Sunday, January 31, 2010

Top Photographers Interview: Trey Ratcliff (HDR & Textures Guru)

Trey Ratcliff

Unless you are from another planet, you know that High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR) is all the rage right now (usually created with Photomatix) . Many consider Trey Ratcliff as the man responsible for its rise from just being an interesting technology to one embraced by legions of Photographers. I first became aware of Trey when my wife was cruising around Flickr and found his Farewell India shot shown below:

When we saw this image we were blown away – it was like WOW, that’s the coolest picture of the Taj Mahal I’ve ever seen!

Many people have that reaction so they quickly try to find out how he does shots like this (which is basically combo of work done in Photomatix, Color Efex, and Adjust with some Photoshop fairy dust using complex masks). Of course when people go off to do they own, they usually create hideous attempts that looks good only to them, but no one else. ;-) I admit that I fell into that camp to so my love affair with HDR came and went, but the legions who follow Trey continues to grow.

In Early November 2009, I had a chance to interview Trey (upon the urging of my co-worker Sean Daniel). After speaking with him for a short time, I quickly discovered that Trey is really great down to Earth guy with a brilliant understanding of color and how the interaction of colors interact with our eyes (inspired by his study of the Impressionists) to create an image that most will find visually pleasing. Of course, my family is from Texas (with my sister living in Trey’s hometown of Austin) so I have a bit of a bias towards my deep South comrades (in a tolerant 21st Century way <g>).

The Interview - Question & Answers with Trey Ratcliff

Here’s some of the questions I’ve been wanting to ask Trey for a while, so I hope you enjoy them. The responses were taken from my cryptic notes, so the responses are not direct quotes but rather my interpretation of what Trey was trying to say (and Trey has had a chance to read this so you can consider him on board with the responses).

What’s the story behind the name stuck in customs?

Well, there are two sources. The first is fear of being stuck in customs as you return to your country. The second is a bit deeper. You get stuck in your own “customs” – and when you see that others do things differently you think they are doing it wrong. There is no wrong for them or right for you, it’s just people’s customs.

There’s a perception from your blog that you are travelling the world all of the time capturing these amazing photos from exotic places. What’s the real story with your travel and how did it all get started?

<chuckles> No, that’s not the way it really is. The post-processing shots are all out of order.

I have a different workflow. I used to be like most people where I would dump photos, process them all, then be done. It was a soft pressure that always hung over me

Now I let the photos sit and marinate for a while, and post-process them at a later time. For example, I went to Cambodia two years ago and still haven’t process the photos. It keeps the audience engaged as you jump from country to country. In addition as you learn new post-processing tricks you can apply them to shots from some of your favorite trips. This technique helps you to get over that guilty feeling. Instead of thinking of it as a pile of work to do, it’s more like a Netflix queue of entertainment to enjoy – it’s just my photo queue. [RON: Personally I LOVED this comment from Trey – this is going to be a major part of my new workflow as well!]

How did you get your photo in the Smithsonian? (or how did they find you)

I entered my first photography contest, sponsored by The Smithsonian. I figured that if you are going to do a contest, then do it for something legitimate! The winning photo, Fireworks over Lake Austin (shown above) is also on the cover of my new book - A World in HDR.

It’s a lot of people’s dream to be paid to travel. Who pays for all of your travel?

My web site does very well. I don't travel for anyone, just for myself. I travel to generate images which I can later license.

On your site, you promise a photo a day, but how long do you usually spend editing a photo to where you can actually deliver on that? Do you just queue some up from time to time so you can deliver them one at a time later?

I sit down on weekend or weeknights, and pull about 30 photos (11 unprocessed Lightroom catalogs) and process them in bulk. Each day I sit in iPhoto and pick one of freshly baked shots to upload to the blog.

Kyoto, Japan’s Bamboo Forest

You have a fantastic sense of color. Scott Kelby's 7 Point System book showed me tricks with LAB color and adjusting the black level of a photo to greatly improve the overall color of the image. Do you have any tips on how to get the rich colors you get?

I have done a lot of study of impressionism. It is one of my hobbies. In fact recently (the days before we spoke), I spent a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. My favorite is Renoir.

I love the way the colors are mixed together. The impressionists worked with pigments and oil paint to mix light. When mixing colors red and green make brown, but when you mix red and green light it creates a vibrant yellow. I’m also a big fan of Seurat’s pointillism (dots image). It’s interesting to note that much of these older images have lost their punch due to the pigments fading over the years but they were vibrant back then. True light is being the mixture of all of the different colors of lights by the time it hits your eye is fundamental.

