Exposure X5 Update – Review

Exposure software (previously Alien Skin software) have recently released an upgrade to their Exposure program. They’ve kept the name, but now its Exposure X5.

What is Exposure X5?

Exposure X5 is Exposure Software’s flagship product. It is a Digital Asset Manager product for photographers. But it is so much more than that. It is a very good RAW converter and image editor. It has sophisticated features and some unique ones too. Before we delve into the upgrade, let’s consider what Digital Asset Management is.

Digital Asset Management (DAM)

Wikipedia states:

Operations on a collection of digital assets require the use of a computer application implementing digital asset management (DAM) to ensure that the owner, and possibly their delegates, can perform operations on the data files.

You use a DAM system to help you organise your digital assets, in this case photographs. You can use it to find a photo, send it to an editing program, convert it to another format, get it ready to post it to the web, etc. We’ve all had the situation where we know we took a photo of, whatever, but need to find it, and in a hurry. Ideally, your DAM program will find the damn photo for you.

If only it were that simple.

Computers are not magicians – they cannot (easily) identify the location or subject in your photo. If you have geo-tagged the photo, then that is a help, but many cameras don’t have a GPS built in and adding one can be expensive. There are apps that can do this for you, but I find I forget to switch them on before I take the pictures! And that is the number one problem with DAM – you have to plan it for it to be reliable.

Another problem is that you have to use your DAM software 100% of the time for any operation that affects a photo. And that includes editing them, moving them, adding them and deleting them. Your computer, however, is an open system. It makes no difference if it’s Windows, Macintosh or Linux. You can bypass your DAM software and do anything to your images, leaving the DAM software incomplete. (I’m having great fun writing this!)

Lightroom is one of the most popular DAM tools and it takes a very regimented approach. You must add your photos to its database before it will manage them. It’s the most thorough way of doing it. It’s the approach I used when I coded PFS Manager and PFS Image Darkroom all those years ago. But, no matter how good the program is, it cannot stop you from doing things that mess up its database. If you use Lightroom, you will have experienced times when a photo that should be in its database is not. Maybe you forgot to add it or maybe you’ve deleted it. And you know that fixing the database is not always easy…

The other approach to DAM for photographers is more relaxed. The software views your PC’s file system as the database. It works along with you, watching over your shoulder as you use it. When you open a folder containing images, it silently catalogs them for you. If it’s visited this folder before, it brings itself up to date. It can’t stop you from deleting or adding photos in another program so it doesn’t try to. It accepts you know what your are doing (!!!) and does its best to keep itself up to date.

I now prefer this second approach. Databases get corrupt, require regular backups, and take up considerable amounts of disk space. Importing images takes, like, forever as it builds ‘preview’ images to speed up subsequent browsing. And when they go wrong, they go spectacularly wrong. If you use it sensibly, your computer’s file system is a very good DAM system. You need to think ahead and plan your folder structure and put your images in it sensibly. As a landscape photographer, I use the primary location followed by the year, month and the day of each shoot. So I have this structure:

Folder Structure
Folder Structure

You might need something else. The important thing is to have thought it through before you start.

Exposure X5 uses this, second approach.

Exposure X5 DAM

The first thing you notice when opening a folder in Exposure X5 is how fast it loads the images. They pop up on the screen quickly, especially with RAW and JPEGs. You don’t notice what goes on behind the scenes. X5 creates a little sidecar file for each photo. When you edit a photo, it updates the sidecar. It also builds image previews, but you don’t have to wait for them. It’s all very impressive.

X5’s DAM catalogue uses the information placed in your image files by your camera. Here’s a screenshot of the information it catalogues:

EXIF Data in Exposure X5
EXIF Data in Exposure X5

The image contains most of this info but you add/change things like:

  • Copyright info
  • Rating (0-5)
  • Keywords

Rating, flags and colours identify aspects of the image. How you use them is up to you. Again – you need to make a plan and use it consistently. Keywords are key. You assign one or more keywords to each image. Location, year, a unique ID, subject. Whatever. You can search for photos having one or more keywords. It’s this that makes X5 DAM so effective. Yes, it requires effort. The best time to do it is when adding images you the PC. But even if you are using X5 over a large collection of existing photos, the time you spend rating and keywording will repay itself.

The only thing missing in X5 is geo-tagging. This is a pity because, if you have geo-tagged your pictures then finding an image for a location is as easy as looking on a map. I hope they add this in a future upgrade.

Exposure X5 as an image browser

X5 asks that you tell it which folder(s) your images are in. I like this. It’s much better than having to open up folder trees to find your Photo folder every time you use the software.

