Review: Alien Skin Exposure 3

Rating: 
Body: 

Pros: Speedier than previous versions; huge range of presets; some editing tools are unique

Cons: Expensive; duplicates some functionality built into Photoshop, especially CS5

Rating: 90 out of 100

I don't know any professional photographers who miss the day-to-day hassles of shooting with film: expense, lack of instant review, slow turnaround times, noxious chemicals. However, while experienced film shooters can pick specific films to get particular looks, digital cameras always give you the same color and contrast response. (You can tweak processing settings, but you'll get the most processing room latitude if you shoot in raw. And you still need to learn how to digitally recreate film effects.)

If you miss the days of achieving certain looks with film, or if you simply want a quick way to change images' appearance, check out Exposure 3, the latest update to Alien Skin's film-simulation software. A Photoshop plug-in, Exposure 3 is compatible with CS3 through CS5 (in 32 or 64-bit mode) as well as Lightroom 2 and 3.

Using Exposure
Exposure 3 is actually two plug-ins: one for black and white simulations, and one for color. Both are straightforward.

Open any RGB image in Photoshop, launch the plug-in, and you'll see a large preview of your image (Figure 1). Exposure 3 is much zippier than its predecessors, with noticeably quicker redrawing of its preview window. Click on any image to see a larger version.Figure 1. Screen updating is much faster than in previous versions.

On the left of the Exposure window is a list of film stocks. And when I say there's a list of film stocks, I mean there's a LIST OF FILM STOCKS! Exposure 3 has more than 500 presets for a huge range of films (Figure 2).

Figure 2. These are just a few of the color film stock choices.

Even if you don't have much film experience, you'll recognize a few names, such as Kodachrome. Experienced shooters will be excited to see pretty much all major film stocks going back 75 years.

Hover your mouse over a preset and a tooltip appears that briefly describes that stock. You can learn about the characteristics of stocks or processes that you may have heard about but never used. Ever wondered what kind of results you could expect from an Autochrome process or Daguerrotype? Slap those presets on your image and see for yourself. The film emulation is amazingly accurate (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The color example is the original photo; I applied the Daguerrotype preset to get the sepia-toned version.

Many presets have several variations. For example, Fuji FP-100C comes in a stock version, a version with a magenta cast, one with a slight blur, and another left "too long in the pod." These aren't just random tweaks. The presets mimic the ways that people used specific film. For example, Fuji Reala comes stock, or with a preset that's pushed a stop -- a common processing technique for this film.

As with any plug-in that offers a huge arrange of presets, Exposure 3's list can be overwhelming, especially if you don't have film experience. The film shooter might think, "Oh boy, they've got Fuji Pro 400H!" (Film shooters don't get out much, what with all that time they have to spend in darkrooms, so they're easily excited.) But the user with a digital-only background might see an overwhelming list of arcane options. The following tips will help you make it through the film preset forest:

• There are separate lists of print and slide films in the color plug-in. Slide films tend to have more contrast and saturation than print films.
• The least latitude is in slide films and slow black and white films.
• Fuji color is a little more saturated than Kodak color.
• Agfa color is a little more red than other brands.
• Kodak EPN film is very color-accurate.
• The most noticeable differences between the black and white films are variations in grain.

A lot of presets go beyond simple film stocks. For example, in the Fading section, you'll find film stocks that have been "aged" to create authentically distressed, aged, and faded results. There are a few other categories I'll get to later in this review.

Customizing
Exposure 3's editing tools let you customize presets to achieve a very specific look. For the most part, the plug-in's default color and tone adjustment tools, while very good, don't do anything you can't do in Photoshop. The power of having them in Exposure is that you can build their effects into a preset that you can easily apply to multiple images.

There are a few adjustments that don't have a corollary in Photoshop. Exposure's Focus controls let you apply standard sharpening adjustments to your image, and they give you the option of doing so in an uneven manner that's sharper in the middle than on the edge (Figure 4). This simulates the results of a toy camera's plastic lens.

Figure 4. The blur tool includes a lens warp slider that lets you create uneven focus across your image. Here, the middle is less blurred than the edges.

Exposure's grain, dust, and scratch controls create incredibly realistic results and are great not just for realistic simulation of specific film stocks, but for beating up an image to create texture and atmosphere. A new set of vignette tools let you build sophisticated vignetting into your image.

The practical upshot of many of these tools is that you can combine them to create the low-fidelity looks so popular now thanks to the proliferation of toy cameras and iPhone applications like the Hipstamatic (Figure 5). If you're not interested in spinning your own weird, distorted look, don't worry; Exposure 3 packs a huge assortment of lo-fi presets.

Figure 5. One of Exposure's Holga lo-fi presets with additional dust and scratches.

There are also presets for vignettes and tonal adjustments.

On the black and white side of things, you'll find, in addition to the tools mentioned above, infrared simulation. IR sim can sometimes look like an obvious hack, but Alien Skin's IR algorithms are realistic (Figure 6). The ability to control the amount of halation (blooming) around highlights is really cool.

Figure 6. One of Exposure's IR filters applied to a portrait.

Many people will choose Exposure just for the black and white plug-in -- not necessarily to emulate a particular film stock, but because it's such an easy way to get an instant assortment of compelling black and white conversions. While Exposure lacks the localized toning control of Nik Software's SilverEfex, Exposure 3 does match the authenticity of SilverEfex's simulations.

Do You Need It?
Now the bad news: It ain't cheap. At $249, you'll need to think about what it offers over Photoshop, especially now that CS5 offers good grain simulation controls.

Exposure 3 provides well-researched, accurate simulations of specific film stocks; more control over grain and other aging effects than does Photoshop; and excellent black and white conversion. It's great for pro photographers who want to develop a specific look and quickly apply it to many images. Likewise, Exposure 3 is well-suited to art directors who need to simulate or match a particular look, or who crave a distinctive stamp on imagery. Unless your budget is threadbare, I think it's worth the price.

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