Photo phun II

Time to come back with a look at photography – just for the fun of it. Earlier this year I talked about using Pixelmator as an alternative to Photoshop. When I work with photos, I prefer to use Lightroom, Aperture and/or Photoshop (in that order). For extra effects, a touch of Tiffen Dfx, DFT Film Stocks or Magic Bullet Looks also gives you more pizzazz. While Pixelmator is pretty “lite” compared with Photoshop, it still gives most casual photographers more than enough control to enhance their images. Since it is based on Apple’s Core Image technology, it can also serendipitously take advantage of some of the FxFactory effects plug-ins.

Below is a set of images processed strictly with Pxelmator. I did use some of the FxFactory filters just because they were there, but understand that most of these effects also have native equivalents within Pixelmator. So, FxFactory filters are not an essential part in using Pixelemator as your image processing application. Click on any image below for a slideshow.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! See you in the new year!

Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2

Red Giant Software launched the preset-based “looks” market, when it originally released the browser version of Magic Bullet Looks. Visual effects director and software designer Stu Maschwitz overhauled the original product to create a self-contained color correction and “looks creation” interface, where tools were grouped according to how they fit into the flow from in-front of the camera to post. Magic Bullet Looks ships with tools and a number of presets, which can quickly be previewed on an image. The software is built as a separate application that is linked into most standard NLEs and compositors as a plug-in. This design spawned a still photography version, called PhotoLooks, which uses the same basic engine. For still photography, PhotoLooks installs as a plug-in to Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom and Apple Aperture.

Last year Red Giant Software brought out Magic Bullet Looks 2.0, which is also sold as part of the Magic Bullet Looks Suite 11. This featured a more streamlined Looks interface and additional tools, like Cosmo (a skin smoothing tool), but the PhotoLooks version was stuck with the old skin. Now the two have parity, with the recent update of the suite and PhotoLooks 2.0. Purchase PhotoLooks separately or get it included with the suite. Once again, both Magic Bullet Looks (for video) and PhotoLooks (for stills) feature a consistent appearance and a common set of tools and presets.

Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2.0 is available as a plug-in to Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom, but may also be accessed by launching the PhotoLooks application. When you use it as a plug-in, you gain the benefits of round-tripping between the applications. In Aperture and Lightroom, both before and after version are saved, to guarantee that the process is non-destructive. If you open PhotoLooks separately, you can import JPEGs, PNGs and TIFFs, but the adjusted image can only be saved as a JPEG. Custom looks can also be exported for use elsewhere.

Along with the new interface and Cosmo, other new features include four new scopes, faster GPU-enabled processing and 3-way color correction tools based on Magic Bullet’s popular Colorista filter. Creating an original look is as simple as dragging a tool into one of the categories (subject, matte, lens, camera, post) and then tweaking the setting to your liking. A tool isn’t limited to a specific category, so “post” tools can be applied in the “subject” position, as well as the other way around. You are simply creating a chain of filter effects, much like audio engineers do with audio filters. Once you get the desired result either save that as a new preset or exit back to the host program, where the image will appear with that look applied to it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

New Plug-ins for 2012

Plug-in developers have had their hands full. Not only are they rolling out refreshed versions of their products, but they are having to adapt to a range of new hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5 and updates of Avid Media Composer and the Adobe Creative Suite applications. Here’s a look at some of the newest options.

Boris FX – Boris Continuum Complete 8

Boris Continuum Complete is truly the Swiss Army Knife of filter packages. At NAB, Boris Yamnitsky (president of Boris FX) pointed out that the focus of the BCC8 upgrade was not simply to add more filters, but to improve the quality of all the filters, such as adding 3D depth to effects like lens flares. Filter categories have also been slightly regrouped into more logical combinations. The Boris Continuum Complete package includes categories that cover a wide variety totaling over 200 filters.

New features include improvements in the particle effects, lens flares, glows, lights and image restoration tools. There’s better integration with After Effects and support for 32-bit floating calculations. Best of all, BCC8 adds eight new filters including videoscopes, film glow, a 3D particle emitter, 3D lens flares, wild cards, organic strands, stage lights and flicker fixer.

Boris FX was one of the first companies to include particle effects inside an NLE and the performance and responsiveness of all of these filters have been greatly improved. Running BCC8 in After Effects on my Mac Pro with an ATI 5870 graphics card is a joy. The effects are easy to manipulate, particularly those that are more taxing, like distortions, particles, strands, extruded 3D text and glows. The Continuum filters use a set of custom on-screen controls that make it easy to tweak parameters either in the filter control panel or using the widget overlays.

