Tiffen DFX 3.0: Color Grading, Lab Processes, & More
COW Library : Tiffen DFX Filters : Dennis Kutchera : Tiffen DFX 3.0: Color Grading, Lab Processes, & More
When Avid launched Xpress DV, they included the Media Composer color correction tools. The poor cousin to Media Composer, Avid Xpress, was also blessed with the same color grading tools, essentially a lite version of Avid Symphony color correction. This was fantastic, because with my humble Avid Xpress(Pro) and a few tasty plugins, I was able to turn out some amazing online work, including a show opener that endured for many years until the series eventually went HD. One of boxes of fairy dust that I had bought back then was a plugin called Digital Film Tools 55 mm. It was my favourite tool for color correction work on Avid. I eventually sold my PC Avid and moved on to Final Cut Pro and I forgot about 55 mm.
But last year, while investigating current color grading solutions at NAB, it landed back on my radar, now rebranded as DFX 3.0 under the banner of Tiffen, the company known for its camera products that include Tiffen filters and Steadicam as well as lighting and other camera support systems.
Whatever your level of expertise with color grading, you are going to want to try Tiffen DFX after reading this review. In a sentence, it is one of the most useful, if not the most useful plugin you will find to extend the color correction capabilities of your editing software, solve picture problems and add creative looks to your production without a steep learning curve. In addition to some very powerful color correction tools, what you get for $599.95 are individual filters that simulate literally thousands of Tiffen glass camera filters, specialty lenses, film lab processes, Rosco light gels and even gobos. There is even a Looks filter if that is your magic bullet. There are 125 filters in all, each with numerous presets to get you started. I found most of the presets to be quite useable right out of the box rather than over the top as I have seen with other plugins.
Tiffen DFX 3.0 is also available for Photoshop Lightroom and Aperture. The first evidence of the photo heritage is the Film Stocks filter. Rather than motion picture stocks, I was surprised to find emulation of slide, print and polaroid film. I can't attest to the accuracy, but these stock emulations look great, ranging from cinematic to instagramatic. Beyond these looks presets, there are some really great color grading tools that extend quite a way beyond native NLE color correction. I even found some of them to be superior to what is built into Avid Symphony. Since installing DFX 3.0, I find myself reaching for it over and over. Yet, after months, I feel I've barely scratched the surface of all it's capabilities. I keep discovering new uses, especially for fixing problem shots.
Click image for larger view.
There are two ways you can use the software - you can use the native plugin control interface of your Avid, Adobe or Apple software with a familiar control layout or you can launch the DFX software interface. While presets are available in pulldown menus in the host editing application, the DFX interface shows you what each preset will look like applied to your shot in a library of thumbnails to the left. You will also find full control over all the filter's parameters to the right and across the top there is a series of tools to help you compare before and after your settings are applied. But there are two glaring omissions to this interface. One is the ability to send the image to an external display and the other is a lack of scopes. As well, there is no way to update the picture. Like so many other plugins that have their own GUI, you are working with a still frame. With Final Cut Pro 7, when you open any 3rd party plugin GUI, you also don't see other previously applied filters. So while I might use the DFX 3.0 GUI to select a preset, I almost always go back to the host application to make my adjustments so I can actually see what I am doing. The exception to this is the amazing Ozone filter and some of the lighting effects.
The plugin is divided into a series of filter categories -- Film Lab, HFX Diffusion, HFX Grads,/Tints, Image, Lens, Light, and Special Effects.
The Film Stocks Filter. Click image for larger view.
Under Film Lab, We find filters like Bleach Bypass, Cross Processing, Faux Film, Film Stocks (from stills photography), Grain and more. The Faux Film is particularly interesting. When this product was called Digital Film Tools 55mm, it was part of my secret sauce to make flat BetaCam and DVcam look like it was shot on film. I even used it to match a video shot to an existing film production. It was this filter set that most interested me back in the day and it still works great today, having gained some improvements.
The Image category is where I spend most of my time with DFX 3. The first filter in this set is Black and White. You might think this is a lame way to get the filter count up, but it does far more than just desaturate the chroma. It allows you to select how the black and white image is generated according to color. The contrast of the shot will be vary according to whether you choose red, green, blue, yellow or orange. It's not unlike using color filters in black and white photography to achieve different contrasts.
Color Correct is a really nice all-in-one detailed correction tool that starts with the basics of Hue Saturation, Brightness, Contrast, Gamma, Red, Green, Blue and Flash. to adjust the overall picture, followed by most of the same adjustments for Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights. Missing under the three luma ranges are saturation and hue, but there are other filters such as Telecine that contain these controls.
