Software Review: Alien Skin Exposure X2

January 25, 2017

By Stan Sholik


Thumbnails in the Presets panel show the look of presets applied to the working image and some of the preset adjustments are displayed in the right side panels. The dividing line between before and after views only divides the preview image down the center. Photo © Stan Sholik

Alien Skin Exposure has come a long way from its beginnings as a plug-in with a library of preset effects and film emulations. With the introduction of last year’s Exposure X, Exposure greatly increased its value and potential market by adding image browsing and non-destructive image editing. In Exposure X2, Alien Skin has increased both the preset effects library and the image-editing capabilities to further enhance the program. While I primarily used X2 as a standalone program, X2 operates both as a standalone program and as an Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Lightroom plug-in. 

The program costs $149 for new users and $99 for upgraders.

What’s New
At the request of portrait and wedding photographers looking for the currently popular “faded” look for their images, X2 adds 18 presets, some of which include adding split toning to color images, infrared halation, vignetting and other effects. There are some awesome presets in this group and they are well worth investigating. As far as I can tell, the preset adjustments to the image are reflected in the adjustments panels and I could make slight changes, then save them as a new preset if I wanted. 

But the bigger changes to X2 are in other areas. Full text search through metadata and embedded EXIF information is now available, although you cannot add IPTC data. An entirely new History panel is added to the user interface, which is saved with the image file, enabling you to see all the changes you made to an image at any later time. Support for Photoshop RGB PSD files is now available, provided you saved the files with “Maximize Compatibility in Photoshop” selected. Another welcome addition is a histogram, and the ability to drag each of the three sections of the histogram to make adjustments.

The export dialog box is greatly enhanced with all of the options I would ever need. A spot healing tool and a separate spot or cloning brush, both with size, feather and opacity sliders, are new in X2. A full- screen preview has also been added, and, behind the scenes, X2 automatically adds a lens distortion correction to your RAW files if the lens is available in the X2 database.

User Friendliness
One of the areas where X2 generally shines is user friendliness with everything happening in one well-designed workspace. Anyone familiar with previous versions of Exposure will feel right at home. For new users looking for assistance, Alien Skin provides many excellent tutorials on its website, but most photographers should be able to dive right in. You can quickly and easily import images from your camera card to your hard drive. And there is no wait for images to import into a catalog or for previews to be generated. RAW format previews import immediately and then camera corrections are applied. X2 even seems faster than the previous version. Once you are familiar with the way X2 is working, the user interface is highly customizable through the Preferences panel. If you are curious how an image would look with a preset, each category of preset opens with each preset applied to the open image. Rolling your mouse over a preset previews that preset in the main preview window. Moving the adjustment slider produces an immediate response in the main image window.

What We Liked
Exposure X combined most of the best features of Adobe Bridge and Photoshop Lightroom in a user-friendly interface. Exposure X2 builds on those features with enhanced selection and sorting options as well as enhanced output options. All of these work as expected. The new History panel that saves with an image is terrific when you come back to the image in the future and wonder what you have done to it, while still being able to access the original beneath each of the adjustments. The new clone and heal tools work very well and are a real boon to portrait photographers and anyone else needing to make small fixes to their images. Speed enhancements are always welcome and X2 puts both Bridge and Lightroom to shame in this area.

What We Didn’t Like
With the ability in X2 to search through metadata, I would like to see the addition of IPTC fields, including GPS, to the metadata options. I also have a quibble with the way the new histogram collapses in solo mode and the folder panel doesn’t, though you can play with the user interface in the preferences to adjust these to your liking. What you can’t do is unlink the solo mode from the left side panel and the right side panel, which I would prefer. You can hide these panels independently.

It would also be nice to be able to adjust the dividing line in split screen view of the full preview image. Seldom is the subject dead center where the dividing line is now set. Yes, you can zoom the image and scroll around the dividing line, but I would prefer having the ability to move the line over the full preview.

But my biggest beef is with the non-Adobe keyboard shortcuts (KBSCs). Granted, if you are new to any advanced imaging program, you can simply print them out (or not use them at all). But if you are migrating from a non-CC version of Lightroom, Photoshop Elements or a similar software that use Adobe KBSCs, you have a steep learning curve ahead. And if you’re using X2 as a plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop, well, good luck with KBSCs. On the positive side, there are KBSCs for exposure, contrast, color temperature, saturation and more that the Adobe programs do not have.

How It Compares
With the browser capabilities of Bridge and the adjustments of Lightroom, Exposure X2 measures up very favorably to both, and it is available without a subscription. X2 lacks the amateur- oriented features of Photoshop Elements, instead adding hundreds of presets, infrared simulation, bokeh controls and image borders usually only available as third-party add-ons. You won’t be doing HDR, stitching panoramas, replacing skies or composing images in Exposure X2, but you won’t need to deal with the complexity built into programs where you can do these things if you don’t need them. For the vast majority of image adjustments, Exposure X2 is an excellent choice. 

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. 

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