Alien Skin Exposure 7 handles RAW

We all love to enhance our photos — professionals and amateurs alike — whether it be retouching, adding filters or compositing even. Some photographers are masters at recreating a scene and endowing it with a mood or quality it almost certainly didn’t have when the scene was shot. A number of software tools help, including Photoshop, Capture One Pro and DxO Optics Pro as well as specialised tools like the subject of the current review: Alien Skin’s Exposure 7.

First let’s see where Exposure 7 differs from its predecessor which I reviewed as late as June of 2014:

  • Exposure 7 will now work on RAW files
  • The app edits your RAW files non-destructively in stand-alone mode
  • The stand-alone mode comes with a folder browser
  • Crop & Rotate are easier, with the ability to crop/rotate in one single action
  • A bunch of new film emulation presets have been added — again
  • A set of very nice new textures has been added, courtesy renowned photographers Lara Jade, Parker J Pfister and Fundy.

All of these new features work excellently, which is what you should expect from an established company like Alien Skin. There’s ony one problem that you’re bound to encounter with the stand-alone mode. If you’re using an app launcher like LaunchBar (my favourite), QuickSilver or Alfred, you won’t be launching the stand-alone mode, but the plug-in mode as a stand-alone app.

That wouldn’t be a problem if not for the folder browser not showing and you not being able to open images for editing. I scratched my head over this one and was almost ready to perform a rain dance, until I decided to launch the app from the Finder. It worked as it is supposed to. Only when you use a middleman to launch the app will it fail to load the right mode!

Using Exposure 7 for RAW

With that out of the way, let’s get to business. First of all, RAW support is brilliant. The “looks” of an image decoded from RAW depends on the demosaicing algorithm used. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn Alien Skin uses the Apple one, which comes with the OS and is excellent. However, Alien Skin developed and uses its own proprietary RAW decoding algorithm. As a developer, if you’re going to decode the RAW image, you’re blurring the line between delivering a filter and a photo editing tool. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’ll always have people who prefer using another algorithm.

Exposure 7
Dumb and badly lit image of person in front of furniture — original.

In this market space and except for the camera manufacturers’ own software, some four contenders are active delivering slightly different results on RAW decoding alone (Phase One, Apple, Adobe, DxO). Depending on your taste, you could still prefer one of the alternatives besides the decoder used by Alien Skin. After all, we are dealing with professional — or at the very least serious amateur — imaging and the decoding algorithms do differ quite a bit.

With Exposure 7 you get the best of both worlds:

  • If you prefer using another RAW decoder, for example Capture One, then by all means do. Export the file to TIFF, Photoshop PSD or JPEG and re-import into Photoshop where you can use Exposure 7 as a plug-in
  • If you like the Alien Skin RAW decoding, you can start being creative much sooner as you will prefer using Exposure 7 in stand-alone mode.

Exposure 7 comes with a bunch of new film emulation presets, including Kodak films like Portra 160 and 400 (based on 2010/2011 films), Kodak Gold 100, Fuji Superia Xtra 400 and others. As explained in my piece on film emulation, Alien Skin is one of the companies (like Phase One) who don’t actually scan films, but emulate them using complex algorithms that allow you to come close to the original look.

Film emulation: scan or mimic?

Some people might stick up their noses in the air when they find out film is not scanned in at Alien Skin. However, as my background piece revealed already, there are a number of problems with scanning film as opposed to emulating it fully. In addition, the emulations delivered with Exposure have always been very attractive (and the ones I could compare are close to the real thing) and the new versions are of the same quality as the emulations included with previous versions, but as there are so many of them it’s hard to tell if they deliver exactly the same look as the original — and frankly: who cares?

Exposure 7 after editing
Same dumb badly lit image as above with Texture, film emulation, vignetting, light effect…

If you want to shoot and make people believe you’re shooting film, then shoot film! With film emulation, isn’t the mood more important than the accuracy? If we agree on the latter, then the accuracy of the emulation is nice for those of us who can still remember what film looked like. But we’re a dying breed and for all those who come after us, film emulation really is only a look.

What I personally find even more appealing about Exposure 7 than film emulation are Overlays (textures, borders, light effects) and Bokeh integration. The Bokeh integration too has an emulation mode where specific lenses are emulated — since lenses are here to stay with us for some time to come, it makes a lot of sense to emulate your lens with Bokeh — or another one, of course. With respect to Bokeh, I can safely say there is little difference between the bokeh of my physical Zeiss lens and the emulated effect in Exposure 7.

The Overlays complete the mood creation and Exposure 7 has a bunch of new Textures that are simply to drool over. They’ve been created by renowned art photographers and a nice thing about them is that you can protect a part of your image that you don’t want to see affected by the texture.

What’s lacking

There’s only one thing I would love to see added to the stand-alone mode of Exposure: the ability to mask areas to apply effects on areas of an image only — that would allow you to create a monochrome image with only specific areas in full colour, for example.

As it is now, Exposure 7 is a great addition to your image editing toolbox, but it’s not exceptional. A new licence costs approx. €125.00. An upgrade sets you back approx. €58.00.

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