I talked before about moving away from Adobe, and Lightroom in particular. It’s good software and personally I’ve been ok with it’s performance on my 2015 MacBook Pro, but updates have been very infrequent when you’re paying a monthly subscription and the main version being named ‘Classic’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in it’s future development.
Capture One is definitely a viable alternative, but doesn’t support Fuji medium format files (as a competitor to their native Phase One cameras) and after limited use I wasn’t finding the interface as intuitive as I hoped.
I initially overlooked Alien Skin Exposure X3 but I’ve been revisiting it recently and using it ‘in anger’ for some full photoshoots to test it more fully. Fairly high level, but these are my thoughts so far in comparison to Lightroom.
Exposure is immediately familiar to any Lightroom user. The default screen layouts are very similar although both can be customized. The biggest difference is that Lightroom uses various modules (Library, Develop, Print etc.) to separate different functionality such as image management and editing. Exposure combines them, with panels for managing metadata and the various editing tools always available.
I don’t have a strong preference for one over the other. In both cases, customizing to your own needs and removing options you won’t use gives a much cleaner experience.
Maybe the biggest difference in philosophy between the two products is how Lightroom and Exposure store the edits you make. Both are non-destructive leaving the original files untouched, but Lightroom uses a central catalogue whereas Exposure creates a small 'sidecar' file for each image. The Lightroom approach requires an import of every image, which it uses to create a link but also generate previews. It then creates one catalogue file containing all your edits. Exposure just needs to know where the files are stored and generates previews dynamically as you reference a new image. The sidecar files for each image are then stored in the same folder as the original.
So Lightroom is slower for accessing new images while it imports them, but should be faster to switch between images once the import has completed. The Exposure approach means that you can move your images between folders from outside of Exposure without having to worry about breaking links, and much more easily transfer the edits if you need to share them between computers or editors.
There's not much to choose between them in terms of management features. Both have keywording and pick, star and color ratings. Both have good auditioning tools for selecting favorite images. Exposure also allows side-by-side auditioning of presets which is a nice feature. Depending on your computer, Lightroom may switch between images more quickly for faster culling or initial ratings but Exposure is fine on my setup. Lightroom does have facial recognition to make it much easier to find the same person throughout the catalogue, similar to the feature in the Google and Apple photo apps.
Both mostly use sliders for image-wide adjustments plus a few additional tools such as curves, crop, rotate, healing and gradient filters. Both have automatic lens corrections, although Lightroom seems to include support for more Fujifilm lenses at the moment. Lightroom also includes the Fujifilm film simulations if you're shooting with a Fuji camera, so even if you’ve shot in RAW you can still re-apply those in-camera ‘styles’ (or at least a close approximation).
Where Exposure stands out is that it offers layers and a range of excellent presets that include simulations of some classic films. I much prefer the provided presets over those packaged with Lightroom, although you can of course develop your own. Layers and masks in Exposure, although not as comprehensive as Capture One, allow you to better organize and later change your edits without always resorting to the History panel.
Lightroom Classic is now subscription only, bundled with Photoshop and Lightroom CC, at $9.99 per month. At the moment, Lightroom CC is too limited to be a viable alternative to Classic but will probably have features added over time.
Exposure X3 is $149, or $99 if you’re upgrading from a previous version.
I’ve been using and teaching Lightroom for years and only using Exposure for a few weeks, so in some ways a comparison is unfair. It will take time to get familiar with the different keyboard shortcuts in Exposure, but in general it’s not a difficult package to learn and Alien Skin offer a range of tutorials anyway.
I don’t think either software is significantly better than the other. Lightroom is familiar, polished and powerful and will remain the industry standard for some time to come, but sometimes a change is good. Exposure offers a few more interesting features. It also does, to my eyes, a better job of converting Fujifilm Raw files. They look more detailed and more pleasing in their unedited state, so give a better starting point.
Am I going to switch? Yes, soon. I feel like a change, want to be free from the subscription model, and, to be honest, I like the idea of supporting an underdog rather than the established big player. I just need to make sure I have all my edits saved out of Lightroom before pulling the plug.