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Exploring Bokeh And Grain In Exposure 6 Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

8 August 2014

When Alien Skin released Exposure 6 earlier this year, we reported on its "faster imaging engine, texture control and bokeh simulation based on sample lenses." And our deeper look at Exposure 5 about a year ago is still a good way to understand what Exposure is all about.

All that's really missing is a review the new features in Exposure 6. They really do merit a new version number, so we'll discuss them a bit more here.

To explore the new features, we selected an image whose color and lighting we liked but whose composition disappointed us. That makes it an ideal test case since there's no danger you'll be distracted by a pretty picture <g>.

It may not be pretty but our dahlias image is a typical 14-megapixel digicam shot. They were captured with a Casio H20G as a JPEG, taken at f3.8 for 1/80 second at ISO 80.

With Exposure 6, though, this simple digicam shot can be transformed into at least a photograph and perhaps even something more. Let's see what we can do.

A NEW BASIC | Back to Contents

We'd typically optimize the image in Lightroom 5 or using the Camera Raw filter in Photoshop CC 2104. Either option gives us the sliders we now consider an integral part of our image processing routine.

Basic Panel. Mini ACR.

But Exposure 6 has added a Basic panel that includes most of our favorite sliders. Only Black and White are missing from the list but Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation are there.

We aren't implying Alien Skin's sliders perform the same as Camera Raw's slider. But we do like having similiar tools to work on the image.

We almost always shift Highlights left to gain some detail and Shadows right to open them up. Then we indulge in a little Clarity to add some microcontrast, sharpening things up.

While Exposure 6 functions as a plug-in to both Lightroom and Photoshop, it also runs as a standalone application. You can, we found out, run the plug-in as a standalone application (we accidently launched it from Alfred) but you won't have the File menu. If you launch the application version, you'll not only get the File menu but you'll be prompted to open a file.

Because Exposure 6 now lets us optimize our image, we ran it as an application on the 4-GB 13-inch MacBook Pro we travel with.

You can see we made our typical edits to the image, shown here to fit our 13-inch screen with the presets panel on the left collapsed to give us plenty of room.

Basic Panel. Almost all the same adjustments as Camera Raw.

There will be times, of course, when that's not quite enough. After all, Camera Raw has a lot more going for it. Panels and panels more, including perspective control.

But we really liked being able to make our typical basic edits right in Exposure 6. And for those times when we can't get where we want to go in Exposure 6, we only have to perform the magic in Lightroom or Photoshop before using Exposure 6 as a plug-in.

BOKEH | Back to Contents

Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are not the only tricks up a photographer's sleeve. Focus is another. You determine not just where to focus but how much of the scene is in focus. You can have a very deep focus, as with a wide angle lens, or you can have a very shallow focus, as in many portraits.

Bokeh Panel. Focus, Lense, Highlights, Grain.

With its new Bokeh panel, Exposure 6 gives you some creative control of focus after the fact.

Yes, it's fundamentally different from choosing a wider aperture to narrow depth of field but different is fine with us. The more creative options, the better.

Photoshop CS6 offers a similar option with its Iris blur and Photoshop CC 2014 adds Path and Spin blurs, too. But these tools all rely exclusively on sliders.

As the Bokeh panel illustration at the right shows, Exposure 6 takes a slightly more sophisticated approach that makes it our tool of choice.

The Bokeh panel has four parts:

  • Focus Region to define the mask's shape and behavior
  • Lens to define the character of the blur itself
  • Highlights to tweak highlights
  • Grain Matching

The Focus Region options provide three different mask shapes. You can choose between a Radial shape, a Planar shape or a Half Planar shape -- and you will need all three one time or another.

You can use more than one at a time, too, but for this review, we kept it simple to make the effect easier to detect.

The Lens options are what really impressed us, though. There are sliders for Amount, Zoom, Twist, Creamy and Curvature, each of which has handy mouseover help to explain exactly how they will affect the image.

In fact, we should take a moment to applaud the user interface, which will be very familiar to you if you're coming from Lightroom.