One of the great features of Color Correct and all the DFX 3.0 filters is the ability to precisely adjust what you are correcting by viewing a black and white matte of the range you are affecting in say the shadows or a color like blue, green or cyan. This is incredibly useful when you want to perhaps remove a blue cast from the darkest shadows without affecting lighter tones in the shadow range. You can adjust the matte and often blur it, depending on which filter you are using. Selective saturation is an image filter I use a lot along with Selective Color Correct. In this filter, instead of basing the selection on Highlights, Mids and Shadows, it offers selection based on adjustable luminance, hue, saturation, average or individual colors. I find these tools far more flexible for secondary grades than Avid Symphony's secondary correction. While DFX 3.0 does not have an eyedropper to select the correction range, I find the selection easy to do and unlike Symphony, I can blur the selection for smoother results. There are also more adjustments available with DFX 3.0 in secondary corrections than in Avid Symphony, such as individual RGB controls.
The F-Stop filter is interesting. I thought it would just be an exposure adjustment in an F-Stop scale but it is actually a really good RGB adjustment tool where you can adjust Red Green and Blue Exposure with Master, Shadow, Midtone and Highlight controls. The control and separation in this tool far exceeds the native RGB balance in Final Cut Pro 7.
FL-B/D is an easy tool for removing the green cast from fluorescent lights.
Haze stretches the picture from white to black, restoring contrast to hazy images with an adjustment for color temperature. The Sky filter offers the same controls with the addition of a Cyan/Magenta slider. Both have proven useful for arial footage of the Rocky Mountains that I have been working with.
Telecine is supposed to emulate a film to tape transfer suite. It provides the missing controls in the Color Correct filter with Hue and Saturation in addition to Brightness, Contrast and Gamma on Master, Lift, Gamma and Gain. This is essentially just different terminology for Master, Shadows, Midtones and Hightlights. When I said the controls are missing in the other filter, I am not making a negative comment. They could put all the controls into one filter, but it would become an overwhelming beast to scroll through and adjust. By breaking controls into separate filters, your effects controls are less cluttered and easier to navigate.
The Match filter is a mixed blessing. At first, I thought it would become one of my biggest timesavers and there are times when it works amazingly well at matching shots, but it has a few gotchas. You can match the tonal range and even grain of one shot to another. The means of selecting your reference shot varies from one host application to another. In Avid, you place a copy of the shot you want to match on a track below the clip you are working in your sequence. In Final Cut Pro 7, you drop it into the well in the filter control window. What I was thrilled to see in Final Cut Pro 7 is that even if your reference shot has unrendered filters on it, Match will take those into account. It is not pasting attributes, it is actually reading the final image and pulling a match on your new shot.
I thought this filter would be a strong competitor for Avid Symphony's Natural Match function -- when it works, it works well, but my success rate has been limited. It could be the nature of my shots and filters already applied. It is also slow to render in Final Cut Pro 7. I suspect the filter is having to access whatever filters are on your reference shot because there are very few adjustment controls to modify the results. You have to add another filter to tweak most parameters. On the footage I have been working with, I found it best to turn the grain slider all the way down. It is supposed to match the grain of a shot and it might work nicely with film footage, but the footage I have been using is from DSLR and XDCam camera. I think my lack of success with the grain matching is because of the noise in the shots I tried to apply Match on. With Final Cut Pro, if you are using another shot in your sequence as the reference you drop into the well, I see some indication that changing the reference later may impact the shots you are trying to match to it; but realistically, the best workflow to avoid the possibility is to create a reference shot bin, drag your reference from your sequence in Final Cut Pro 7 into the bin, which preserves all the shot attributes and then drag the shot from the bin to the well of the Match filter. This will keep your references in one tidy location and you avoid potential mishaps if you modify the reference in the sequence.
Important to note for Final Cut Pro X users - Match is not supported because of limitations in FCPX's plugin format.
I suspect the funkiness I found with the Match filter may be more of a Final Cut Pro 7 issue than it is a Tiffen issue. So often, I find filters that work great in other host are a little wonky in Final Cut Pro 7. For starters, most filters, including Final Cut Pro native, will clip whites at 100 the moment you apply them to a clip in your sequence. The only ones that I can think of that don't clip whites are the native Proc Amp. Color Corrector and Three Way Color Corrector. I get around this by dropping the whites with the Final Cut Pro Proc Amp control. It will take down the whites like a knee control without changing overall exposure of the shot.
Printer Points uses film lab terms, but seems to duplicate the function of F-Stop, but the controls work in reverse by subtracting when you slide to the right rather than adding. It is apples and apples, but with different units of measure. That one of the great things with DFX 3.0--is is very accessible to users coming from different backgrounds, whether video, film or photography. The learning curve is not steep and there are lots of presets to use as starting points that will help you learn the mystical arts of color grading.
