Alien Skin Exposure
Recreate the look of the films you loved
By Wendell Benedetti
Alien Skin Software advertises its latest Photoshop plug-in, Exposure, as bringing the look and feel of film to digital photography. As "the closest thing to film since film," it's supposed to make digital images look like they were shot on film. That impressive claim piqued my curiosity. I had to have a look.
Installation on a Windows XP configured imaging workstation went without a hitch and the 48-page instruction manual more than adequately covered the program's features with colorful illustrations. Everything worked as advertised, but it didn't take long to discover that Exposure offers a lot more than film simulation.
Exposure actually does three different things. Using pre-configured tools it simulates black-and-white and color film stock as well as an assortment of darkroom/studio effects. It also offers an array of powerful image optimization tools. First and foremost, though, Exposure simulates specific film stocks. That's its primary, unique purpose. Its secondary features are simply a bonus.
Alien Skin developed the plug-in by researching the characteristics of 28 different current and vintage color and black-and-white films. Its technicians considered grain patterns, color saturation and temperature, dynamic range and overall sharpness in developing a software engine that faithfully re-creates the characteristics of film. Now in version 1.0, it supports 28 film stocks including several old personal favorites. They are Kodachrome 25, Ektachrome 100 (the cool version from the mid-'70s), Fuji Velvia 100, Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5-400, Kodak T-Max 100 and GAF 500. It also supports several versions of Fuji Neopan, Ilford Delta 100, Kodak HIE and Fuji Provia, among others. Kodak Professional Plus-X is conspicuously missing.
Exposure's graphical user interface (GUI) is much like Alien Skin's other plug-ins. It is divided into two sections. The right portion holds the preview window, with zoom control and before-and-after button, while the left-hand side is made up of five tabs. All the plug-in's functions are accessed from within the tab menus and applied to a new layer, with unlimited undos.
Images, above: Exposure's primary functions are accessed from within five tab menus. The accompanying preview window can be configured 9 different ways.
The Settings tab takes care of the film stock and darkroom/studio selections; the Color tab has tools that optimize the color channels and toning combinations; the Tone tab includes a curve editor and linked sliders; the Focus tab is an unsharp filter; and the Grain tabs lets users tweak virtually every aspect of the applied film grain.
Digitally simulating a specific film stock is straightforward. Simply load the image into Photoshop, call up the Exposure plug-in and choose the desired film stock under the Settings tab. A modified version of the image immediately appears in the preview window, which can be configured to show only the modified image or various configurations of the original and modified images. Conversion requires no user input. Everything is automatic. No tweaking or modifications are required.
As expected, Tri-X produced a very grainy image with the loss of varying amounts of image detail. Kodachrome 25 produced little if any grain with slightly warm tones, while GAF's 500 produced significant grain with very warm tones. All 28 film simulations seemed to match what I remember seeing in the darkroom or as slides. Color saturation and temperature, dynamic range and overall sharpness all appeared to match the selected film stock.
If there is one minor caveat it is how the program creates film grain on very low-resolution images. Although its grain simulation algorithm works well with high- and medium-resolution digital images, the pixel structure of really low-rez images interferes with the simulated film grain the plug-in applies. That degrades the process. Consequently, low-resolution digital images are not good candidates for conversion.
Exposure's other pre-configured tools emulate darkroom and studio effects. Although not unique to Exposure, they optimize grain and sharpness and simulate cross-processing different films and chemicals in the darkroom. Some create calotype and daguerreotype output while others generate glamour shots and apply blue, selenium, sepia, and tetenal copper toning. Over 50 different darkroom and studio effects are included.
Exposure's pre-configured film stock and darkroom/studio tools rely on hard-coded algorithms. Its image optimization tools are a different story. While straying a bit from the primary purpose of the application, these tools (mostly sliders) adjust sharpness, manage grain density and size, configure toning schemes, adjust color saturation and tweak shadow, midtone, and highlight settings, all from within the plug-in. They look and function a lot like their counterparts in Photoshop.
Exposure goes a long way to bring the look and feel of film to digital photography, with the added bonus of studio/darkroom effects and very functional optimization tools. It gives digital photographers a taste of what vintage films offered and a little nostalgia for anyone who has a background in shooting and processing film.
Images, below: Examples of five different simulated films.
Alien Skin's latest plug-in should run efficiently on most entry-level imaging workstations. It requires Adobe Photoshop CS or later, Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 or later, Macromedia Fireworks MX 2004 or later, Corel Paint Shop Pro 9.0 or later (Windows only). Windows requirements: 2 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256 MB RAM and Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Macintosh requirements: 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256 MB RAM and Mac OS X 10.3.8 or later. Exposure carries a list price of $199. Upgrade pricing is available for owners of other Alien Skin products. It can be downloaded and purchased at www.alienskin.com.
Images, above: Exposure's Darkroom/Studio effects simulate everything from cross-processing films and chemicals in the lab to glamour shots.