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
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.
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.
Hundreds of effects
Total control over each effect
Works in Photoshop and Lightroom
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.