UPDATED: A Warning About AutoFX Software

UPDATED: A Warning About AutoFX Software

Later on in the day from when this original article was published, I finally had a response from AutoFX software. I could be a cynic and say that it only took the actions of publishing this to get a response from them but I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Their response was as follows;

“I’m so sorry that you have not gotten a response to your emails. I’m not sure exactly what might have happened but we are very happy to assist in your issue. When you upgrade, reformat or get a new computer we will need to reactivate a license for you to use on that system. I have generated a new License Key that you can use to activate your software again. I also provided a new download link so you can make sure you have the latest installer with Photoshop CC 2014 added.”

“We just released our new website today and will hopefully have it completed in the next 2 weeks with all the FAQ’s updated and also a new members account with all our customers all merged together. This has been a very long and hard thing to do since our company has been in business for 20 years it does not migrate over very fast. We apologize for all the inconvenience you have experienced through this and we hope to only improve from this point forward. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you.”

I have also received a personal apology from Michelle Burns, Vice President of the company. It appears that my initial emails were filtered out by a spam filter. Anyway, my Mystical Suite is now back up and running, I’m back to being a happy bunny and all is forgiven. Hopefully, their new website and merged accounts will ensure that other customers don’t suffer the same frustration as I did which is described below.

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I’ve been a fan of this software for quite some time having used their Mystical Suite bundle. The interface has always been somewhat quirky but the effects are good with a high level of versatility on how they are applied. So, a fine set of effects filters when they work but when they stop working, we have a different story.

I recently had to rebuild my PC because of a hard disk crash. I took the opportunity to upgrade to Microsoft Windows 8.1 from version 8.0 and performed a clean re-installation. After installing Photoshop CC 2014 and a few of my other plugins, I proceeded to re-install my AutoFX Mystical Suite Gen I software. I had purchased an upgrade to the latest version in November 2013. I had noticed that, from February 2014, AutoFX had changed their product structure and the Gen 1 software was on a different licensing system to the legacy software. My first slight concern arose when I noticed that there appeared to be no way of transferring my license details to the new account that had to be created for the new system. However, I could still log in to the old account that held my details so, not to worry (as I thought).

Mystical Suite installed OK but, before I could use it, I had to run through the online activation. This is simply entering the license key and clicking the Activate button. Unfortunately, at this point, the software just closed down. When re-opened, I was once more presented with the online activation screen. Several attempts yielded the same result even with an uninstall/reinstall.

There is precious little on AutoFX’s website when it comes to any online support. The knowledgebase is laughable and there is one US phone number and one email address. The few forum threads I’ve come across regarding any issues with this software suggest that the phone number goes straight to an answering machine and emails are not replied to. So, I decided to see for myself and send an email to them explaining my problem and wait… and wait I did. About 1 day passed with no response so I sent another email politely reminding them. Another day passed and still no response. I sent a third and final email expressing my annoyance at the lack of any acknowledgement and this would be almost certainly followed up by actions I’m taking now. I refuse to ring them up. Why should I spend money on an international phone call when I’m almost certain I know I’ll just get through to an answering machine. I have $20 pieces of software from developers that provide prompt and excellent technical support online or via email and, in general, software that costs in the hundred dollars plus range will be backed up by a comprehensive aftersales support programme.

An interesting fact I’ve since discovered is that the current trial software works fine with online activation using their supplied trial license key. My suspicion is that there is some form of license activation issue going on between the old and new systems. Do they expect me to pay for the software again? If they think that, they’ve got another thing coming!

This is good effects software but it’s also not cheap. What I find quite disturbing is the fact that their aftersales service and support is not just appalling… it appears to be non-existent. What is worse is that purchasers of the Gen 1 software prior to February 2014 would seem to have been well and truly shafted because, if your software no longer activates on a re-installation, the chances are is that you’re going to have to buy it again. On pure principle alone, this is something I will not do and my relationship with AutoFX has sadly come to an end.

The New Nikon D750: First Impressions (after a month’s use)

The New Nikon D750: First Impressions (after a month’s use)

It’s a longer story than I’ll go into here but, after having to return two faulty Nikon D610s to the dealer, I received the third one roughly a week before the brand new D750 was announced. This placed me in an instant dilemna. Keep the D610 and immediately lose a large chunk of resale value against any future upgrade or return that one, add a few hundred pounds and get the significantly better (in terms of spec anyway) Nikon D750. It was a “no brainer”. The third D610 went back and got replaced with a pre-order for the D750.

I took delivery of Nikon’s new DSLR a little less than a week after the initial release. After the D800 (my last early adoption) which proved to have the left-hand focus problem and Nikon’s much publicised D600 oil and dust spot issue, I promised myself never to be an early adopter / beta tester again. However, circumstances dictated otherwise and here it was, in my hands, the Nikon D750.