What changes do you see ahead for HDR?

I don’t see any major breakthroughs. I’ve tried all the software packages, but I still prefer Photomatix the most . I also give feedback to software companies to help them improve in the future. A BIG step forward will be to predict where the sliders should go – need to differentiate day, night, etc… – because right now the default results aren’t very good. Final steps to remix tone mapped image with the original raw to make it more realistic, would be a big step forward to fix the problems of existing HDR algorithms.

What type of computer do you used to edit your photos?

My currently broken Apple MacBook Pro  (Funny Trivia: Trey did the interview while waiting in line at the Apple store to pick up his repaired computer)

What add-ins do you find most useful beyond those already mentioned on your site?

I like to use Lightroom for image management, Nik Software Dfine for noise reduction as HDR merges will make photos very noisy. I then use HDRSoft Photomatix for the HDR merge and initial processing. I really like Nik Software Color Efex (especially its Tonal Contrast filter as well as its film grains). I love to play with the presets in Topaz Adjust. Beyond that it’s just typical Photoshop layer masks, blending modes, etc…  When I’m done I keep my output images in iPhoto as my Portfolio holder.

The thing about add-ins is that there are many great ones out there, but knowing WHEN and HOW to use them is key! Get a discerning eye so you know the best filter for what you need. It takes time to know which one to use and why. There are plenty of people out there using these great tools in the wrong way.

The Impressionists didn’t mix their own paint – they would use others pigments. We are like modern day impressionists, and these software filters are our purchased pigments. Use them to your advantage.

Is just simply layer masking the real trick behind not having nasty gray skies in HDR images?

Human brain looks at skin differently than anything else so it’s a good case where you need to go back to the original and bring that in and process it differently. Skies are the same way – the brain just looks at it like a sheet of blue when there are no clouds, but there’s a lot of tones in there.

Any piece of gear that comes to mind that will help aspiring HDR photographers improve their chances of getting great results?

A good tripod and a Really Right Stuff head

Who is your favorite Photographer?

Edward Curtis

Where was your favorite place to photograph?


I really enjoyed my talk with Trey. He was a real down to Earth guy that you want to sit down and have a beer with. His talent is for color and his imaginative techniques make him an easy choice for my Top Photographers list. If you follow his work, you can see that it is evolving (like all of us) into something more and more special as each month passes (more so than the rest of us <g>). He’s gone from someone to watch to a Top Photographer in my book, so I look forward to seeing his new images each day on

You can view Trey’s portfolio presentation at

Trey’s Trick – Textures

In addition to the Photoshop plug-in’s mentioned above, Trey has one more trick that set his photos apart from the typical post processing that you or I would do – it’s his use of textures. I love the results he gets using blending modes and layer masks with textures, and as you see in the image above – the result is far more unique, compelling and visually pleasing than what your or I would typically get with our current workflow.

To purchase the same textures Trey uses for his photos, visit his Stuck In Customs site. I have his Ultimate Package and it has some fantastic videos that show you HOW he uses these textures as well as the tricks he’s picked up along the way to get such great images. You really need to get the Ultimate Package because the last two videos to me are more “to the point” and a great reference on how to take an ordinary drab photo and make it amazing (the Yellowstone Forest Bonus video only in the Ultimate Package will blow your mind). In addition, I’ve had some great success with textures only found in that package as I’ve done below:

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after

This was a bad photo that I had marked for deletion, but now it has been saved thanks to these textures and is selling in Europe for enough to pick up a new lens. Hopefully you can see why I’m excited about what texture layers can do for drab images, and how they are a key part of Trey’s digital workflow. If you want to experience the fun of learning this skill and possibly create some amazing work like Trey then the Ultimate Package Textures & Video Tutorial and his ebooks & tutorials are the ticket!

Special Offer


Trey has been kind enough to offer readers of this blog a 15% discount off his textures when you visit the site using this link AND enter the discount code RONMART15 as shown above in the shopping cart when you check out. Here’s a great chance to see some awesome videos of how Trey does his magic on photos that look like what you or I might get (on a good day <g>) and transforms them into something spectacular!


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1 comment:

Mel Carll said...

Great interview. I agree that sitting down and talking with Trey is very easy. He has a very strong understanding of color and where he wants to take an image. His personal sense of composition makes his images just grab you.