The engineers have put effort into improving such basic effects as film glows and the 3D lens flares, giving these a very organic look and maximizing the level of control. Even though there are a lot of sliders to play with, each effect comes with a set of presets to quickly test out the looks – simply step through the presets from a pulldown menu. If you can only afford to purchase one set of third-party filters, then BCC is a great choice, because it’s so versatile.

RE:Vision Effects – Twixtor

Mention time-ramping effects, a la the movie 300, and RE:Vision Effects’ Twixtor immediately comes to mind. The most sophisticated version, Twixtor Pro, is available for Adobe After Effects, but for more casual users, RE:Vision released the standard Twixtor plug-in for Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro X.

Twixtor technology is particularly effective to slow a clip down, because it interpolates new frames in-between existing frames to eliminate visible stepping in the motion. It calculates the direction of motion within a clip and predicts where pixels should be. This data is used to create new frame information for the in-between frames. Naturally, these calculations aren’t always perfect, so the plug-in provides controls to fine-tune the parameters. Twixtor Pro (available in After Effects) gives you the ability to separate objects into layers to improve the accuracy of motion tracking.

Edge detection is a key part of how Twixtor does its magic. This means chroma and contrast play a role. If you try to apply Twixtor on a “log space” flat clip from an Alexa (Log-C), RED One (RedLogFilm) or Sony F3 (S-Log), you’ll often have some image artifacts, such as smearing or unnecessary blending. Instead, first bake in a LUT to color-corrected the clip and then apply Twixtor for significantly better results.

Twixtor tends to work best on clips when the object of your attention is reasonably isolated from the background. A skateboarder doing a jump against a blue sky will yield better results than if that background is the more complex architecture of a building. In the second example, the interpolation will tend to include the structure of the objects that intersect the skateboarder, causing them to warp and morph as you advance frames. This is where Twixtor Pro in After Effects gives you more control, but nevertheless, by being selective and doing some of your own masking, you can minimize these issues when using Twixtor in FCP X or Media Composer.

Irudis – Tonalizer|VFX

Final Cut Pro X has encouraged new plug-in developers to enter the NLE effects market. One such company is Irudis with their Tonalizer|VFX color-correction filter. It’s a slider-based filter designed for the FCP X interface and comes in a PRO (paid) and LITE (free) version. It’s billed as using photographic-style color correction and, in fact, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture users will feel right at home.

Tonalizer|VFX LITE provides a number of basic controls for contrast, brightness, chroma, etc. You need to bump up to Tonalizer|VFX PRO for the full level of control. Some of the key features are color correction based on warmth (color temp) and tint, highlight rescue, detail enhancement and noise reduction. Its strongest feature is the ability to dig out detail from seemingly overexposed skies and blocked up shadows. It also includes adaptations, which is a localized contrast control that will add more “punch” to an image. Best of all, I found it to be one of the least taxing color correction plug-ins available for X.

Noise Industries – FxFactory

Noise Industries is another company throwing full support behind FCP X. Not only are their existing FxFactory partner developers becoming X-compatible, but Noise Industries has busily been adding partners to the mix. Some, like Nattress and Sheffield Softworks, created popular FxScript filters built for the original FCP effects API. These have been newly re-written for FxPlug and are now offered as part of the FxFactory installation. In most cases, these filters are also available to all the other supported hosts, including After Effects – a first for Nattress and Sheffield.

These new additions add a number of color correction tools to the kit. For instance, Nattress curves and levels, Sheffield Softworks filters and Yanobox Moods fill a huge gap in X’s built-in color grading capabilities. You also get the same on-screen overlays in After Effects, such as Moods’ color wheels and Nattress’ curve schematics. So if you are running FCP X, Motion 5 and After Effects, a single installation of FxFactory will enable the filters for each application.

One of the newest FxFactory associations is with Ripple Training for a series of FCP X title effects branded as Callouts. These are useful templates that are a godsend for anyone doing instructional video of any type. It’s a series of animated arrows, lines, circles, thought and speech bubbles and more. As FCP X templates (based on Motion projects under the hood), these come with easy on-screen widgets for size/position adjustment, text entry and animation direction.