Nikon D750

I’d read up enough on this camera to know that it had the potential to be a real winner for Nikon. New improved 24 megapixel sensor with Expeed 4 Image Processor, Improved 51-point AF system taken from the D4S/D810, all new tiltable rear screen and quite a few other new improvements on the spec list. If they had learned their lessons from the questionable Quality Control of the recent past this latest and greatest could go a long way in restoring customer confidence in Nikon which had taken quite a battering in the recent past.

Now, I’m assuming there’s going to be a flood of Nikon D750 reviews getting posted up on the net very shortly, all going into much detail (but in some cases, not much detail), technical or real world use-wise, about its performance and handling from well-respected and not so well-respected sources. A problem I see with most of the early reviews is that they’re either churned out just to generate traffic to the site, they’re sponsored by Nikon in some way or camera reviews are just part of their 9 til 5 job.  I’m going to take a little more time over this article and, in doing so, I’ll leave the in-depth technical analyses to sites such as Dpreview and DXOmark. I’m not an expert in technical matters anyhow and, quite frankly, I’m more interested in getting out and taking photos than shooting test cards, blank walls at f22 and examining pixels at 200%. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t read other reviews and dismiss their usefulness. One can glean so much information these days from the well-established sites and accompanying forums before deciding to pull the trigger on, what could be, a very expensive piece of gear.

This “loosely termed” review will focus (excuse the much used pun) on my initial experiences and observations with the camera with examples from a few walkabouts over the first month of ownership. The aim is to give the reader an insight into my personal opinions and observations about the camera combined with a few of my lenses as a general use / walkabout setup. The D750, along with the Nikkor 24-85mm VR lens will be my travel solution. I also want to take along a fast prime but I’m not sure whether that will be my 50mm f1.8, 50mm f1.4 or my newest lens, the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art. The Sigma is larger and heavier by some margin than the other two but, would the slightly wider viewpoint and better IQ be worth it. I’m hoping that the process of composing this article will help me come closer to drawing a conclusion on this.

The D750 is similar in size and weight to the D610 and D7100 but, to me, it looks a little smaller. That’s probably because it has a thinner body. It feels well-built and has slightly more rubber coverage than the D610 giving previously bare plastic such as the SD card door the latex treatment. The grip is the most noticeable thing when holding the camera as it is slightly thinner and deeper. It’s all going to depend on the size of your hands whether one feels this is an improvement or not. For me, I can’t really tell one way or the other. What makes a big difference for me in terms of handling is the MB-D16 vertical grip. Essential for a firm hold in portrait orientation and providing additional battery power and extra controls, the MB-D16 is stupidly expensive at £280 but too useful to ignore. It also gives the camera a more balanced feel when using larger lenses. In the normal position, I rest it on the palm of my hand while gripping the lens between my thumb and index finger. My third finger is then ideally placed for the Fn button which is usually configured to be AF-ON when needed.

I really liked the D610’s blend of consumer and professional features, and now, even more so in the D750. Here we are with a full frame DSLR that has some internals as good if not better than the professional flagship but can be used as a “point and shoot” at the flick of the mode dial. It won’t be often, but there will be the odd occasion when I want to switch off my brain, let the camera do the work and just take photos. It’s also useful when you hand the camera over to someone else to get the obligatory non self-taken “selfie”. The one consumer feature I have reservations about though is the “Effects” mode. I’d expect this on a £300 P&S compact but, on an £1800 full frame serious enthusiast’s DSLR? Nah! On the contrary, I quite like the idea of the “Scene” modes which provide lesser mortals with guidance by auto-configuring the camera settings to suit a pre-defined scenario.

One of the best features of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 I had previous to a return to full-frame was the tilt screen. Super for low-angle shots and video. Nikon have set a precedent in including this on the D750 but, to be honest, it’s a feature of the camera that raises a couple of concerns in me. First up is robustness. The tilt screen on the Oly E-M5 felt very solid and snapped back into place very firmly. The D750’s screen does not feel as solid and appears to have a more intricate framework/mechanism holding it in place. It doesn’t snap back into position quite as solidly as the E-M5 did and the bottom edge has some free movement. I wonder whether, with time and use, this could become looser and require maintenance. It is the one part of the camera that could be the most succeptible to accidental damage. Secondly, is the question of weather resistance. When extracted, the tilt screen exposes a ribbon wire which feeds back into the main camera body. There is a very clear warning in the manual not to touch this. So, if touching it has the potential to cause malfunction, what if it got wet? Nikon claim that the D750 is weather sealed but I fail to be convinced when we get an exposed part of the camera we’re not supposed to touch.

