Verdict: 4.5 stars
Exposure X6 remains one of the best tools for recreating atmospheric analog looks and has a large catalog of inspiring preset effects. It’s also a very good all-round non-destructive image-editor, and has a rather clever image cataloguing system with hybrid approach between ‘live’ folder browsing and quite powerful search and album tools. As an upgrade, Exposure X6 is evolutionary not revolutionary, however, and the RAW processing remains half a step behind its rivals, so it’s perhaps at its best when working with JPEGs or TIFFs, or as a plug-in/external editor.
+ Highly effective browsing and cataloguing tools
+ Beautiful analog film effects
+ Virtual copies for multiple ‘looks’
+ Lens and perspective corrections
+ Flexible layer and masking system for building image effects
– Adjustment layers, but no support for image layers/montages
– More expensive than some rivals
– Not the best at RAW processing
Exposure Software has updated its Exposure X all-in-one photo organising, editing and effects software to version 6, adding a number of new tools and features to tempt existing users into upgrading and new users into trying out this stylish and evocative photo-editing solution.
Exposure X6 feels like it has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. It has a large library of effects presets which evoke analog films, darkroom effects and styles, but at the same time it has a broad range of modern editing tools to match pretty well anything in Lightroom, Capture One and other rivals.
Its RAW processing is not perhaps of quite the same standard as Adobe’s, Capture One’s or DxO PhotoLab’s, but its analog effects, presets and styles go further to include image borders, textures and light leaks that would normally need a bitmap-based photo-editor to create – yet in Exposure X6 they are all part of the same non-destructive workflow.
Exposure X6 works both as a standalone all-in-one program and as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop. If you like its effects but prefer Lightroom’s RAW processing a workflow, it fits in just fine. It also works as an external editor with Capture One, so likewise, if you prefer Capture One’s RAW processing and want to use it to ‘pre-edit’ RAW files before sending them to Exposure X6, that works very well too.
Exposure X6 cataloguing tools
Exposure X6 has a very simple system for cataloguing your photos. You choose the folders you want to include by ‘bookmarking’ them, and after that Exposure X6 will browse, catalog and search them ‘live’. There’s no import process and no need to sync your catalog with our folders to catch up with any external changes that may have been made in the way that you have to with regular cataloguing tools like Lightroom or Capture One.
And yet you can still add keywords (even to RAW files), create Albums and Smart Albums too. Exposure X6’s hybrid approach to cataloguing does mean that searches can sometimes taken longer, but the simplicity of the system and its ‘always live’ folder display help make up for that.
Exposure X6 editing tools
Exposure X6 is a fully non-destructive editor, despite the elaborate analog-style effects it can create. You can revise, remove or modify your adjustments at any time and export a processed JPEG or TIFF when you need it. You can also create Virtual Copies to try out as many different looks as you like – the ‘Audition Preset’ screen lets you compare up to six at a time.
The editing tools are of two types. There are the regular editing tools like Exposure, Shadows and Highlights, Curves, White Balance and Color adjustments and more, and there are ‘Overlays’ including textures, light leaks and frames. You can also add analog-style film ‘grain’ and both in-built and third-party LUTs.
The regular editing tools are really rather good. Everything you could ask for in a full-blown photo editor is here – including lens and perspective corrections and RAW processing. The RAW processing is fine if this is the only program you haver to do it with, but I think Adobe Camera Raw, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab give better results.
In Exposure X6 I think I would rather start from pre-processed images saved as JPEGs or TIFFs generated by one of these other programs, or launch it directly from these tools as a plug-in or external editor. I find Exposure X6’s RAW processing lacks the depth of color and the detail rendition of its rivals. This does depend on the camera model.
Exposure X6 presets
These are this program’s backbone and its strength. Exposure X6 offers a combination of evocative old-style analog effects and contemporary film styles that include a number of black and white treatments that I come back to time and time again.
As with other effects software, the effects in Exposure X6 are created using its various manual editing tools and effects in carefully crafted combinations. In principle, they don’t do anything you couldn’t do yourself. In practice, they seem to have been blended with considerable skill, subtlety and creativity to produce some really attractive and powerful effects, very often combining tools and adjustments in ways you might not have thought of.
There is a particular visual quality about Exposure X6’s results that mirrors the subtly different qualities of different analog films and processes. It’s more than just a bunch of effective film simulations.