X5’s browser is configurable. Here are a few screenshots of various configurations:

Exposure X5 Interface
Single Image
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X5 integrates so well with your other tools. It is easy to configure its ‘Edit in…’ option to point to all of your favourite tools. Exposure X5 also has an ‘Edit Copy in…’ setting where you specify everything about the copied image – file format, file location and so forth.

Additionally, it offers a good array of Export presets with the ability to create your own. Even better-it can watermark your exported photos-something I use all the time when exporting for social media sites.

X5 RAW Development and Image Editing

Exposure X5 makes no distinction between RAW Development and Image Editing. You just select an image and work on it. They load x5 with presets and tools for editing and enhancing your images.

Exposure X5 Presets
Exposure X5 Presets

X5’s presets provide the look and feel of almost every type of film as well other effects. They load each category with different options. You can preview the look of each preset by hovering the mouse over it. I dislike built in presets as I find they rarely fit my image. Of more interest to me, is the ability to create my own. Using X5 I can work on one image out of a set of similar ones, save my edits as a preset and then apply it to them all. This is not a radical feature but no package worth using lacks it.

RAW and Image Editing

Unlike DXO Photo Lab and Skylum Luminar, Exposure X5 is a fully featured DAM tool that has been adding RAW development and image editing capabilities with each major release. DXO and Luminar are almost complete for editing images and need to focus more on their DAM. That said, the next release of Luminar promises some new image editing stuff. More on that when it comes out.

They have added the following to Exposure X5:

  • Improved Masking Tools
  • RAW processing improvements – Vignetting and Aberration Correction (at last!)
  • Custom Camera Profiles (drooool!!)
  • New presets
  • Support for greyscale JPEG and TIFF images

Masking seems to be all the rage at the moment. DXO’s colour wheel tool sort of masks the image but only for HSL adjustments. Topaz Mask AI is for extracting objects from images. Exposure X5’s new masking tool is all about making selections based on colours and then editing just those selections.

Because X5 supports layers, you can use this tool to edit combinations of selections.

The main enhancement to masking is being able to do it based on HSL values.

Exposure X5 HSL Masking

Exposure calls this 3D masking. Here is how they describe it:

NEW 3D Color Masking

  • new Enables precise control of where image adjustments are applied

  • new Specify areas defined by combinations of luminance, hue, and saturation

  • new Masking presets enable one-click selection of sky, foliage, skin tones, and more

  • new Quickly select mask constraints with an eyedropper tool

Exposure already had a full set of masking tools but this is new, to me at least. I had to view their online instruction video a few times before I successfully used it. It strikes me as a tool for a specific purpose: transportable masks. By this I mean you can share a mask with several images. In particular, it works well with portraits.

Why? Because you often need to select a face in an image to make specific adjustments to it, such as smoothing the skin. If you have a collection of images featuring the same model in the same light, then this tool is just what you need. You use it to create the mask for one image and then copy the mask to all the others.

This works even if the model is in a different location in each photo. How? Because it does not base the mask on his/her location but on her skin’s HSL values. Copying such a mask causes X5 to identify the same HSL values in each picture, which will be your model’s face,

X5 provides tools to tweak the mask and exclude areas you don’t want selected, so it is very flexible.

I found this ability less useful for landscape work. It usually ended up not selecting the area I wanted or only partially selecting it or selecting too many other areas. But when it works it works really well.


Here is an example, from a wedding I shot earlier this year. (Thanks Tally for permission to use these!)

Original Picture
Original Picture

I want to use X5’s soft  focus effect (in the Focus menu) but only on her face. Using the HSL selector I selected her skin tone and it created a mask for me:

The Mask
The Mask

It has only selected her face (and part of her arm as it has the same HSL. But that’s easily removed.)

I then applied the effect:

Soft focus effect, face only
Soft focus effect, face only

I then copied the mask and applied it to another photo from the series:

Pasted Mask
Pasted Mask

And I applied the soft focus effect without affecting the rest of the image:

Exposure X5 Soft Focus
Exposure X5 Soft Focus

Vignetting and Aberration correction

When I tested Exposure X3 it was lacking as a RAW development tool in three areas. Shadow recovery, Vignetting correction and aberration correction. They improved shadow recovery in X4 and X5 now implements the others. And it implements them extremely well.

Custom Camera Profiles

I’m happy to see this feature added. Sometimes you need your image to reflect accurately the colours in the scene. This is especially so for product photography and professionals working on a commission will appreciate this.

Another area is where X5 doesn’t yet have a built in profile for your camera. The default colour profiles are a hit-or-miss affair. Too often a miss.

