Artsy photo filters don't make me as cranky as they do Stephen Shankland. That said, I generally prefer the subtle to over-the-top. And I give B&W a pass even if it's only special pleading because of the many years I spent doing B&W photography with film. Thus, when Alien Skin offered me a look at their new Exposure 4, which can "accurately simulate classic films, like Kodachrome, Polaroid, and Panatomic-X," it caught my eye. It sounded like effects I might actually use rather than dabble with one or twice and then forget about.
The software works with either Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. I use the latter almost exclusively for my photo editing these days, so that's how I tested Exposure. Lightroom is a "non-destructive editor," which means that changes made within Lightroom are essentially stored as a change log relative to the original image rather than altering the bits in the image itself as Photoshop and other traditional editing programs do. The implication is that because Exposure (and competitive products such as those from Nik Software) have to work outside the framework of Lightroom's non-destructive settings, you'll typically make a copy of an image, work on it within Exposure, and then return to Lightroom. This whole workflow is reasonably well automated though, so it's certainly not onerous.
Exposure has all manner of effects including soft focus and dust & scratches. However, its centerpiece is a wide range of film types that it attempts to simulate. I don't buy their marketing copy that claims "the result is a photo that looks like it was made by a human, not a computer." (And, in fact, I'm not even sure what that means.) However, it's a nice collection of both color and B&W effects, many of them quite restrained. I certainly don't claim to be an expert on the nuances of all the films represented but, for those with which I'm at least passingly familiar, the effects seem appropriate. Below, I apply presets to a few photos in my Lightroom collection.
The first photo, of a dead tree in Utah, shows the conversion from a fairly conventionally processed color image to a Platinum B&W effect.
This next takes a woman standing in fog in Montepulciano, Italy and punches it up subtly using a Velvia 50 effect. While I was never a huge fan of Velvia when I was shooting film, in this case I like the pop the effect gives relative to my initial editing.
Finally, we have a faded Kodacolor effect applied to a railroad crossing in the Mojave desert.
The program has a lot of features but it does a nice job of hiding most of the complexity until you want to dive in. My experience was that using standard effects offered a lot of good options right out of the box. The company says that the user interface was redesigned for Exposure 4. I don't have a comparison point but I certainly had no major complaints.
The one significant downside is one that I suspect will be a show stopper for a lot of potential users: the price at $249. This is a product that is priced for professionals, often I assume portrait or wedding photographers looking for a particular look that they can apply quickly and consistently across many pictures.
Bottom line: Nice interface, nice effects, but at a price that will scare off casual users.
You can also check out Stephen Shankland's review on CNET.