Ozone is an interesting correction tool with very accurate control. It divides the image into 11 zones based on your choice of luminance, saturation individual color, etc and you can fine tune each range further. So if you use luminance to slice the image into adjustment zones, each step up is twice as bright as the previous zone. it can be useful for taming shine on a face for example. But be forewarned that it will also affect anything else in the shot in the same tonal range. And here is one of the shortcomings of this and many NLE plugins -- it lacks masks and trackers. You are good to go in After Effects where you can apply AE's tools, but that is not where I ever want to be color grading. However the fact that your DFX 3.0 license is good in AE as well as all your editing apps (installed on one computer) is definitely the right way to sell a plugin and you can use it in After Effects or Motion if you have to.
One of the most amazing uses I found for Ozone was in eliminating the blue cast of haze in a shot. Picture an aerial shot with the foreground sunlit with good contrast and color balance, but the background in the distance gets progressively bluer and milkier with haze. I was able to divide the shot into zones of blue and adjust some of those ranges to eliminate the blue cast, bring back the actual color and add more contrast. Using the simpler Haze filter did not work as well because it affects the entire shot. With Ozone, I can leave the good foreground as is and remove the cast on multiple layers of the background that become progressively bluer with either a colour temperature control or RGB sliders. The best way to use the Ozone filter is in the DFX GUI where you can see the selection as a matte as well as the shot as you affect it. In this example, I isolated the hazy blue hill and warmed it up to match the foreground.
FCP GUI. Click image for larger view.
In this example, Dennis isolated the hazy blue hill and warmed it up to match the foreground. Click image for larger view.
With Ozone, you can leave the good foreground as is and remove the cast on multiple layers of the background that become progressively bluer with either a colour temperature control or RGB sliders. Click image for larger view.
The image before the Ozone Filter is used. Click image for larger view.
After the Ozone Filter application. Dennis was able to divide the shot into zones of blue and adjust some of those ranges to eliminate the blue cast, bring back the actual color and add more contrast. Click image for larger view.
After using Ozone quite a bit, I also started using the Temperature filter in the Image group, which divides the shot into three levels (High, Mids, Shadows) plus Master, rather than 11 zones found in Ozone. It has proven to be a very fast way to alter the balance of a shot, much faster than messing with three way color wheels and all you need for a lot of shots.
I really wish Tiffen had an RGB curves filter in the Image group. I find I get my some of my best grading results when I can adjust curves. Without curves, I could never make DFX 3.0 my only grading tool in Final Cut Pro 7 (which lacks native curves). For curves, I use another plugin, but once I have my contrasts, I am constantly going to Tiffen DFX 3.0 for the color. With so many specific use filters, it is easy to build up a set of custom settings that I can quickly drop on a shot to fix recurring problems. For example, I have some simple Ozone presets for things like whitening clouds or greening up foliage that shot with an odd camera profile that rendered them almost gray--simple drag and drop solutions in my color toolbox.
The Diffusion filter set offers beautiful soft looks that emulate a variety of Tiffen camera filters such as Glimmerglass, Pro-Mist and Smoque among others as well as filters for high and low contrast looks. There are so many possibilities in this set with lots of presets for quick looks. I don't watch a lot of wedding videos, but I think this set would be well used by that segment of the production world.
The HFX Grads/Tints category offers filters that overlay colors and color gradients. The 812 Warming filter offers an easy way to warm up a cold image. The Nude/FX filter does magic for skin tones. Perhaps it is because it emulates a camera filter, but it is missing the ability to truly isolate the skin tones and soften them to conceal blemishes. But that is no problem, because that is covered by two other filters--SoftFX and Warm SoftFX!
Every filter has a mix or opacity adjustment and this is particularly needed in the Grad/Tints set because they rarely look good at 100% default. For example, the twilight sunset filter at 100% makes a shot look like a cartoon. But by adjusting the opacity of each of the three color gradients and the overall mix, you can achieve a very convincing evening look on something shot during midday.
The Lens set of filters solve a variety of problems as well as alter the look of your picture. The Chromatic Aberration and Defringe work really well to eliminate lens artifacts on highlights. It is really easy to isolate the offending color and remove it, More often than not, a preset works perfectly, just adjust the slider for the appropriate color. If it is off, adjust the selection until you isolate your color. With one instance of Defringe, you can remove multiple colors. In this sample, I removed the magenta, which is the default.
I also found Defringe useful for dealing with some Canon 5D sensor artifacts. If you've ever seen a color moire on the edge of an object, you can reduce (but not eliminate) the artifact by "defringing" the colors out of the moire.
The Wide Angle Lens filter is pretty cool. It offsets the barrel distortion caused by a wide angle lens. I would love to see the addition of a keystone filter as a companion to this.
The Vignette filter seems pretty lame at first when you turn on presets, but like the grads and tints, it defaults to an exaggerated application so you can see what it is doing and then adjust the opacity to taste. This is now my vignette too of choice. It could be improved by adding the ability to draw or import a custom shape. There is also an anti-vignetting filter called Radial Exposure, which allows you to brighten exposure at the edges where darkening may have been caused by lens vignetting. I am not sure how well it would work on a moving or zooming shot, so the jury is out on Radial Exposure until I have a shot I can try this on. But I can see how it would definitely work on a still shot.
