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23 April 2017

Alien Skin's Surprise Spring Present

Alien Skin has just released an update to Exposure X2 and despite the many new features it's a free update for those who have Exposure X2 installed. The key new feature is the ability to add non-destructive layers to images.

Before looking at the ability to use layers, let's see what else is new in the Exposure X2.5 version:

  • A quick exports function makes it possible to export multiple versions of an image for different uses. Images destined for the web might be relatively small JPGs that are stored in one directory while the same image for use in publishing could large, high-resolution TIFFs in another directory. This could be a big time saver for those who have a workflow that requires multiple versions of their images.
  • Alien Skin has added support for more raw formats and more cameras. The options for manual lens corrections have also been enhanced.
  • Presets, always Exposure's strongest feature, have new options.
  • High-DPI monitors are now supported. This is an important consideration for those who spend a lot of money to upgrade to 4K monitors only to find that they need a magnifying glass to read information on the user interface.

But the most significant new feature is clearly the new layering tools that can be used with masks to control specific areas of an image. The opacity of layers can be modified to make the change more subtle. And because the changes are applied to layers instead of to the original image, the user can always return to the images and modify settings or delete them.

If you have Exposure X2 now, the upgrade is free. Upgrading from a previous version costs $100 and new buyers will pay $150. There's also a free 30-day trial. Alien Skin's on-line tutorials help users get off to a good start.

Fundamental adjustments like color toning, sharpening, and exposure are typically added to the first layer. Spot healing is also usually handled on the lowest layer. Then dodging, burning, adding a vignette or bokeh effect, and other enhancements such as film grain are added to subsequent layers. In addition to controlling the layer's effect with masks and transparency, the user can move filters up and down in the stack, duplicate them, or turn individual layers off.

Press ESC to close.For one of my tests, I elected to start (as I often do) with a photograph of a cat. Chloe in a box. In short order I discovered that I can use the second screen for a full size view of the image. This screen capture shows both the left screen, with the thumbnails and controls, and the right screen.

As you can see, I had left a box on the bed and Chloe (being a cat) decided that I must have placed it there specifically for her to occupy.

Press ESC to close.The original, shown here on the top, is an adequate snapshot, but there are clearly some opportunities for easy improvements. For example, although the background is already out of focus by virtue of my choice of a wide aperture, it could be blurred more. The white box on the left is so bright that it distracts from Chloe. Additionally, her eyes are darker and less yellow than they are in real life.

Those are the changes I set out to make.

Press ESC to close.The key to all of these changes, and most changes made to any photograph, is subtlety. The cat's eyes don't emit scorching laser beams that cut through quarter-inch steel plating at 1000 yards. They just needed to be somewhat brighter and more yellow.

Before is on the top and after is on the bottom.

Press ESC to close.I used only 4 layers:

  • The bottom layer handles the basic changes: Color, overall exposure, contrast, and such.
  • The second layer is the adjustment for the eyes.
  • Next, I burned the background areas to make them darker while leaving the cat untouched.
  • The top layer is Bokeh. Instead of using a filter to control it, I used the bokeh effect's built-in controls.

So here's the final image:

Exposure X2.5 can be used as a standalone program or as a set of plug-ins inside Photoshop CS6, Lightroom 6, or Creative Cloud 2015 or later. Exposure can be installed on 2 computers, either PC or Mac -- or one of each. Mac users need to have OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) or later and Windows users need a 64-bit version of Windows 7, 8, or 10.

Alien Skin Software has been around since 1993 and the company says that it "distills advanced math and cutting edge research into creative tools that help you quickly bring your vision to life." That seems like a fair and accurate description.

5 Cats The latest version of Alien Skin's Exposure X2 is an exciting update to one of my favorite programs.

Layers and fully non-destructive editing make Exposure X2 essential for professional photographers and the value of the modest price and extensive capabilities put it within reach of amateurs who just want to improve their images.
Additional details are available on the Alien Skin website.

Reboot or Shut Down Windows with One Click

Some people make fun of Microsoft for putting the shutdown command on the Start button. It's really not a goofy idea. When you shut down your car, you use the ignition key -- the same thing used to start the car. So Microsoft gets a break for doing essentially the same thing.

Still, some improvement is possible.

Shutting Windows down requires at least 2 clicks: Start menu, Shut Down (Windows 7) or Start menu, Power button, Shut Down (Windows 10). Wouldn't it be nice to do it with a single click?

