I really want to love this program! In fact, there are many things that I do love about it. First a short back story: There was a post on Facebook that created quite a stir among some photographers. Adobe was apparently going to double the price of the Photographers’ package (Lightroom and Photoshop) from $10.00 a month to $20.00 a month. That story was quickly followed by denials and assurances that the $10.00 package would stay. Nobody knows how long it will stay, but it is there for now. However, I started to think about alternatives to the famous Adobe duet and my buddy Cris Mitchell suggested the Alien Skin software. Alien Skin is by no means a new name in the digital post-production world, but I had not tried there Exposure X4 RAW processor yet. They offer a fully functional 30-day free trial, so why not? The software works as a stand alone processor or as a plugin for PS or LR. Installation is simple and the software automatically loads into the two Adobe programs as well. So far so good!
There are several things that I truly love about Exposure X4. First and foremost is the ability to do your non destructive edits in LAYERS! Adobe revolutionized the post-production world 20 years a go when they first introduced layers to the Photoshop workflow. The addition and refinement of layer masks along the way has only cemented the versatility and functionality of editing in layers. Sadly, Lightroom, which I need to say, is an incredible program (at least the “Classic” version), has yet to incorporate layers into the workflow. Yes, there is a history palette, but you start over from the point in the history chain that you choose.
Exposure X4 allows you to us non-destructive layers with BUILT IN layer masks so you can edit select portions of your image with incredible control! The mask is a “hide all” layer mask, so you first need to click “invert mask” if you want to see how the effect that you are applying looks on the entire image. Click invert mask again to hide the effect and choose the brush tool to paint in the effect where you want it and at what opacity (“flow” in this case). I played with changing the color temperature of the background in a couple of the images here to create a subtle color contrast between the foreground and the background. I also used the same techniques to selectively boost some of the contrast, color and saturation in some images.
Exposure X4 comes with many presets simulating film looks from days gone by. I was always particularly partial to Kodak films including color negative, black and white and even transparency films (I preferred Ilford paper in the darkroom though). The Kodak presets are actually pretty good in X4! There are plenty of other film simulations, but I was never a big fan—and I tried a LOT of them back in the day. I loved the Kodak Ektachrome SW film, but X4 does not have that one—yet (fingers crossed). You can lower the opacity of any of these edits to obtain the blend you desire.
This really cool feature, does, in a convoluted way, lead to a couple of the major drawbacks of the program. Two things stand out for me as significant cons to the X4 program as a stand alone program. First, there is no Dehaze slider. That may sound minor, but I have come to use that slider, often in conjunction with the clarity slider, a great deal. It is one of my go-to LR sliders. It is not in this version of X4 (I hope you are listening, Alien Skin!).
The lack of a dehaze filter steered me away from initially using X4 as a stand alone product and I chose the plug-in route instead. Hmmmm….I learned that this is really not a good idea. X4 works beautifully as a LR plugin or as a new layer in PS, BUT…the layered edits that make X4 incredible are LOST when you return to LR or save the edits as a new layer in PS. Hence, I cannot tell you which film presets I used for these images (except for the b/w conversion of the photo of Joan—that was Kodak TMAX 100—I loved that film!)
I did find a reasonable workaround until Alien Skin hopefully adds the Dehaze filter OR Adobe embraces the layer editing in LR. I edited the red flowers in the image that started this review in X4 as a stand alone and then opened a copy in PS. I made a duplicate layer and added a slight dehaze effect via a Camera Raw Filter, which acts as slightly weaker version of LR. The layered X4 edits were there when I went back later, but of course the PS edits were not there. I could then run all of my saved resize and add logo actions and move on to the next image.
One final critique of the X4 software: the healing brush tool is lousy, but I don’t like it in LR or Snapseed for that matter. Photoshop still rocks it for me when it comes to those types of edits. Bottom line: Am I going to fork over $149.00 to keep X4 in my workflow after my free trial expires? I am somewhere between “probably” and “absolutely.” It would sure be nice for one of these companies to combine the features discussed in this article.