but I want to make it clear that Alien Skin is not an advertiser and they did not pay me to write this article. I have used the software for years and so I am simply a fan. 

In my opinion I think saying "everyone is using Exposure so everyone's pictures look the same" is like saying "everyone uses photoshop so everyones images look the same". There are over 400 effects that Exposure gives you to start with and then unlimited options to tweak from there. Also, you can always combined effects meaning there are limitless ways to edit your images. 

All instagram images look the same because everyone does use the exact same 20 effects and these effects are so over the top. Most of the effects in Exposure are so subtle nobody could pick them out, especially if you take an extra 10 seconds and tweak it. 

I have heard people say things like this before, I have to think they have never used this type of plugin software.  This is another creative tool that you can use or choose not to use for your Lee said there are endless possibilities to use this product (and most other PS plugins).  To say that everyone's images looks the same is treating this like instagram (whereas you cannot adjust the filters).  This software provides a staring point that you can apply a certain look adjust it to your liking and save to PS where you then have the full control of PS to do even more customization.

Let's face it taking a picture right out of the camera and handing it to a client is rare these days..they want the wow, the oohhs and ahhhs that they have come to expect thanks to apps like instagram and others, this tool is one more option in an arsenal of software to make that happen easier, faster and still allow you to have creative control.

And so what if certain styles or effects make the picture "less perfect"? To me, if it adds character and interest to your photo, why the hell not? It's like saying, "why turn images into black and white, when color is available".

I found out about Exposure 4 a few months ago and I was totally impressed. I hadn't seen any other program with so many realistic options. I consider myself a "purist" photographer and love to have a medium format camera handy. But because of this software and the resolution achieved with the D800 I'm sadly comfortable letting go of the time, cost and trouble that comes with shooting film in 2012. 

I don't see why people are so resistant to plugins like these. They don't make bad photos good, they make good photos better IF (and only if) you know what you're doing, and if you have a creative mind. 

Agreed with Lee. You can work on your own  "creative" improvements to the photos all you want starting from exposure composition and in camera stuff, then in lightroom, then finally this is one other tool to give a finish. I would call it attention to detail. 

I've not bothered with plug-in filters up to now - but dipping my toe into stylizing images more such as toning etc I'm starting to investigate.

What would people's opinions be of Alien Skin Exposure vs Nik Color Efex ?

I have used many many different plugins, actions, etc. and I can say one thing for sure: Exposure 4 is awesome! It's fast, the effects are endless (many many ways to tweak even just one effect), it has borders (many other products will charge you for the borders alone), you can adjust grain, sharpness, push process, tone, etc. I have yet to come across any other software with so much versatility. This is why I've kept buying since the very first version came out.

Just going to point it out, but Visual Supply Co's film emulation packs walk all over this. And they work with RAW. Lightroom. ACR. Aperture. And have individual profiles to compensate for the natural colour of your camera.

The accuracy of these presets don't come anywhere near the depth and complexity of chemical emulsion. It's pretty much impossible to replicate the true intricacy (and deviance) of a film's reactions to changes in colour, exposure and processing, but this is a fairly weak effort. I don't know what that flower bouquet is supposed to look like, but it sure as hell isn't Ektachome.

VSCO does a much more passable job, in my dubious opinion.

Or just use the damn curves, and come up with your own look. All the the features of any of these products are already available in your post processing software of choice.