I like the way X5 has implemented this. Like Photo Ninja, you can provide a profile for a specific scene. This is so useful when shooting in unusual lighting. But you can also build a set of profiles for your camera’s settings. You can set it to select a profile for a particular ISO. But you can also add one for ISO plus a specific lens. That’s cool – some lenses colour the scene differently to others, and this feature means you can correct for that without having to take a profile picture at every photo session.

To test this I made a series of test images of my X-Rite colour checker in daylight and built SCP profiles using X-Rite’s profile tool. I fed them into Exposure X5 and there is a small, but perceptible difference:

DCP Custom Profile applied on left
DCP Custom Profile applied on left

The image on the left uses my custom ISO 100 DCP profile, the one on the right uses X5’s built in profile. The difference is not dramatic, but the custom profiled image is brighter and more vibrant.

The results depend on whether X5 already has an accurate profile for your camera. If it hasn’t, then the results may be dramatic.

Exposure X5 Other features

It has so many useful features. The following is not a comprehensive list:

  • Many built in presets emulating the look and feel of film stock
  • Full support for layers
  • A full range of masking tools
  • Overlays (such as frames and textures)
  • Image sharpening
  • Colour corrections
  • Printing
  • Cut, copy and paste images – no need to open a file browser
  • Import images from camera – the import window pops up when you attach a camera or SD card to the computer

RAW Development Test

I gave Exposure X5 two images to work with. One was in dull, drab, difficult light. The other was in good, crisp late evening light. It impressed me with how well it coped with both.

Author: ANDY BELLAperture: 8Camera: Canon EOS RPIso: 100Copyright: andy bell 2019Orientation: 1
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The dull image

X5 has brought out some detail in the clouds and has removed the chromatic aberrations and colour fringing. Detail is good. The result looks natural. Both DXO Photo Lab and Luminar brought out more detail in the sky but at the expense of additional image noise. This image was noisy. Exposure X5 has done well with removing it. Photo Ninja did better with the same image but left the image looking, maybe, too silky and smooth.

I don’t really care about noise reduction during processing. Topaz Lab’s AI Clear and Noise AI handle it better than anything else and therefore I save time during RAW development by turning off noise reduction.

The well lit picture

How did Exposure X5 fare with the well lit picture? It did really well. When I compare the result with the others, X5 has held its own. It cannot quite bring out the detail that Photo Ninja can and it lacks the tools to enhance the sky that DXO and Luminar have. Yet it has produced a clear, natural result that I an happy with.

I can now say that X5 has a complete RAW development feature set. It is not as mature as the others but it is capable of good results. I would like to see improvements in detail recovery – I found the Clarity and Vibrance adjustments to be weak. That said, Exposure X5 produces detailed, natural looking images from your RAW files. You just can’t push it as fas as you can with DXO, Photo Ninja and Luminar.


Exposure X5 pros:

  • Class leading Digital Asset Management that is unobtrusive and fast
  • The best and most configurable image browser I have ever used
  • Great integration with other photo tools
  • Good image editing
  • Excellent RAW development
  • Support for dual monitors
  • Highly configurable image export facility with support for all the popular colour profiles
  • Custom camera profile support

Exposure X5 cons:

  • Image browser doesn’t support CTRL+SHIFT Click for selecting multiple images quickly
  • Lacks specialist RAW tools such as sky enhancement and detail enhancements tool isn’t powerful enough
  • Geo-tagging not supported
  • Can be slow to implement new RAW formats – it still does not support CR3, although the tell me it is coming

Is Exposure X5 a Complete Lightroom replacement? Not quite. Lightroom can do extra things such as book creation and website creation. And Lightroom supports geo-tagging really well. However, book creation is better done elsewhere (Affinity Publisher) as is creating websites.

Since using Exposure I’ve uninstalled Lightroom and never felt like going back to it.

Highly recommended

You can download a free trial of Exposure X5 from Exposure’s website.

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Recommended software

Image Resizing

The best image resize program is Topaz A.I.Gigapixel

Image sharpening & noise reduction

Topaz A.I.Sharpen can not only sharpen images but correct slightly out of focus and blurred images.

Topaz A.I.Clear both sharpens and removes noise. It is the best noise reduction program around.

Photoshop and Lightroom Alternatives

Exposure X4 is the best alternative to Lightroom as far as image browsing and management goes. It is also a decent RAW converter and image editor.

Affinity Photo is the complete Photoshop replacement.

RAW Development

Skylum Luminar is a full featured RAW converter with a basic image browser. Its shadow recovery is the best in the business.

Photolemur is an automatic RAW converter, based on Luminar. Its results are very decent with facial detection and enhancement.

Photo Ninja is a purists RAW converter. It is not as fully featured as the others but it produces some of the best results, especially if you are prepared to build camera profiles.

October 2019
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