Almost certainly a by-product of the slimmer body is the smaller top LCD. At first, this bothered me a little. Like many, I’m so used to glancing at this for a quick review of the camera settings when I’m adjusting any parameters. However, we do have the Info button that displays all the information we need on the back LCD and pressing various control buttons, for ISO as an example, brings up the screen with the relevant information. I’m getting more used to this and, to be honest, am now preferring to use it.

At the time of beginning this article, the RAW converters had not been updated for the Nikon D750. I normally always shoot in RAW but I decided to take the opportunity and play around with jpeg settings and Picture Control.

Image 1

Image 1: 1/320sec, f4, ISO 3200

 Image 1 is a SOOC jpeg with default settings of a naturally lit interior at ISO 3200. The in camera High ISO NR set at “Normal” does a good job here of reducing chroma noise which is much in evidence with NR turned off (see below). A little detail is lost but, hey, it’s always a compromise between noise and detail. Some are saying the NR is too aggressive but personally, I’d rather deal with a slight loss of detail in the image than it looking noisy.

High ISO Noise Reduction

High ISO Noise Reduction

It’s the beginning of Autumn here and that means one thing… colour! I’ve never bothered much with the Picture Control in my Nikons because I shoot RAW for 99% of the time but for the first walkabout I set the Picture Control to VIVID and slightly increased the contrast, clarity and saturation. Clarity is a new parameter in PC and should be a welcome addition. The following images are SOOC jpegs with no processing shot using the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens. I’m particularly impressed with the lack of CA (Chromatic Aberration) in the first image considering it was shot at f2.

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The D750 is aimed at the serious enthusiast but it would seem even professionals are considering it a serious tool also. There’s no doubt that for the “Point & Shooters” who hanker for the best image quality possible without wanting to mess around with Lightroom or Photoshop afterwards, the D750 can certainly deliver. It’s a very expensive P&S camera but, if money’s not too much of an object, then you’re not going to get much better. For the professional, a D750 offers to be an ideal backup or even a primary tool for wedding photographers and the like.

What I was hoping for happened and, whilst writing this article, Adobe published the Release Candidate for ACR 8.7 which supports the Nikon D750. So, the following image samples will now be RAW conversions post processed in Adobe Photoshop CC 2014.

The new 51-point AF system is the most noticeable technological improvement over the D610. It does appears to be quicker and more responsive even than my D800E and, to date, has had no problem locking on to any subjects, even in tricky lighting conditions with any of my lenses. Early reports are suggesting the the D750’s low-light, high ISO capability is pretty awesome. So, time to check out the camera’s capability at the stated maximum ISO rating of 12,800. For this, I chose a corner of my lounge that gets the least light on a very grey and dim day. I used a 50mm f1.8 lens set at f2.8. Shutter speed was calculated at 1/125 sec.

The first image is a straight jpeg conversion of the RAW file without any processing. The second is a downsized jpeg with post processing applied.

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At these screen sizes, you can’t really tell that much difference (the first image can be viewed full size). I wouldn’t hesitate to use any images shot at 12,800 ISO for display on a computer device, social media or general web use after some noise reduction and sharpening. I’m not sure I’d say the same thing if it had been the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

This will be my travel camera and, for that, another welcome addition to the feature list and another precedent for Nikon is integrated WiFi. I connected the camera to my Google Nexus with Nikon’s Wireless Mobile Utility app and checked it out. It seems to work absolutely fine at close distances for downloading images or remotely triggering the camera. It will be so useful on holiday not to have to bother with any cables for doing this. Just one thing to note here is that the WiFi Network is open by default. Using the app, you can configure the appropriate security.

The next set of photographs were taken on a walk alongside a local canal. For these I used the Nikon 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 VR. Shot in RAW and post processed as I would normally.

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The third image in this series was shot hand-held at 1/2 sec shutter speed resting my arms on a fence – a testament to the very handy Vibration Reduction system of the 24-85mm. Image quality from the 24 megapixel sensor / Expeed 4 Image Processor team is as you would expect, pretty awesome but it is with the D610 and Dynamic Range just has to be as good as any DSLR on the market at the moment. Plenty of ability to recover detail from highlights/shadows in post processing.

To sum up, I’m happier for sure with this camera than I would have been with a D610. The AF system alone was worth the upgrade. With regards to my travel setup, I’ve decided that the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art will stay at home. It’s just too darned heavy and the 50mm 1.8 G will be the fast prime of choice for my foreign adventures.

However, the D750 is not perfect. Nikon have left us “wanting more” and it does make you wonder about their general marketing strategy when they appear to cripple features of the camera that are available in much older systems such as 1/8000 sec top shutter speed and 1/250 sec flash sync. I can live happily enough without them but, come on! How difficult could it have been to have just included these features?