Another new member to the family is UK edit boutique Tokyo, who has been developing a number of FCP X-specific plug-ins, since its launch. Their first outing with FxFactory is the Tokyo Split Animator. This is a series of split-screen animation templates, which can be easily customized for interesting on-screen image collages. Design variations include shapes, sizes and angles. The user can make modifications of animation entry points, size and screen position, borders and shadows and more. The Tokyo Split Animator is a very cool way to add screen dynamism using a very simple concept.

DigiEffects – Damage and Delirium v2.5

DigiEffects has been going through a refresh of the Damage and Delirium filter sets, which I’ve tested in a few hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects. I wasn’t thrilled with the performance in FCP X, but they are more in their element inside After Effects, which I still regard as the best effects architecture of any of the common desktop tools. Between these two packages, you get several dozen filters in a range of categories encompassing particle effects, film and TV damage and overexposure.

These filters can be used to distress images or to add particle-based effects, like fog, fireworks, electrical arcs and more. They still don’t seem to be as responsive as other filters are in After Effects – though the 32-bit effects respond better than the 16-bit effects – but they do add some unique looks to the toolkit. For example, their skew effect is quite different from other grunge, TV interference or analog glitch effects – complete with controls for ghosting, distortion, noise, glow and vertical hold.

Digital Film Tools – Film Stocks

Digital Film Tools has developed a number of stylized image products, including Photo Copy, Tiffen Dfx and their newest – Film Stocks. All of these have just gone through a round of updates to be compatible with Final Cut Pro X and the Creative Suite 6 applications. With Film Stocks, DFT has combined the various film stock emulation and film processing categories from the other packages into a single “film looks” filter application. Like the others, it’s available for a wide range of film/video and photographic hosts.

When you apply the Film Stocks filter to a clip on the timeline in a host like Avid Media Composer or Adobe After Effects, you can access numerous sliders for direct adjustment inside the usual effects control panel. Or click the button to launch the external Film Stocks application, which uses its own custom interface. This is consistent with the other DFT products, as well. (The exception is the FCP X implementation of Photo Copy. There, you have a series of presets available with adjustable slider controls, but no link to the standalone application. )

Once you’ve launched Film Stocks, simply choose the category, like motion picture films – browse the presets within the category, such as various Fuji or Eastman stock emulations – and tweak the settings to customize the look. The film/video plug-in works on a single layer. Some parameters, like film grain, will be animated, which affects rendering performance. For example, enabling grain with animation values will take longer to render than without grain.

In Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Apple Aperture, the plug-in sends you directly to the external application. You have the ability to create and blend layers into a composite, much as you would with Photoshop layers. This is an especially useful tool for digital photographers. Want that touch of Kodachrome 25? Simply bounce out to Film Stocks, apply the preset and you’re done. If you are looking for a convincing mimic of film, then without a doubt, Digital Film Tools’ Film Stocks is the best film emulation product on the market.

 GenArts – Sapphire Edge V2

Sapphire Edge is a preset-based set of filters and transitions running the same effects engine as the traditional Sapphire filters. It uses a preset browser application to search and preview looks and styles. When you purchase Sapphire Edge, you also get a one-year subscription to FX Central, a subscription download service to expand to your preset collection on a monthly basis. Sapphire Edge V2 plug-ins have just been released, which include updates for Final Cut Pro (7 and X), After Effects/Premiere Pro CS6 and Sony Vegas. Nine new filters (rays, glare, glint, kaleido, soft focus, etc.) and four new transitions have been added. To date, there are over 575 presets based on 31 effects and transitions.

With V2 you can now save your own presets. Each implementation of these filters includes a set of slider adjustments in the host application’s effects interface. You can launch the Edge browser, pick an existing preset from a series of thumbnails that are previewed using your source clip, and then apply it. Back in the NLE, simply adjust the sliders until the look is right for your clip. At this point you have the option to save the adjusted version as a new preset.

As part of saving the modified preset, Sapphire Edge will let you tag it with category and name information to facilitate future searches in the browser. You can only save and recall new presets within similar products. For example, presets saved in the FxPlug version of Sapphire Edge V2 will not appear in the After Effects/Premiere Pro version; however, custom presets developed in Premiere also show up in the Edge preset browser if you apply that effect in After Effects.

Sapphire Edge V2 is GPU-accelerated with NVIDIA CUDA cards, although I found performance to be close to real-time in Premiere Pro CS6 running with my ATI card. Simply put, Premiere Pro CS6’s performance with these various filters is amazing. Sapphire Edge and the Digital Film Tools products run incredibly smoothly with timeline playback set to half-resolution. Unfortunately, comparable playback in FCP X is glacial. That’s pretty much true of all complex filters in the new Final Cut, especially those using an external application to build the effect, including GenArts Sapphire Edge, Magic Bullet Looks and the various Digital Film Tools products.