Yes, I know there are some hardware functions that can be used. For many computers, long-pressing the power switch will shut Windows down, but holding the power switch too long might also cut power to the system without a proper shut down.

Another possible solution involves creating a special shorcut that can be placed on the Desktop, in the Quick Launch bar (if you display it), or on the Task bar.

Let's assume you want to place this on the Desktop. Right-click, select New from the context menu, and then Shortcut from the fly-out menu. This will open a dialog box.

You'll be asked to type the "location" of the shortcut. This is misleading. It's really asking for the command, so type "shutdown /s /t 0" (without the quotation marks) and press Next.

Now you'll be asked for a name; enter something like "Shutdown" and click Finish. Now when you want to shut the computer down, just double click the Shutdown icon on the Desktop.

If you'd like a similar icon that will reboot the computer, follow the same process, but type "shutdown /r /t 0" instead and give the shortcut the name "Restart".

How It Works

The shutdown command is built in to Windows and it accepts a lot of arguments (the components such as /s and /t). The first (/s) tells the command that you want to shut down the computer. The second (/t 0) specifies that you want the action to happen immediately -- with zero delay. So if you want to delay the process, just change the value that follows /t. The number is in seconds -- anything from 0 to 315360000 (approximately 10 years, not accounting for leap years.)

If you've ever started the shutdown process and then decided you really don't want to proceed, maybe you should have another icon that will halt the process in its tracks. This works only during the timeout period, so you'll need to set a time other than zero when you create the shutdown and reboot shortcuts. If you set "/t 5" or "/t 10", you'll have 5 or 10 seconds during which you can halt the process.

The Abort icon should point to "shutdown /a".

Short Circuits

Shadow Brokers Exploits May Fall Flat

Shadow Brokers, a group of hackers, apparently attempted to stun the world by releasing 300 MB of exploits aimed at Windows PCs and servers. Microsoft, though, says that most of the exploits had already been patched, some of them several years ago.

According to a message posted by Microsoft security group manager Philip Misner, the Microsoft Security Response Center procedure for dealing with threats starts by determining whether the reported threats are legitimate.

When that has been done, engineering teams establish a schedule for fixing the issues "taking into consideration the time to fix it across any impacted product or service, as well as versions, the potential threat to customers, and the likelihood of exploitation."

All but 3 of the threats had been dealt with by previous patches and the ones that hadn't been dealt with could not be reproduced on any supported platforms.

The key point in that statement is "supported platforms". Users who are running Windows 7 or later versions of the operating system need not worry. Likewise, organizations that are using Exchange 2010 and later are safe. Earlier versions of the operating system or Outlook can be attacked and Misner says those users should update as soon as they can.

This is one of the primary reasons that users should always install security updates and migrate to newer versions of operating systems and applications when the versions they're using are no longer supported.

The End of the Mouse Tale

Remember the misbehaving mouse? The one that ran around as if being pursued by a large, hungry cat. After several attempts to get the mouse to behave, I finally found the source of the problem and -- as with most cases like this -- in retrospect, the cause should have been obvious.

The mouse made its first appearance on the 26th of March, when I described the addition of a Registry key for the Synaptics mouse driver (the one that's used with the built-in track pad). A 10 Forums article suggested finding the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Synaptics\SynTP\Install key and changing the value to 0 to keep Windows from resetting the scroll wheel setting at boot time. I did that, but the problem still returned sporadically.

Then on the 2nd of April, the mouse was back. I said that I was still looking for a problem.

Following the Windows update to the Creators Edition, I found that the new Registry key was gone. That's common when Windows is upgraded. I re-enabled the Registry key that turned off Caps Lock and Scroll Lock, but didn't change the Synaptics key. The scroll wheel on the mouse still went berserk from time to time.

Then, while looking for something else, I found that a Logitech mouse driver was still installed and functioning. That was the "Aha!" moment. Removing the Logitech software resolved the problem.

Ideally, that would have occurred to me when I replaced the Logitech mouse with a Microsoft mouse, but it would be even better if the Microsoft installer would have mentioned a potential conflict.

So now the mouse is relaxed and complacent. When I take it out for a stroll, it goes exactly where I want it to.

But wait ... there's more. The mouse also needs to have the Microsoft Mouse and Keyboard Center application running. When that application is active, the mouse always behaves. When it's not, the mouse sometimes misbehaves. This is not unlike the difference one might expect in a voodoo ceremony to differentiate between swinging the chicken in a clockwise motion instead of a counter-clockwise motion.