The Joy of Film, Without the Mess: Exposure 4

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.,Cr.,CPP

With film cameras becoming a thing of the past, and many studios relying exclusively on digital darkrooms, we're seeing a new generation of photographers that has never known the joys of developing and printing film. Despite this, many photographers search for the ultimate action or filter to get that old-school film look for their images. It's tough to find something that closely approximates the look of film, but I think I've found the tool that's up for the challenge. Whether you're trying to capture the look of a daguerreotype, or a specific year of Kodachrome, Alien Skin Software’s Exposure 4 has the flexibility to get you there. Running as a plugin within Photoshop or Lightroom, Exposure 4 offers a wide array of features and customization options. 

In order to develop realistic film looks, the developers at Alien Skin software studied film grain photomicrographs of available film stocks and conducted test shoots under controlled light situations.  For discontinued film, they relied on photo archives and the expertise of a number of photographers. This attention to detail paid off, in my opinion, as the results are the most realistic film grain and processing effects I've seen to date.

There are a number of impressive new features in Exposure 4: the redesigned interface (see below), improved speed, group presets, and thumbnail previews, to name a few. I found the plugin to be very user friendly, and was able to dive right in without even having to watch any tutorials or read directions. 

exposurepanel_wetplate_we0412.jpgThe plugin consists of a main image viewing area (center), and two side panels that can be minimized. The center area includes the image, and a menu bar that spans the width of the window.  This menu bar includes a button for saving custom presets, zoom functions, and a before/after view option. On the left panel, there is a thumbnail viewer and all the various settings that you can apply; there is a tab for factory settings as well as user settings. There's also a search bar that you can use to query keywords. On the right, you'll see a number of settings tabs that allow further customization and tweaking.

exposure_usersetting_we0412.jpgWhen you save your custom setting, you select a name, choose a category, and can even add a description.

There are six settings tabs: color, tone, focus, grain, IR, and age. All six have many customizable sliders for tweaking, or you can use one of the group presets. I found the group presets were very convenient, and added a layer of flexibility to the pre-existing exposure settings. In the screenshot below, you'll see that most of the different texture and border settings can be accessed from the "age" setting tab. This is great if you love the border on one of the vintage looks, but want to use a "modern" film toning.

exposure_groupsettings_we0412.jpgUsing several existing settings, I selected the Polapan – Pink Blue option, but then changed the split toning to platinum, and the tone to "crush blacks" (for this specific image, the default tone just gave the whole image an underexposed feel). I also adjusted the split toning slider to the left so as to open up the shadows a bit more.

exposurepanel_polapanmodified_we0412.jpgThe end result produced an image which retained its character and detail, with the addition of a lovely platinum tone and natural-looking grain.

exposure_20142141web_we0412.jpgThe presets look very nice straight out of the box too. Here's an example where I simply applied one of the Kodachrome settings (warm skin tone). 

exposure_20141119web_we0412.jpgI love all the vintage film and processing settings, and finally found an image that I felt could benefit from the addition of old-world feel.  This one is a modification of one of the wet plate settings.

exposure_20248011web_we0412.jpgIn Photoshop, Exposure can be accessed via Filters > Alien Skin > Exposure 4.  Once you've applied your exposure settings, Exposure 4 creates a duplicate layer named something along the lines of "Exposure 4 - Wet Plate - Tab Frame (selenium/gold)." This method of applying the exposure settings is non-destructive to the original image, and allows you to remember what settings you used at a later date. As a big fan of non=destructive editing workflow, I found this feature to be a big selling point. In Lightroom, Exposure 4 technically runs as an external editor ( Edit In > Exposure 4); you can select just one image, or multiple images, and the editor will allow you to process multiple images at once (with just one batch effect, or different effects for particular images). Lightroom will ask you how to edit the image, and to continue the non-destructive workflow concept it is best to choose "Edit a Copy with Lightroom Adjustments." The multiple image option via the plugin interface is only available in Lightroom. If you want to edit more than one image in Photoshop, you'll have to record a batch action.

You'll need a system with an Intel Core 2 Processor, either Mac (OS X 10.6+) or PC (Vista+), and a monitor resolution of at least 1024x768. The better your computer's processor, the more quickly Exposure 4 is purported to run. Exposure 4 is compatible with Photoshop CS4 or later, Lightroom 2 or later, and Photoshop Elements 9 or later. Exposure 4 retails for $249; a free trial is available for download as well. To view more example images, visit

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.,Cr.,CPP, owns her own portrait studio in Michigan ( and blogs about business and life at


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 6, 2012 8:56 AM.

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