The Light set of filters offers the ability to add some depth to flat or inadequate lighting in a shot. The Key Light actually manages to achieve some hardness and shadowing that you might get with a real key light. Relight lets you add a gel filter to your light and focus it on one area of the image as if it is on a light. So if you need a 323 Indian Summer or a 987 Wild plum gel on your light, here's the app for that. You can apply the light just as a shape or with a composite mode of your choice. This works Incredibly well when a person is backlight outdoors and the shooter didn't use a reflector. There is also a Reflector filter under the Light filters, but it is one of the plugins I have yet to explore.
Eye Light is interesting in that you can fill in the shadows around eyes, but without integrated ability to track the effect, it will only work on steady head shots unless your host app has tracking ability. Even so, it worked surprisingly well for me. I finally had a multiple shots of a guy wearing a ball cap with shadowed eyes. Even without any tracking, it improved the shots a lot. Of course, manual keyframing is possible using the native NLE GUI.
You can add a little dimension to a flat background with the Gobo filter. It mimics a gobo pattern. The choices are endless, but probably only effective when used in After Effects because if the camera moves at all, you will want the gobo pattern to follow.
FInally, in the Special Effects group, you will find things like Day for Night, Fog, Double Fog, Night Vision and more. My personal favorite in this group is Enhancing. It makes things like fall foliage really pop without exaggeration by upping saturation on a narrow range of color. By default, it enhances reds, but you can select any other color as well. The effect is not at all exaggerated; it just adds subtle enhancement that makes a good shot look great. I use this a lot on the outdoors series I am grading right now. It is also useful for things like food shots where you really want to make your tomato or green peppers stand out from everything else without looking like a cheap effect. It adds an understated elegance with ease, especially to outdoor nature scenes.
Also within the special effects group is the Looks filter. If presets are your magic bullet, you will love this filter. I usually find this kind of filter to be over the top with only a few presets I would actually use, but in DFX 3.0's Looks there are around 80 presets and pretty much all of them are very useable as is. Adjusting a custom setting may be a little daunting to some because of the number of parameter adjustments you are presented with, but if you do come up with a modified look of your own, you can save a custom set inside the DFX interface as you can with all these filters in the plugin.
Overall, Tiffen DFX 3.0 really adds value to your production. Sure, you will have more control over color and can work faster in a dedicated grading app like Resolve or Scratch, but grading within your editing app has some advantages, not the least of which is the ability to make editorial changes right up to delivery. You also have a wonderful foundation with all the descriptive names given to the filters and presets that you can build on and develop your color grading skills. You can also use your presets in DFX 3.0 in other host applications in your computer via the DFX 3.0 GUI. With DFX 3.0, there are also features that just are not available anywhere else. It's too bad it won't work as a plugin in DaVinci Resolve because I could see myself using some of the features even there. It is just so easy to make your footage look good with DFX 3.0.
What I like
What I don't like
Rating: 4 out of 5 COWs
Over all, I give Tiffen DFX 3.0 an 4+ out of Five COWS. It is not a replacement for a color grading suite, but for many video productions like lifestyle, reality and nature programming, this really works well. It is very stable and crash resistant compared to similar plugins I have used. Both seasoned pros and those new to color grading will find a lot to like in Tiffen DFX 3.0 And if you like it for video, Tiffen DFX 3.0 is also available as a photo plugin for Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture.
Find out more and watch tutorials and webinars at http://www.tiffensoftware.com
For the record, I mentioned Final Cut Pro 7 a lot in this review because it is where I have been using Tiffen DFX 3.0 the most. I know Final Cut Pro 7 is yesterday's news, but it is still the most popular editing software out there and it is what the production I am currently working on is using. Amazingly, it is still being installed in new facilities. One well known post engineer shared this recently:
"To my dismay, the majority of NEW editing rooms are STILL FCP 7. I do some Premiere CS6 (very few, and of course, everyone gets CS6 for AE and Photoshop, so I make sure that Premiere is in the dock), I do some AVID MC (also very few), and ZERO FCP X - I actually have been playing with FCP X and know how to get shared storage to work with FCP X, but I have ZERO demand for it. It is mind blowing that everyone still wants FCP 7 on NEW systems, and at NEW facilities."
This review is based on day-to-day use of the software on a real television production and not laboratory analysis. The software is easy to use and I rarely had to refer to the manual. I reserve the right to be wrong in my conclusions. Your comments and questions are always welcomed.
Dennis Kutchera is an Online Editor and Colorist in Halifax Canada and a founding member of the CreativeCOW.net community.