With new Nikon D610s available for around £1300 and second-hand ones going for under £1000, there’s never been a better time for photographers to enter the world of full-frame. If you can afford a little more, the D750 represents an outstanding camera for the price. It gives image quality second to none and AF performance up there with the best. Regardless of the few minor negatives, it has to be Nikon’s best FX all-rounder to date.

Pros:

  • (Almost the) Smallest and lightest FX DSLR from Nikon.
  • Superbly quick and responsive AF system
  • Top Notch Image Quality (with good glass)
  • Supreme low-light capability and High ISO performance.
  • All new features such as Tilt Screen and inbuilt WiFi

Cons:

  • Questionable robustness and weather resistance of tilt screen.
  • Too quirky “Effects” mode.
  • Could have been Nikon’s finest if we’d had 1/8000 sec, 8 fps with grip (plus larger buffer), 1/250s flash sync and no AA filter. (Maybe we have to wait for the D760 next year).

Nikon D610 Fail… Bring On The D750

Nikon D610 Fail… Bring On The D750

It was almost 3 months ago now that I decided to trade in my Olympus OM-D E-M5 for a Nikon D610. Well, to cut a long story a little shorter, the first D610 developed an AutoFocus fault. It was returned to WEX Photographic for a replacement. Almost unbelievably, the AutoFocus on the second D610 failed completely – what are the odds of this I wonder.

By the time I had received the third D610, Nikon were shortly to announce their new Full Frame DSLR, the D750 and so, not much more than a week after getting the D610 (which thus far was working OK), it was revealed.

Now, methinks! In an instant, the resale value of my D610 was to plummet and for the sake of just £400 more, I could have had a significantly more advanced DSLR. It was a “No Brainer”. Under WEX’s T&C, I could return the D610 for a full refund. This I did and have now placed a pre-order for the new D750. I’m hoping it will be in my hands sometime next month.

Why Are DSLRs So Expensive?

I bought a HDD Recorder for my TV the other day.  It cost me £260. It seems to have a million and one features and functions and I was quite blown away by what it could do. After browsing through the manual for a while then putting it down, I glanced over at my two DSLRs sitting there on the coffee table. It was hard to believe that, what I was looking at, constituted a market value of around £6000. Even the Nikon D610, classed as a consumer DSLR, cost £1400 and that’s before you put a lens on it. And what do they do? Take pictures.

I know that’s a bit of a simplistic answer (they also record video) but it begged the question, just why are they so expensive compared to some other consumer devices and P&S (Point & Shoot) cameras.

Well, here are the answers;

1.) Technology: There’s actually a mind-boggling amount of state-of-the-art technology packed inside a high-end Full-Frame DSLR. The Shutter, Auto Focus, Image Processing, and Metering systems to name a few will all be the result from years of technological research and development. Of course, fitting all this technology into a device that you can hold in the hand is not easy. The manufacturing process is highly specialised and usually conducted under laboratory conditions.

Want to see a Nikon D600 taken apart bit by bit and get an idea of the number of components used to build such a camera. Take a look at iFixit’s teardown here .

2.) Optics: The same goes for lenses. If you thought they were simple to make, take a look at the 80th Anniversary video of Nikkor Lenses by Nikon Imaging Corporation.

3.) Sensor & Image Quality: This is the piece of light sensitive silicon that records image data. It is, in itself, a highly specialised component responsible for producing the image. There are a number of factors that determine the quality of an image and, generally, the larger the sensor, the better the image quality will be. Full Frame image sensors are many times the size of the ones installed in compact cameras. They are, consequently, many times more expensive to manufacture.

4.) Control: A DSLR will offer a photographer complete control over how he/she takes a photograph. Photos can be took that would be impossible to create with a compact camera. The 440 page User Manual for the Nikon D800E soon gives you an idea of just how much control you do have.

5.) Build Quality: A pro quality DSLR will be built to withstand all sorts of rigours and extreme conditions. Their robustness is legendary with many tales of survival on the internet. Check this article out for one such story.

So, maybe £1400 for my D610 doesn’t seem so bad after all.

South America 2014: The Video

Earlier this year, I embarked on a five week overland tour of South America. Beginning in Buenos Aires, travelling all the way down to the southern-most city in the world, Ushuaia, then returning back up through the Argentinian Lake District and finally to Santiago, Chile. I continued my travels up and into Canada but that’s another story.

This is a video montage I have created from clips I made with my GoPro Hero 3+ and Olympus OM-D E-M5. I used GoPro Studio and Cyberlink’s PowerDirector to edit them and then put them all together.