Software Review: Tiffen Dfx 3.0

February 14, 2012

By Dan Havlik

Photo software filters, plug-ins and apps are all the rage right now and I’m not just talking about for “serious” photography. What’s appealing about the popular iPhone photo-sharing app Instagram is not only that you can share your pictures with your friends and exchange virtual hearts and smiley faces. It’s what you can transform your miserable little cell photos into thanks to Instagram’s surprisingly effective and cleverly named filters such as Earlybird, Toaster, Hefe, Nashville and 1977.

In the end though, a cell phone photo is still a cell phone photo even if you shot it with the iPhone 4S’s 8-megapixel camera and ran it through the Sutro, Brannan or Kelvin filters. And I say that as someone with a deep respect for the whole iPhoneography phenomenon.

When I really want to make “art,” I reach for my digital SLR and, more often than not, end up running my shots through a software filter plug-in or program. For the last few years, Nik Software’s Color Efex and Silver Efex Pro applications have been my go-to filter packages for adding color and black-and-white effects to my photos. In last month’s issue of PDN, I looked at another very good program from onOne Software called Perfect Effects 3, which is part of Perfect Photo Suite 6.

One of the most comprehensive digital filter suites of them all, however, has to be Tiffen’s Dfx program, which is now on version 3.0. Tiffen is a name familiar to anyone who has placed a traditional glass filter on the end of his or her lens to achieve an effect or look. The company’s been making filters and lens accessories for photographers, filmmakers, cinematographers and TV camera operators for over 70 years, and they’re still making them—even in this increasingly non-analogue world.

So it would make sense that a business that knows how to make actual glass filters would have a good grasp on the simulated, digital variety. And Tiffen does. Dfx 3.0 is an across-the-board filter spectacular with so many options for adding effects to your photos you might feel overwhelmed. Instagram, it’s definitely not.

But no worry. Half the fun of Tiffen Dfx 3.0 is exploring the wide array of options even if occasionally you may head down the wrong filter path.

Filter This

Tiffen Dfx 3.0 is offered in a couple of different versions, either as a standalone app ($169); a plug-in ($199) for Adobe Photoshop, Elements and Lightroom, and Apple Aperture (one plug-in license will run on all the programs if they’re on the same machine); or as a film/video version ($599), which works as a plug-in for Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro 6/7 and Avid Editing Systems. There are also assorted bundle options.

Installation is a snap and I liked having the option of using it in Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. (Having a lot of overlapping photo software on my computer is an occupational hazard.) If you own or have tried any recent photo software—aside from the big daddy, Photoshop—Tiffen Dfx 3.0 will have a familiar look. In other words, it will remind you of a lot of Lightroom, and that’s not a bad thing.

Though Adobe’s asset management software has its supporters and detractors, it’s been one of the most influential photo programs out there in terms of its user interface. Like Lightroom, Dfx 3.0 has the familiar gray-paneled interface, with the image you’re working on featured in the center window, a row of thumbnails at the bottom, tools across the top, and presets and editing tools on either side.

Since Dfx 3.0 is an image filter program, not an asset manager, the thumbnails you see at the bottom are the same as the one you’re working on in the center window. Each thumbnail gives you a preview of the effect offered by the various filter options. And as mentioned previously, there are many filter options. Many, many options.

Film Styles
I didn’t count them all but, according to Tiffen, Dfx 3.0 offers 2,000 filters mimicking actual glass filters, lenses, film grain, color correction, natural light and photographic effects. Version 3.0 ups the ante with a large number of new features and filters. Most notable for film junkies, there’s Film Stock, which offers 113 simulated color and black-and-white films.

Though many other programs offer filters that simulate classic films, I’ve yet to see one as comprehensive as what’s offered in Dfx 3.0. They even simulate Agfa Scala! While I love having these simulated film stocks—especially with so many specialty films no longer available—I do wonder what sort of licensing issues are involved with using something as specific as, say, Kodak T-Max P3200 in your digital filter software.

The entire Film Lab section of filters in Dfx 3.0 is perhaps my favorite group of effects. Along with Film Stock, there’s an entire category for Bleach Bypass, with 26 different pre-sets, featuring a slew of “warm” and “cool” versions. (Color Efex Pro 4, by comparison, has only one Bleach Bypass pre-set though there are ways to manually adjust it.)

