Review: Alien Skin Exposure 2 in Black and White

Create film-like images of your digital photos. (March 4th, 2008)

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Product Manufacturer: Alien Skin

Price: $249 US

The Good

  • Presets are plentiful and accurate to their namesakes. Versatile modifications available. Edits appear instantaneously in preview. Demo available.

The Bad

  • Cannot move image in Preview Split. Must run installer separately if you own Photoshop and Elements. Expensive. Requires 10.4 or later.

Alien Skin Exposure 2 is an Adobe Photoshop plug-in that lets you bring the signature elements found in traditional film photography back to your digital photographs. The artistic merits of film, such as grain, manufacturer color tints, warmth, and soft focus, are almost impossible to generate digitally, but these photo enhancements aren't gone forever, thanks to Exposure 2.

Wide Variety of Presets

Exposure 2 features over 200 different predefined filters that emulate a wide variety of film and darkroom effects. It even brings a few industry favorite film and paper types back from the grave. You tweak presets for Kodak, Fuji, Ilford, Polaroid, and Agfa film through various settings, and five tabs, including color, tone, focus, grain, and infrared properties.


The installer finds and installs an Alien Skin folder in the Plug-Ins folder of the one program you choose. This is a bit frustrating if you own more than one Adobe photo-editing program, because you have to run the installer twice. After you launch Photoshop and open an image, choose Alien Skin Exposure 2 from the Filter menu, which provides two options: Black and White Film, or Color Film. In this review, I cover the black and white filters, with a review of the color features to follow.

Exposure 2 screen

Exposure 2 Install Screen

When you open your photo in Exposure, it shows you the presets on the left and a black and white version on the right side of the screen. The Preview Split pop-up menu lets you split the view in different ways - horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. There are also buttons to swap between the preview and the original file, a move tool, and a zoom tool.

The Settings tab

The Settings tab contains all of the film Factory Settings, including the vintage processes Daguerreotype and Calotype, plus a neutral gray, and custom user settings. When you click on a setting, it instantaneously shows in the preview window. You can edit the effect properties or accept the default setting.

Exposure 2 screen

Exposure 2 Settings Window - Photo by Ilene Hoffman

You use Color tab to fine-tune the cast and inks. The Black and White Film filter uses Red, Green, and Blue slider or stepper controls to change the percentage of color and emulate the effect of a gel filter over the lens. Instead of changing the cast, you change the colors and intensities of inks used, and which ink occupies shadows or highlights.

Exposure 2 Color screen

Exposure 2 Color Settings Window

I am familiar with Ilford HP5 Plus 400 film, so I chose this as a starting point for my picture. I compared results with some printed shots and found that it was an accurate reproduction of the film; grain and overall tonality were perfect. Next, I tweaked my image to the desired effect with the Tone, Focus, and Grain tab.

Exposure 2 Galen Photo

Original Color Photo by Galen Wood

It is interesting how the ink colors and RGB customize the effect, but I didn't save these settings in my example, because I prefer the black and white tones without any heavy casting. I did raise the tonal values slightly to pick up detail in the shadows. You can change the Tone using the Curve dialog or the slider controls.

I am pleased with my image focus, but I did test the Focus slider controls. The sharpen effect worked well and didn't produce the unrecognizable results that sometimes happens with Photoshop's default sharpen tool. The blur function provides a kind of glamour-shot effect, rather than simply making the shot very blurry.

Exposure 2 Galen Photo Edit

Black and White Edit with Ilford HP5 Plus 400 Film Setting by Galen Wood

I think black and white photography benefits most from grain, because it adds depth and character to an image. The Grain tab controls the amount of grain and push processing. Grain in film is due to millions of randomly sized little silver halide filaments. I customized the grain strength with the generic slider for the overall effect, but you can also use the highlight, mid-tone, and shadow sliders to control grain throughout specific tones. The grain size is adjustable between 0.1 to 5.0 pixels, and I chose 1.8. Exposure 2 has options for automatic sizing according to the desired virtual negative size, such as 120mm, 135mm, 4in x 5in. The built-in help explains well how they apply grain and its benefits.

Black and White Film has one additional option that color does not: Infrared. IR film typically provides an eerie, surrealistic feel to photographs, making images seem otherworldly with black skies and white foliage. You can change the halation opacity and spread, increasing the glow level given off by brighter areas. I raised these values considerably to give an alien look to my image.

Works Well

Overall, Exposure 2 is an easy and creative way to add subtle flair to color images converted to black and white. It does away with the sterile, generic look of digital black and whites. My Editor and I tested Exposure 2 on an Intel iMac, MacBook, and a PPC G4 PowerBook with Photoshop CS2, CS3, and Photoshop Elements. It performed well on all machines, but may take a bit more time to create the final image on slower machines. I recommend Exposure 2 for any digital photographer who owns Photoshop CS2 or later and likes the artistic elements that film provides or wants to create vintage effects.

by Galen Wood and Ilene Hoffman


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