What’s new in Exposure X6
Like most programs, Exposure X seems to have settled into a cycle of regular incremental updates, but that’s not to say the changes in Exposure X6 are not significant. Here’s a list:
• GPU optimisation
Exposure X6 can now use your computer’s GPU for accelerated image processing. Even so, it still seems to take a few seconds to render some large RAW file after adjustments. At other times it seems really quick, especially when editing JPEGs.
• Auto enhancement
Following the lead of rival programs, Exposure X6 now offers one-click auto adjustment of exposure, white balance, haze level, contrast and tone. These are pretty subtle, though, and don’t apply the same level of shadow and highlight recovery seen in other programs.
• Shadow and highlight processing
Exposure Software says this is now more reliable, consistent and accurate. Perhaps so, but the highlight recovery still doesn’t seem quite on a par with other RAW converters, and while you can recover highlight detail from RAW files on the base layer, the full RAW data does not seem to be available on adjustment layers.
• Profile guided noise reduction
Noise reduction is now based on individual camera profiles and the sensor characteristics. This does seem pretty effective.
• Advanced Color Editor
This is a new panel accessed from the Color palette which is designed to allow sophisticated and powerful adjustments ton individual color ranges both quickly and intuitively – and rather than simply shifting hue, saturation and luminance values, it can also swap out colors completely.
• Updated user interface
Exposure X does have a subtly new look, though to be perfectly honest the old one was fine by me. Active controls are now picked out in a bright blue/cyan color.
• New Haze Level slider
This is designed to counter the loss of contrast in distant views in hazy atmospheric conditions, but in this version at least it seems to apply a fairly crude contrast adjustment, and not the more sophisticated local adjustments you get with Lightroom’s Dehaze tool or DxO’s ClearView option. There is a Dynamic Contrast slider too, which works well on flat-looking images, but quickly causes clipping in others. At the moment, neither tool seems particularly useful or necessary.
• New mask visualisation options
Exposure X6 offers layer masks to control and combine adjustments in different areas, and these should now be easier to see and edit.
• Integrated DNG conversions
I’m not a fan of Adobe’s ‘universal’ RAW file format, but for those who are, it’s now possible to convert images to DNGs on import
Exposure X6 limitations
As previously mentioned, Exposure X6 can process RAW files but, in my opinion, does not give the best results. If it’s your only photo editing software, it’s fine, but if you have Lightroom, Capture One or DxO PhotoLab, I would use those to pre-process RAW files and use Exposure X6 as a plug-in or external editor.
The other limitation is that while Exposure X6 supports adjustment layers, it doesn’t support image layers – you can’t combine two separate images in the way that you can in Photoshop, for example, or Affinity Photo, ON1 Photo RAW or Luminar. For this you will need a separate program.
Should you upgrade?
Recent Exposure X5 buyers will get a free upgrade to Exposure X6; otherwise, the upgrade cost is $89. I’m not sure that new features in version 6 give it a big enough advantage over Exposure X5 to justify the cost, but if you’ve skipped a version and have Exposure X4 or earlier, it’s probably worth it.
Exposure X6 remains one of the best tools for recreating atmospheric analog looks and has a large catalog of very good preset effects. It’s also a very good all-round non-destructive image-editor, and offers integrated image cataloguing with an excellent hybrid approach between ‘live’ folder browsing and quite powerful search and album tools.
The RAW processing remains a step behind its rivals tools, though. It’s fine if it’s all you have, and still better than working with JPEGs, but not really up to the standard of Lightroom, Capture One or DxO PhotoLab.
The new features in Exposure X6 are generally good, though the Haze Level and Dynamic Contrast sliders don’t seem particularly useful right now.
As an upgrade, Exposure X6 is interesting but not especially exciting. However, the software itself is already so good at what it does and interesting in the way it goes about it, that this hardly dents its appeal. For analog fans who prefer a calm, elegant and evocative approach to image-editing, Exposure X6 is still near the top of the tree, whether you use it as a standalone tool or as a plug-in.
And don’t forget you can download a 30-day trial to help you decide.
Exposure X6 remains one of the best tools for recreating atmospheric analog looks and has a large catalog of very good preset effects. It’s also a very good all-round non-destructive image-editor, and offers very good integrated image cataloguing which offers an excellent hybrid approach between ‘live’ folder browsing and quite powerful search and album tools.
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