As part of all my gear, I have a matte box and lots of filters. Sometimes I even get to use them. But more often than not it’s a run’n’gun or such a tight schedule that niceties like that are ignored with the caveat ‘we’ll sort it in post’.

Of course there are certain things that post-production still struggles to fix; for instance my Schneider 4 x 4 ‘warm up’ polarizer is amazing for certain shots and I’ve never found anything to quite match it after the event. But that’s probably one of the few exceptions to a general rule hammered home literally by the week as more and more cameras with 13 stops of latitude are launched. In most cases you just don’t want to commit to a look on-set when you can decide at your leisure in post.

Recently I’ve reviewed the latest set of grading tools from Red Giant and hot on its heels (although actually released a few months earlier) comes version 4 of the well-respected Dfx grading/effects software from Tiffen. It’s interesting how different and yet how similar these two programs are. Different in terms of the approach but similar in terms of the overall effect – as I hope to demonstrate.

So at this point let me ask you a question. What sort of film-maker are you? Because how you answer will probably point to one or other of these amazing packages. Answer that you like to do things the traditional way and you’ll choose one. Answer that you don’t care how you do it so long as you get the shot and you’ll go for the other. So let’s see if that’s true in your case shall we?

Hopefully you’ll be aware of Tiffen and the long and illustrious reputation of this company in movie-making. Although the industry is now full of companies that were not even formed (let alone taking up floor space at NAB) a few years ago, Tiffen has been influential for 75 years – which is going some. Today the company offers a wide range of products including the eponymous camera filters and a whole lot more – up to and including the world-famous Steadicam range. In fact there are few areas of the film biz that the company doesn’t touch…

So if anyone knows about how to manipulate and change cinema pictures you’d expect it to be these guys! Dfx is not a product I have tried before although I have been aware of it. This is version 4 which other testers who’ve had earlier builds say is considerably faster to render. This is because it’s now all rendered on the GPU (as of course is Magic Bullet.)

Tiffen say that as well as being faster this version has loads of new effects as well as 30 film stock and 93 photographic process emulations. Suffice to say you’ll never run out of options with this plug in …

Installation is easy. There’s basically one file that activates and you have an option to install multiple versions which will work on whatever applicable programs are already installed on your PC or Mac. This includes Avid, FCP X, Motion 5, PP/AE (from CS5 – CC 2014 usefully) Vegas, Resolve (both Light and Full), Scratch and Nuke. Plus for stills work it includes Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. So pretty much everything! This is useful as it allows you to get used to the same program for stills and video.

On installation you enter a few personal details and then you have the chance to activate each version of the app for 14 days free before you have to pay. Of you can licence it indefinitely as a demo but outputs will be watermarked. This is great way to try before you buy – and something I would recommend.

In terms of editing my main tests were on Premiere Pro – both CS5 and the latest CC. As with all plug- ins, the list of Tiffen effects appear in the Video Effects panel and you drag these into the clip to treat, then adjusting Effect Controls. However, Dfx also gives you the option of using its own ‘standalone’ interface to manipulate. Once you get accustomed to it (and it’s the same Dfx interface that works throughout every host application) it’s perhaps quicker and more intuitive to use – but it takes a bit of getting used to as some of the adjustments are not as intuitive as they perhaps could be!

Working with host apps like Photoshop or Premiere, only one effect at a time can be manipulated in the Dfx application. This is unlike Magic Bullet which can have any number of video effects together and even the order in which they are applied can be altered. Initially this seems like it puts Dfx at a disadvantage but is easily overcome. It also stops you adding tiny amounts of ‘gratuitous effects’ to a clip, something that’s easy to do in other programs if you don’t have enough discipline!

Adjustments range from the subtle to the not-so-subtle but as with all programs of this nature, the time you spend experimenting will pay dividends when you need to use it on a real job, so it’s definitely worth practising. And as with other similar programs, truly hideous effects can be created easily, so you have been warned!

From my point of view as someone who started off their TV career shooting commercials on 35 mm film, the names of many of the presets are a trip down Memory Lane (or, er, my filter box) with ‘Pro-Mist’, ‘Double Fog’, even ‘Flag’ bringing back recollections of simpler times. For me these were good starting points into some grades and got me going quickly. If you’re new to post-production grading it’ll take you a bit longer to get into it – but after a while you’ll wonder how you did without it!

After applying your effects you’ll normally need to render them and Dfx does render fast using the GPU, so a decent video card is a must.

At this point I began to consider the similarities and differences between Dfx and the similarly-priced Magic Bullet. Although they can both achieve a lot, how they go about it is quite different. To me, Dfx is far more ‘classical’ and process-orientated in its approach, meaning you have to build things up step-by-step – nothing is done for you. On the other hand, Magic Bullet (probably because its originators didn’t come from a traditional Hollywood film background) works back from a ‘vision’ of the shot – hence its stack of ready-made pre-sets with apposite (and often witty) names. Dfx has none of that – you have to do the work.

So although the end results can look pretty similar, the way you work at it is totally different. And that’s because I guess they’re not aiming at the same markets either. The way Tiffen markets and sells Dfx is very much ‘pro’. A lot of the digital effects have analogue equivalents in real life. Not just filters either – but lenses, lighting, gobos, film stocks and all manner of things that actually affect what and how you shoot have been taken into consideration. Red Giant on the other hand has more of a background in the Indie film-making community. For them it’s the end result that is all important; how you get there (or to be more precise GOT there in the old days) is not.

One other advantage of Dfx is that fact that it works over so many platforms – or even independently. This is great to retain a consistent look across CG, video and stills on a project.

Another advantage is that it offers a lot more flexibility in how it works and the sorts of effects it can add. For instance there is every Rosco gobo hidden away under the ‘Light’ section and not only are all your favourites there you can even tint them any gel colour you like – every single one is named and in there! (OK you have to be of a certain age to even remember gobos ….)

Basically if you’ve got a film or major production background, Dfx is something you’ll relate to and understand quickly. But if you’ve come into video from another field or you’re a ‘Millennial’ – perhaps someone who’s only known Smartphones, DSLRs and Go-Pros – Magic Bullet will probably appeal more.

Form my personal point of view, Dfx will suit quite a lot of the work I do; because for commercials and short-form work, care and consideration needs to be given to every single shot and Dfx will enable me to do that.

Tiffen’s Dfx will certainly reward anyone who’s willing to get their head round it and put in the time to really hone their post-production grading skills, perhaps in conjunction with Resolve for video or Lightroom for stills. Add to that its flexibility and the fact that it does work equally well for video or stills and you have a great piece of pro software. It’s not flash and the effects don’t have cool names. But for real Hollywood tools on your own desktop, there’s nothing to be beat it. Faster, more flexible and more useful than previous versions, Tiffen’s Dfx version 4 is an undoubted leader in post-production effects.