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1. Software Review - Alien Skin's Exposure


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Alien Skin's "Exposure"
a software review by Larry Davis

Alien Skin's Exposure

Where has all the film gone?
With the advent of digital photography, most photographers are now trading in their old film bodies for high tech digital cameras utilizing CCD and CMOS sensors as their "film" to capture images. Gone are the days when we used to purchase Fuji Velvia to create vivid landscape photographs, Kodak T-MAX 3200 for low light situations and high grain output, and cross processed E6 film in C41 chemicals for that otherworldly look. Sure, we can still purchase these films for the film cameras, but how many of us even own a film camera nowadays? My Hasselblad's were sold a few years ago and all I have remaining are an old Nikon 35mm body and a 4x5 view camera, both of which are collecting dust in the back of my closet. I even have a pile of 4x5 sheet film and several rolls of 35mm film laying around somewhere that have never been used. If you are like me, you probably miss the days of experimenting with different film types in your cameras to see what type of effect you could achieve in your photos.

Alien Skin Exposure to the rescue!
Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy experimenting with film types for different looks in our images, or for those who would shoot one type of film for specific shooting situations, Alien Skin Software recently released their "Exposure" plug-in software to mimic and closely replicate old school film. As a plug-in for either Adobe Photoshop, or Jasc Paint Shop Pro, Exposure is easy to use and even easier to install.

What's in the box?
Exposure ships in what looks like a VHS video case, which seems to be Alien Skin's way of reminding us about the program's abilities to take us back to an analog world through this unique software. They seem to have ditched the CD / DVD cases and opted instead for a big plastic box that reminds me of the days of analog videos. Is this packaging scheme coincidence? Did Alien Skin get a break on these big boxes from a supplier? Maybe it's just a subtle marketing approach? Okay, enough about the box :-)

Inside the retail box we find an informative instructional booklet with a handy "cheat sheet" of keyboard shortcuts on the back cover. Yes, Exposure has keyboard shortcuts built into it for quick editing and you can define your own shortcuts. You can even save and email the shortcuts to your friends - more on this later. Lastly, there is the usual mail-in registration card to register the software with Alien Skin.

Okay, so what does Exposure do?
Exposure is the first software I have ever seen specifically developed to reproduce the effects of different film types through digital means. The true nature of this software is not released until you begin playing with it to see what it is capable of. At a $199 price point, a plug-in better do something serious for me other than what I can whip out in Photoshop in 5 minutes, or believe me - I will not be a happy customer. Well, the good news is Exposure is capable of producing effects in images that would take even Photoshop experts a long time to produce through manual means. In fact, some of the grain properties in Exposure would be nearly impossible to replicate in real world situations by most photographers.

User Interface

The interface of Exposure is in the form of a pop-up that contains all of the menus and selections we need to control the various features of the plug-in. I find the interface to be intuitive and easy to use without much thought being given to figure out what a specific tab or menu item's purpose is. All of the main menu controls are located on the left pane of the window with the image and control selections being located on the right side.

One of the most interesting and exciting features of the user interface is the "Preview Split" functionality where we can see the image before it is manipulated by Exposure on one side and the final image product after processing on the other side. This is a really unique feature that makes it very easy to see what's happening with the image in real time as we are selecting colors, changing contrast, etc. A before / after toggle button can also be pressed in addition to having the preview split function to see the entire image as-is in its unedited state and after the filter is applied. The split bar can even be moved to different parts of the image to provide you with the split set up that suits you best. I prefer the diagonal bottom right set up that defaults when the plug-in is opened.

Program Menus

Settings Menu
One of the most exciting aspects of Exposure is the "Settings" menu, which contains a set of 35 preset film emulation filter settings, in addition to a host of other presets emulating toning processes, grain settings in mid tones and shadows, and even special presets to make your images look like a 19th Century calotype, or Daguerreotype. In case you want to experiment with Daguerreotypes, but are not into messing with raw silver halides, or mercury for that matter, then you can do it with this software by pointing with your mouse and pecking at your keyboard.

Some of the more well known films included in the factory settings list include: Fuji Provia 100F; Kodak Ektachrome 100VS; the Kodak T-MAX lineup of films; Kodak Tri-X 400 among several others. Lesser known and even long extinct film types represented include: GAF 500; Kodak Ektachrome mid-1970's and Kodachrome 25. One film type I would really like to see included in the factory settings list is Fuji Velvia 50. As a landscape photographer at heart, my film of choice for shooting landscapes when I was shooting analog was Velvia 50. Where is it?

