About Thomas Fitzgerald

Thomas is a professional fine art photographer and writer specialising in photography related instructional books as well as travel writing and street photography. 

 First Look at Exposure 5

First Look at Exposure 5

A while ago I did a short review of Exposure X4. I found that while the software was generally fairly good, it had one serious limitation, and that was that there was no lens corrections in it. Well, Exposure X5 has just been released and it finally corrects that shortcoming, so I thought I would take another look at it.

The company that makes exposure recently changed its name from Alien Skin to Exposure Software, which I guess reflects the direction they are taking. The previous company has been around a long time and people who have worked in the industry for a while will remember that they were a long time creator of photoshop plug-ins. In fact, Exposure, the precursor to Exposure X, was one of the earliest ways of emulating film that I can remember. Exposure X is the companies photo workflow application built on their film simulation technologies, and it’s now in its 5th incarnation.

The Interface

When you first open the software, you will notice that it has a familiar look to it. They have pretty much emulated the look and feel of Lightroom, and whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. Personally, I find the look a little dated, and I would prefer a more modern UI at this stage. But it is functional, and if you’re coming from Lightroom, everything is easy to find.

In the centre of the interface is the main viewer area, and around this, the controls are broken into 4 quadrants.

Exposure X5 Interface

On the top left is the Navigator, Histogram and Folders. The folders are pretty much the same as the older view in Lightroom, except that it is a live view of the contents of your hard drive, and not actually a separate database, as far as I can tell. So if you have a folder on your drive it will come up here, and you don’t have to add it to the software, it’s just there.

On the bottom left are the Presets. These contain settings for various film stocks as well as other presets for things like colour effects, split toning and so on. There are also presets for Fuji film simulations(more on that in a minute).

On the top right is a shot section for layers, the process version and an overall intensity slider, and on the bottom right (the main part) is the main adjustment controls.

This multiple quadrant layout for the controls makes it easy to fit everything into the one view but it is a little cluttered and I think a tabbed interface for some of these might have been better. Especially the left hand controls where everything feels like its on top of everything else and you are constantly re-sizing the layout.

The software doesn’t really have a database in the same way that Lightroom does. Folders are “live” so if you add a subfolder it will show up in the browser. There is also only very rudimentary album creation tools in the form of the ability to create “collections”. You can create smart collections based on search criteria, but the interface and options are limited compared to Lightroom.

Overall performance is fairly fast and I didn’t notice any speed issues testing it out. It’s not sluggish in any way, so it is fine for working on a lot of images, and the speed doesn’t slow you down.

The Controls

While some of the controls are similar to Lightroom, there are a few things that are different. Instead of Lightroom’s selective edits, you get layers and each layer can have its own mask.

In terms of the actual adjustments, there are the usual exposure controls, shadow and highlight controls and so on, all very similar to Lightroom. However the software does have some additional features. It has a far more extensive set of grain tools, and unlike Lightroom you can simulate colour grain. You can also control the amount of grain for the shadows, midtowns and highlights separately. This makes it very useful for more accurately simulating various types of accurate film grain.

There are also additional tools for simulating softness with the blur option, and there are options to do things like texture overlays for simulating light leaks, scratches and dust and so on, as well as borders and lens flares.

Overlay and Texture Controls - Exposure X5

There is also a tool that allows you to do out of focus Bokeh effects, called “Bokeh” which lets you simulate things like tilt and shift, edge softness and more. There’s quote a comprehensive range of tools for simulating various camera and lens effects, and this is probably the software’s strengths.

You can also work in layers, and you can add multiple layers with masks. This allows you to have multiple instances of various adjustments, and to do selective adjustments. Layer masks can be brushed or you can use one of the gradient tools. You can also add luminosity masks and now in version 5 you can do complex colour masking too.

Lens Corrections

One of the things that I found lacking in version 4 and it was the one feature for me that was a dealbreaker, was the lack of lens corrections and chromatic aberration correction. That has been addressed in version 5 and there is now a comprehensive set of lens correction tools, including automatic corrections based on the lens as well as additional defringing tools. Overall they work as advertised, but the defringing controls are a little confusing, especially if you’re used to the options in Lightroom.

The only issue I came across is that some of the time, I had to manually select the lens. In Lightroom it detects the lens from the metadata, but here I had to manually select it which is kind of a pain. Yet on some cameras the lens is detected automatically, so I’m not sure if this is just a bug or of only certain cameras are supported, but it seems pretty random.


One of the key features of Exposure is its film simulations. This is probably the primary reason people are going to buy this software. The application comes with a lot of presets, simulating a wide range of film options, from print and slide films such as Ektachrome, Provia, Portra and so on, to more creative options like colour infrared, polaroid as well as various vintage presets. There’s also a wide range of black and white presets.

The presets, work like they do in most other software, and set various options which in turn create the film effect. They work fine, but in my opinion, are not anything special. What I mean by this is that in many cases they are quite subtle, and don’t match my experience of shooting actual film or even look like other film simulation add ons for the likes of Lightroom, such as VSCO (now discontinued) Replichrome or MastinLabs presets. Perhaps they’re accurate and the others are wrong, but it seems like in many cases the effects are pretty weak. I realise that the quality of these is a subjective issue, but that’s what I think based on my own experience. They’re not terrible or anything, they are just not brilliant. But again, maybe I’m expecting the wrong thing.

The funny thing is, the software has the ability to use LUTS but the presets just use regular adjustments like the HSL tools or the Curves. I would imagine that they could achieve much better results if they used properly created LUTS based on actual scanned film, and that way leave the controls open for doing your own corrections on top of the presets - which you can do with layers anyway. Just a thought.

Fuji Simulations

There are also a set of Fuji simulations to simulate the various film simulation modes for Fuji Shooters. Rather than using a colour profile, or a LUT these use the various adjustments in the software. The results don’t completely match the in-camera film simulations. For me this isn’t a huge deal, but if you are expecting to use this with your Fuji camera and you want completely accurate representations of the film simulations, then you may not be happy.

In terms of the quality of Fuji conversions, the image quality is fine. There are no real artefacts, but some photos do look a little weird, as if there is a lot of chroma blurring going on. This seems to be more on higher ISO images. Overall though the quality is good, and edge detail shows none of the issues that Lightroom has.

What’s missing?

If you’re comparing it to Lightroom, then it misses some of the more advanced features like Panorama stitching and HDR merging. There’s also no book or maps modules. You can print from it but the print dialog is quite basic. You can watermark on export so that’s good, but there’s nothing like Lightroom’s publishing services. You can set up external editors, but there’s nothing like a plug-in architecture.


I’ve seen a lot of articles about exposure claiming that it is a Lightroom alternative, and depending on your needs, you could well use it to replace Lightroom. The interface does its best to mimic Lightroom, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I would prefer if they did their own thing and updated it to look more modern. The software has limited organisational tools, especially if you need to do a lot of metadata sorting and editing. The editing controls are fairly comprehensive and now with the ability to do proper lens corrections, there isn’t really any major features missing.

The tools for simulating film are quite comprehensive but in my opinion the film presets are a bit lacklustre. I suspect they’ve been carried over from the long days of Exposure’s history (the software has been around in various forms for some time) and could possibly do with being re-done from scratch. Having said that, the tools are certainly there. The ability to use the software as a plug-in is also especially useful, and you can use its creative toolset in conjunction with other software like Lightroom or Photoshop.

If I had a star rating I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.


It’s a good overall image editor, but it could do with some improvements in terms of its presets, and the interface could do with modernisation.

Exposure X5 is available now and there is a trial version available.

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