Red Giant Software Magic Bullet Looks 2 and Looks Suite 11

To keep up with the various NLE changes, Red Giant Software has recently refreshed Magic Bullet Looks and some of the other applications included as part of the Looks Suite. Looks is now compatible with all of the Avid, Adobe and Apple software. The Suite package includes a collection of software designed to solve a variety of post situations. Unlike other “suite” filter packs, these are actually different tools, not a set of categorized filter groups. These include Looks 2, Colorista II, Grinder, Mojo, PhotoLooks 2, Cosmo, Denoiser II, Frames and Instant HD. The Suite offers a great bang-for-the-buck. All of these tools – especially  Colorista II – have loyal fans, but the biggest “go to” application within this suite is Looks. If that’s your main focus of interest, then the Looks 2 software is probably the better purchase over the suite.

Magic Bullet Looks 2 runs as a plug-in that – when launched – opens into its own external application. The plug-in acts are a conduit and takes care of proper color management between the two. Magic Bullet Looks isn’t simply a group of presets or a set of photo-style filters. The Looks tools include a range of color correction tools, lens-style filters and more. These are grouped according to Subject, Matte, Lens, Camera and Post. The idea is to create a series of filters, whose combination mimics the chain of real-world processes from in front of the lens through to post. The interface includes tools, presets, scopes and a viewer for an all-inclusive image adjustment environment. The change from the original Magic Bullet Looks to Looks 2.0 involved streamlining the interface, as well as the addition of Cosmo – a skin softening filter.

The most recent change has been the introduction of Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2, which is available separately or as part of the Looks Suite. This is a photographic plug-in that works with Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. Even after the Looks 2 interface was released, the PhotoLooks version had retained the previous style. Now, PhotoLooks 2 uses the same consistent interface and new tools, such as Cosmo.

These filters are great for creating stylized images. As with the other suites, real-time performance in Premiere Pro CS6 is vastly better than in Final Cut Pro X. You’ll definitely need to render there. Otherwise, Magic Bullet Looks 2 is a great option. If  can only make one purchase of a comprehensive “looks” filter, then Magic Bullet Looks is the one to start with.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4

For the fourth iteration of Lightroom, Adobe has enhanced the processing capabilities and added features to aid photographers with handling modern photographic challenges, such as the integration of video. Although Lightroom is primarily a photographer’s tool, it is also indispensable for video producers and editors who have to deal with a large volume of photographs, such as when producing documentaries that are based on archival images. Lightroom is the ideal application to store, organize, adjust, crop and prepare stills for video editing. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom competes directly with Apple Aperture and each has its loyal proponents among photographers. Both are powerful tools and each new version tends to leapfrog that of the competitor. For now, Lightroom offers the more advanced video features and, of course, is a cross-platform application.

Photo features

Let’s first look at the improvements for photography. Image processing and color science have been changed in Lightroom 4. If you open existing photos that have been processed and catalogued in previous versions of Lightroom, you have the option of sticking with the old correction or update the file. Naturally, all changes are non-destructive, so your original photo is always unaltered. The biggest changes have been made in highlight/shadow recovery and noise reduction.

Highlight/shadow recovery is critical in digging out detail in bright skies and dark areas in an image. If you work with camera raw images, Lightroom uses the same raw processing engine as Photoshop. There’s also advanced black-and-white conversion. This lets you use eight color channels to control the tonal qualities of the black-and-white image. In other words, you have more control than merely desaturating the image. Finally, there are new selective brushes to control such options as white balance within areas of the picture.

With the increased use of smart phone cameras and online social media and photo services, like Flickr and Facebook, Lightroom 4 now lets you organize images based on location information embedded in the image metadata. This is aided by a new Map module accessible at the top of the interface. There is also enhanced sharing integration with some social media sites.

The big new selling point for photographers is photo book creation. This was a feature that previously had some Lightroom users jumping over to Aperture just to use, but no longer. Photo book creation lets photographers design coffee table book layouts, complete with proofing and ready to send to the printer. To enter the Book module, click the title button at the top (like Slideshow or Web) to access the book layout controls.