Adding to the Settings menu's capabilities is the ability to save and manage your own "User Settings" providing you with the ability to save an unlimited number of combinations between the various controls available in the program. You can even export your settings and save them on your hard drive, CD, etc. for safe-keeping and future use. Since the settings are saved in a file type format, your settings can even be e-mailed your settings to friends or colleagues and allow them to use your own settings recipe. Wouldn't it be nice if every image editing software would give us this capability?

Color Menu / Color Film Mode
The Color menu provides us with the ability to tweak colors exactly to our liking. In the "Color Film" mode (found under the Filter top menu), we can add what can be likened to a color filter to our images. The intensity (which can be compared to opacity for Photoshop users) gives us the ability to control the overall effect of the color filter on our image. A nice feature I found just above the intensity slider is a checkbox to create the output of the filter on a layer above the current layer. This mimics the creation of a layer in other image editing software and provides a non-destructive method to applying the filter to the image.

 

Further along in the Color menu we find a color palette where we can choose the exact color for the filter, a "Filter Density" slider that controls the overall effect of the filter, and a checkbox to "Preserve Luminosity" in the image when the filter is applied. This little checkbox selection will keep the image's luminosity on an even keel no matter what selections you make in the Color selections. What this means is your image will remain at the same constant luminosity at all times and you will not see the image becoming "blocked up" by the addition of the digital color filter you are applying. Think of this as a way to open up your aperture when you place a dark filter in front of your lens.

The final selections in the Color Film version of the Color menu include separate controls for Master, Red, Green, and Blue saturation in the image. From what I could tell through my experimentation, these controls provided very specific saturation changes in the color filter, which seem to be easier to use than the saturation controls in Photoshop. This is because you are only controlling the saturation of the color filter and not the entire image. The fine tuning of color in your images is quite astonishing when you begin to play with these controls.

Color Menu / Black and White Film mode
In Black and White Film mode, the Color menu gives us the ability to convert color images to digital black and white format. One of digital photography's most difficult issues for most photographers is being able to accurately reproduce accurate black and white representations of our images in a digital format. We either find ourselves playing around with the channel mixer in Photoshop and doing our best to do something there that may get close to what we are looking for, or we go through a hundred different steps with layers, contrast settings, etc. to come up with a respectable black and white product.

When using Exposure's Color mode to reproduce a black and white image through the use of its channel mixer and Settings menu for specific film types, not only am I able to accurately reproduce my favorite look from Kodak Tri-X 400 film, but I can also see the grain in the image just like it is in the real film! The grain in the image is not just a random scattering of equally sized pixels. This grain is true to form with different sizes depicted and even variations in light on the grain itself.

Another great feature of the color menu in Black and White mode is the "Ink" that can be used to tone the image. With the color palette and slider menus for strength of the colors, I can create a duotoned image in a few clicks and slides of the mouse. The positioning of the ink can even be selected to affect either the shadows or highlights Wow! This is an impressive feature.

Tone Menu
For those of you who run away when you see the Curves menu in your image editing software, you really should get into this section of Exposure to try out its tone effects on your images. The developers have made it easy for us to manipulate the curve by applying a predefined s-curve to the initial curve for us. We can move the points around on the curve to see what happens with the tone when we do. It's really quite easy once you play with the points for a bit.

In addition to the curve feature, we also have an overall contrast setting and shadow, midtone, and highlight sliders to control all aspects of the tonal quality of the image with accurate precision. The great part about the sliders is the fact that we can actually see what is happening with the tone / curve at the top of the pane when the sliders are moved. How cool is that? This takes the guesswork out of playing around with a curve and it even helps us visualize what is happening with the curve when certain areas of the tonal range are manipulated. I consider this feature to be a built-in teaching module for those of us who are always fumbling around with the curves in search of that perfect tonal quality.

Focus Menu
Okay. You're probably thinking, "What do I need this for? Isn't this something I can do in my editing software?" Well, yes you can. However, normal image editing software such as Photoshop, or Paint Shop Pro can be difficult to manipulate when it comes to sharpening images. If an image is over sharpened, it will have a detrimental effect on the quality of the image that can be recognized by general viewers of the image, not just professional photographers. Sure, there are ways to mask images and create actions in Photoshop that will allow us to sharpen an image with the unsharpen mask to make the image presentation look accurate, but just how difficult is it to do this?