Other categories in the Film Lab filter are a mix of familiar and “insidery” terms for film effects including Cross Processing, Faux Film, Flashing, Grain, Overexpose, Three Strip and Two Strip. Photographers who aren’t familiar with these techniques might find the jargon confusing. And, to tell you truth, the organization of filters in Dfx 3.0 could be clearer. Where Color Efex Pro 4 splits filter categories into Portrait, Nature, Architecture, Wedding etc., in Dfx 3.0, along with Film Lab there’s HFX Diffusion, HFX Grads/Tints, Image, Lens, Light and Special Effects.

Fast Rendering
While Dfx 3.0 may confuse filter newbies, it makes up for it with its fast rendering speed. Seeing how a filter changed my image took just a split second on my iMac and I was able to quickly narrow down the options on the images I was working on. There’s also a Favorites category to organize the ones I liked best.

The thumbnail previews at the bottom of the interface and on the right side in the presets are also a quick way to narrow down the options. It helps to have a large computer monitor to get a good read on an effect in the thumbnail. You could certainly use Dfx 3.0 on a small laptop but I wouldn’t recommend it.

When you find a filter you like for a particular image, you can change the opacity of the effect, alter the blending (there are slew of options, from linear burn to color dodge to overlay) and then adjust the name of the filter to reflect those modifications. A button next to the name box lets you add the filter as a layer to your image, just as in Photoshop. And, of course, you can add multiple Dfx filters as separate layers in an image to get a combined effect. A little lightning bolt button below the box lets you turn a layer on or off to see the before and after effect.

Similarly to Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4, Dfx 3.0 lets you see the before and after effect in the main window using several options: a side-by-side image comparison, a vertical split comparison, a horizontal split comparison or an A/B comparison. All this is to say you will get a pretty good idea of what your photo is going to look like compared to the original. If you like the filter combo effect you’ve created, you can save it as its own preset for future use.

Dfx 3.0 also has several tools to create a mask in a filter if you want to just tweak a specific part of your photo, such as a model’s face. The easiest is a tool called EZMask, which is yet another painting-style masking technique that lets you draw in a mask for a subject while leaving out the background (onOne has a similar tool in Perfect Mask 5, which is part of Perfect Photo Suite 6).

More New Features
If you want to remove noise, banding or blocking artifacts in your images, Dfx 3.0 has new DeNoise, DeBand and DeBlocking filters. These don’t seem to be on the same plane as some of the software’s other effects but they do help in a pinch.

Glow Darks “glows and grows” the dark parts of an image to create a shadowy halo—the effect is subtle—while Key Light will create the effect of relighting an image with a directional or point light. The new Match filter matches the color, detail, grain and tone of one photo, and applies it to another; and Texture applies, ahem, texture to a shot.

Some of the other new filters are more of a novelty. Rays, for instance, creates a somewhat cheesy sun flare background. (Church groups, however, might like this for their monthly newsletter.)

Color Shadow, meanwhile, turns your image into a colored silhouette, which Tiffen says simulates “the look and feel of those colorful iPod commercials” but to me is more like something you’d find in a surfing magazine from the 1970s.

The Bottom Line
I don’t care who you are, there’s no way you could possibly carry around the number of actual glass filters supplied in Tiffen’s Dfx 3.0 software. I mean, technically, you probably could but why would you want to? In one simple program, Tiffen gives you all your favorite physical filters (and more) in an easy-to-use plug-in or standalone software product. If there were a few nitpicky things that bothered me—such as the sheer enormity of the filter set and the jargon-filled nomenclature used to organize them—this was redeemed by the speed and effectiveness of the software. There’s a new digital filter champ and, fittingly, it’s from a venerable name in the filter business: Tiffen.

Pros: The most comprehensive digital filter photo effects program I’ve tested yet; one license for the plug-in will let you use it in several host applications; wide variety of simulated film stocks including Agfa Scala; and very fast rendering lets you see the effect on a photo in a split second.

Cons: The choice of filters may be overwhelming for some users and organization of the filters could be better with less use of jargon.

Price: $169 – $599, depending on version and third-party program compatibility;

Related Articles:

Software Review: Perfect Photo Suite 6

Software Review: Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

Software Review: Nik Color Efex Pro 4