Plug-in integration

As a video editor, plug-ins are something I use a lot. A video plug-in is typically applied as a filter within the editing application, but photo plug-ins work differently. Lightroom sends your image to an external application launched from the Develop module’s Photo/Edit In pulldown menu command. This architecture has been available since version 1.0 and developers have steadily been creating photo-compatible versions of their tools. Adobe Photoshop, Magic Bullet Looks, Tiffen Dfx, DFT Film Stocks and DFT Photo Copy are all available as external “plug-ins”.

When you send a photo to an application like Magic Bullet Looks, Lightroom gives you the option to send a copy with or without the Lightroom correction “baked in” for further processing. When you are done, the external application returns you to Lightroom, where you then have two versions of the photo – the “before image” and the “after image” with the look added.

I like using Lightroom for processing photos, but I also find these plug-in options quite enticing. For example, adding selective focus filters, stylized effects, textures or painterly effects can be best achieved using an application like Photoshop or Tiffen Dfx. By starting and ending in Lightroom, you maintain the ability to organize these images in a central environment.

Video

Photographers have increasingly had to deal with video as part of their workflows, so photo organizing/processing applications have added video features. This includes Adobe Photoshop, Bridge and Lightroom. First, in version 3 and now more so in Lightroom 4. Videos are accessed in the Library module, but you only have limited processing control. You can’t open video files in the Develop module for full color correction. Individual videos can be opened in a viewer by double-clicking the file in the browser. You can trim the in and out points of the clip and set a reference frame for the browser thumbnail.

The Library module does allow limited adjustments, as well as the application of custom and built-in presets. With video clips you can adjust white balance, exposure, contrast, black and white points and vibrance. A variety of video formats are supported, which on my Mac Pro included ProRes HQ and 4444 files from an ARRI ALEXA and RED files from both RED One M-X and EPIC cameras. Although the RED images are a raw format, Lightroom still only sees these as video, even when using an EPIC to shoot stills. If you do nothing to the RED files, then Lightroom applies the in-camera metadata settings created by the videographer. If you adjust the color metadata settings of the .R3D files using RED’s free REDCINE-X PRO application, then these updated settings will be recognized by Lightroom.

To test the custom presets, I exported a TIFF from an EPIC file out of REDCINE-X PRO using the flatter RedLogFilm gamma curve. This was imported into Lightroom as a photo, so I was able to bring it into the Develop module and make detailed image corrections. These parameters were then saved as a custom preset. Doing this enabled me to open my RED files in their native .R3D raw format (using the same RedLogFilm metadata setting) and apply the custom preset as a batch to all of the files. Although it’s possible to work with RED files inside Lightroom 4, frankly it’s a slow process. REDCINE-X PRO is the better tool if you are a RED photographer/videographer; however, there’s no reason you can’t use the two applications in conjunction with each other. This is especially true if you are using an EPIC camera for still photography, such as fashion shoots, since Lightroom 4 is far better as a tool for adjusting and organizing still images.

Another new video feature is the ability to export color corrected and trimmed video clips. Lightroom 4 offers three options: original, H.264 and DPX.  If you export as “original” then no color adjustments are applied and the existing clip is merely copied in its original size and length. DPX image sequences and H.264 files accept the color changes and are exported between the trimmed in and out point (if set). The maximum video output size is 1920×1080 for H.264 and DPX, but I was unsuccessful in exporting RED files as anything other than the original format. The ProRes files from the ALEXA, however, exported in all three variations and included the baked-in settings I’d used to offset the camera’s Log-C gamma profile.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 continues to improve as the best, cross-platform photography application. It sports a new, lower price ($149), plus will be available through the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription service. The new processing features bump its power up a notch, but if you need to create photo books, then this upgrade is essential. If you are a video professional, then it’s not the most ideal tool for dealing with video, but obviously that’s merely a secondary feature, rather than the primary intent of the software. Nevertheless, photographers who want a limited ability to make color adjustments and to organize their video clips in a familiar environment will welcome the new video features.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

© 2012 Oliver Peters

Photo phun

I’m strictly an amateur when it comes to photography, though I still like to take my share of snapshots. Sometimes I’m lucky. As a holiday break I decided to play around with a hodge-podge of images – some from holiday times or winter locations and others not.

These were processed through Lightroom and Photoshop as well as the photo plug-in versions of Tiffen Dfx and Magic Bullet Looks. On some of these I was going for rich images, some for effects and others a pseudo painterly look. Although these were all still photos, the same looks and processes are applicable to video color grading and stylizing effects.

Click on any image to see an enlarged view and to scroll through a filmstrip view of all. After the New Year I’ll be back with more standard film and video fare.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!