With Exposure, the sharpening problem is tackled by a simple menu of sliders that control the amount, radius (size), and threshold (this setting determines how much tonal difference must exist between two pixels before sharpening is applied). The real beauty of this sharpening system is the "Sharpen Brightness Only" checkbox, which allows us to define the sharpening to a great extent and reduce the problems found in traditional sharpening methods including artifacting, color halos, etc. This is a must-have to create sharpened color images that don't look like they were digitally manipulated. Since this setting is only useful for color images, it is not found on the Black and White Film setting.

The other control available in the Focus menu is the Blur tool. This tool provides us with the ability to manipulate the perceived focus of an image to reduce skin blemishes and wrinkles, etc. It's a very easy tool to use that gets me really excited when I try it out on portraits. This tool makes it simple to create a soft focus effect for great portrait results.

Grain
This is probably my favorite part of Exposure. For years, I have attempted to reproduce film grain in digital images, but it never seems to have the quality of real film grain produced by silver halides during processing. In my quest to reproduce this grain effect through digital means, I have been let down by what I have been able to come up with in Photoshop. My usual result is a grain pattern that looks good, but not quite natural enough. The biggest problem I find is the similar sizing of the "grains" and the near uniformity of their existence across the image. Real grain is very diverse in size and pattern – there is no uniformity at all. This is especially true when it comes to old photographs from the 19th Century.

For my digital photography of Civil War battle reenactments where I produce sepia toned prints with lots of grain, achieving an accurate representation of the grain detail and pattern is crucial to presenting final printed photographs to Civil War buffs who are very keen on seeing nuances in time period photographs. If a modern digital photograph does not match up to the real 19th Century image, they will know right away. Of course, it is not possible to reproduce the images from the 19th Century with digital cameras, but it is possible to simulate the look closely enough to make these Civil War experts rub their chins for at least a few seconds before they determine the photo is one from 21st Century technology.

With Exposure, my prayers have been answered for the creation of film grain in digital images. I am amazed by the amount of control this menu affords us to creating an image that looks like it has a realistic grain pattern. Not only can the grain size be chosen, but it can also be manipulated through how much it applies to each tonal portion of the image. By having the ability to modify the grain variances in the shadows, midtones, and highlights of the image, we can pin down the grain to just the look we are after. What’s more is the fact that the software’s developer’s actually analyzed grain patterns with microscopes of each film type they included in the factory settings! It doesn’t get much more realistic than this when it comes to grain.

Conclusion
Overall, my review of Exposure is a positive one and I can see its ease of use and flexibility in modifying the subtleties of images through simple controls a major benefit for all photographers who are shooting in digital format.

Pros
  • Ease of installation and use
  • Accurate reproduction of film types
  • Great grain!
Cons
  • A “Preferences” menu tab that does nothing more than check for product updates and offers. This seems to be a misnomer to me. Maybe it should be located above the image pane, or as part of the “Help” tab in the menu. Preferences usually provide users with the ability to set specific controls in a program.
  • Where is Velvia 50? I would not gripe about this, but it is one of the most popular landscape films of all-time.


Exposure Details

Pricing and Availability: Exposure sells for an estimated street price of $199. Registered users of other Alien Skin products receive discount pricing when ordering direct. Online delivery is available at the Alien Skin website: http://www.alienskin.com. Exposure is also available worldwide through stores, catalogs and resellers.

Host Requirements: Exposure is a plug-in and will require one of the following: Adobe Photoshop CS or later, Adobe Photoshop Elements® 3 or later, Macromedia® Fireworks® MX 2004 or later, Jasc® Paint Shop ProTM 9 or later.

System Requirements: Windows users must have at least a 2 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256 MB RAM and Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Macintosh users must have at least a 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256 MB RAM and Mac OS X 10.3.8 or later.

About Alien Skin Software: Alien Skin Software develops filters for Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Macromedia Fireworks, and Jasc Paint Shop Pro. Graphic designers and digital photographers everywhere use our plug-ins for print, Web, and photo restoration work. Makers of award-winning plug-ins since 1994, Alien Skin Software writes and sells filters that users love.

Visit Alien Skin Software at: http://www.alienskin.com



About the author:

Larry Davis is a professional photographer, web designer and author. He is also the President of Profotos.com. Larry's work has been seen by thousands of people around the globe through the online web sites he has produced. As an avid photographer, Larry enjoys photographing the landscape and the natural environment. You can see Larry's work on Profotos.com.

You can see more of Larry's work at the following websites:
www.larry-davis.com
www.incredipics.com


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