We like, for example, how you can dismiss either the right or left panes and minimize the preview pane. We do that a lot. And it's effortless.

We also like how the panels can be expanded or collapsed. This may not seem like a big deal but when you're working on a 13-inch screen, you really want to jump up and hug someone.

And within each pane, the controls are clearly laid out with mouseover help (which is very much appreciated because some of this fun is a bit technical).

So outright prolonged applause for the user interface.

Motion Blur. This is a 10 pct. Spin, one of 16 options.

Now back to what it can do. Still within the Lens section, there's an aperture shape option to let you select the shape the blur is based on. There are 11 of them, including a circle, a heart, a triangle and more refined polygons.

But then there are the presets which can set all the Lens options for you. This really sets Exposure 6's blur apart.

Traditional Lenses. Twenty options.

There are a lot of presets, organized in three groups: Creative Aperture (four of the 24 options are shown in the top set above), Motion (16 options) and Traditional Lenses (a few of the 20 options are shown in the bottom set above). As you scroll through them, the new imaging engine applies them to the image in the preview panel.

As you click through the examples above, note both how the background blur changes and also how the sliders are reset for each preset. The Lenses examples also change the shape of the aperture.

Creative Aperture uses those odd aperture shapes to create an effect. Shapes include Circle, Diamond, Heart, Square, Star and Triangle with multiple options each plus a few odd shapes, including X Factor.

Motion includes Spins, Spirals and Zooms in various strengths.

And Traditional Lenses offers Canon, Mirror, Nikon and Zeiss options at various focal lengths and apertures.

Whichever effect you select is applied according to the mask you have drawn. So picking a Canon 85mm f1.2L at f5.6 doesn't affect the entire image, just the masked area.

Still the Bokeh panel is, as Alien Skin says, a lens simulation system. And great fun. You can see it in action in this Alien Skin tutorial:

It gives us a lot more to play with than the Adobe equivalents. And we're all for that.

GRAIN | Back to Contents

While not new in Exposure 6, we've only briefly mentioned the Grain panel previously. But we've come to think of it as yet another creative option rather than a necessary evil (as it was in the film days). Why would you want to introduce grain into your image? For the same reason some people polish chrome bumpers.

Grain Panel. Pick your developer.

The Grain panel lets you buff your grain to any degree of shine but it also lets you control it by tone with separate sliders for Shadow, Midtone and Highlight. You can also affect its type with three more sliders: Roughness, Color Variation and Push Processing.

All fun options. All set for you with any of the 16 grainy presets, too. Our sample images are, in fact, the defaults for each preset.

The Size option may be a little more confusing than the other options. So it's a good thing Automatic is on by default, letting Exposure manage it for you.

Alien Skin explains grain size as a constant, not affected by your image's resolution. If you print an 8x10 of a 6-Mp image and a 24-Mp image they will both appear to have the same grain. Same freckles on the face, same grain on the film. Resolution shouldn't matter.

To make the grain more dramatic, Alien Skin uses a 35mm Film Format but that's an option, too. You can choose 120mm or 4x5 Film Formats, both of which will decrease the grain size.

Finally, you can tweak the grain size with the Relative Size slider where 1.0 represents 35mm Fujifilm Reala.

The examples below are 100 percent crops of the dahlia image showing the grain applied by the indicated preset. The top set are all black and white emulsions while the bottom set are color films.

With this kind of control over grain, it becomes as intriguing an element as paper texture.

CONCLUSION | Back to Contents

Exposure 6 is a significant upgrade from Exposure 5, adding not only the features explored above but a faster graphics engine that actually makes it feasible to evaluate the settings in real time and presets from their thumbnails rather than the preview pane.

We like it so much, we hope that new imaging engine makes it into the company's other products.

At $149 or $69 for the upgrade, it isn't inexpensive. But it's not a toy, either. It adds another option to post processing, another dimension to your images, one we've found useful on more than a few occasions, enhancing images beyond what tone and color correction can accomplish.

And that's what earns it all four photo corners, our highest praise.

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