Met Exclusive: Trey Ratcliff’s 9 HDR Tips

With the #1 travel photography blog (called Stuck in Customs) on the internet, Trey Ratcliff is known as one of the biggest and brightest stars in modern-day photography. His career really took off when he was honored with having the first HDR photo ever to hang in the Smithsonian. He's been called a “pioneer of HDR photography” by TED curator Chris Anderson and has been written about by all the top news channels and publications including The New York Times. Ratcliff is represented by Getty and he's one of the lucky photographers who gets to live out his dreams.

For those unfamiliar with HDR, it stands for high-dynamic-range and the technique aims to more accurately represent the range of intensity found in a particular scene. There are a few ways to accomplish which Trey discusses on his site. In fact, you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about HDR in Trey's free HDR Tutorial.

Thanks to this website, Trey and I connected. We brainstormed ideas and ultimately decided that Trey would provide exclusive tips for you, our Met community. Called 9 Things for Your HDR Brain to Consider, these lessons go beyond your typical techniques and really get to the heart of HDR. It's our hope that they'll inspire you to find the art in your photography.

Take it away, Trey….

Thanks, Alice!

1) Forget what you think you know about photography
Photography has a long history of rules, best practices, and experts who will be sure to tell you the proper way to engage with the discipline. Don't listen to any of them. In fact, don't even listen to me.

I have accrued over 50 million photo views, built up into over 200,000 unique readers a month, written a best-selling book — I did all of this without listening to anybody. I never read a book on photography; I never took a class about photography. I say all of this not to impress you — but to impress upon you the importance of finding your own path.

2) Guess. Copy. Guess again. Copy badly. Forgive yourself. Guess again.
Okay. Either you took my #1 piece of advice up there or you didn't. Assuming you're still with me, let me tell you a much better way to learn.

Have you ever noticed, for example, how much trouble people have with learning F-stops? Understanding them is goddamned confusing for any normal brain. You mean, the number goes up and the hole gets smaller? And that makes everything in focus? What? No wonder people are confused…

Let me tell you a story. I was speaking in a class a few years ago about photography. One of my photos came up on the screen and a gal raised her hand. She asked, “What F-stop did you use there?” This made me pause for quite a bit. Because, at THAT point, I realized that I learned everything in my very own way. Her question was, in a sense, completely ludicrous. I could have said, “F/5.5”. And she would have nodded, as would everyone else in the class. OR, I could have said, “F/16”. And she would have nodded, as would everyone else in the class.

What this tells me is that people have such a fragile understanding of photography. Is this how people learn? I do not know. I don't understand how they learn. But I can tell you this for sure — I'm not totally sure they understand.

The best way to learn is figure it out, not by rote memorization, but by rote curiosity. That is, let your inner child come out. Curiosity should lead not straight to a book — but straight to experimentation.

As that curiosity manifests itself, guess, wonder, fail, guess again, forgive yourself, then keep on guessing. This is how children figure out how to navigate the world — and this is how you should learn to navigate your photography.

3) Have fun with HDR. Don't worry about making money.
If your art happens to make money, then it's all gravy. But don't try too hard to make money. That's just plain annoying. Give everything away (creative commons non commercial), and hardcore fans and other businesses will find a way to reward you.

4) Don't make the photo pixel-perfect and infinitely detailed in every way
Renoir says that he likes to keep a bit of mystery in each painting — something he is not telling the viewer. This is also important to me in photography. Today's cameras are all so hi-res and perfect, and if you put everything out there and obvious, it becomes boring or plain. So be sure to have mysterious objects or unusual lighting in parts of the photo. Let the lines lead to mysteries. Don't let HDR become a way to make everything intricately detailed to the point of being boring, or, worse, overly busy with details.

5) Don't take things personally.
This one is HARD if you are already the personality type that is pre-disposed to take everything personally. Of course your work is personal and you feel it deeply. Everyone and their dog will give you feedback. You can listen, of course, but try to let it “burn up in your atmosphere.” You are on your own awesome path. It doesn't mean you don't notice the incoming meteors, but they don't make much of an impact.

6) Don't saturate all over the place.
There were some recent eye-tracking studies done with surprising results. They mapped the movement of a pupil across photos and noticed that the eye jumps to a saturated area right away. That is not surprising. But here is the surprising thing. The cones on the retina BURN OUT after a very short time and need a few milliseconds to recharge back to normal. This causes the eye to involuntarily seek relief. It will drift to a less-saturated area to recharge. But, if your photo has full saturation everywhere, the eye will simply drift off the photo all together…and that's not good.

7) Listen to music while you shoot.
The most important sense for humans is still visual input. Audio is a close second. If you can interrupt the connection between what you see and what you hear, you can get a new perspective on the world around you. If you've ever walked down the street listening to an iPod, then you know exactly what I mean. You feel like you're in a movie or something, right? So try wearing earphones and listening to music while you take photos. It will give the subject-matter a more ethereal feel, and help your right brain to flow more freely around the photo.

8) Only shoot when the muse visits
Many people preach doing one photo per day. I don't like this…I think it becomes a little bit more of a chore in this method. It's like dieting or saying, “I should really drink 92 oz of water each day!”

Art doesn't work like this. I think sometimes you feel creative and sometimes you don't. Now, I do like the idea of posting a new photo every day, but that doesn't mean you have to take the photo every day. I queue up a lot when I am feeling creative and full of energy… and then relax when I don't feel the mojo. These are natural patterns for humans, and you do not need to force them into some kind of artificial regimen.

9) Increase the number of awesome events in your life
No matter the total awesome-quotient of your life, there are always little awesome things that happen a few times per day. You probably say to yourself, quietly, something like, “Wow that was pretty awesome. I kinda rock.” Right? Yes yes, it's good and healthy to say nice things to yourself.

Well, HDR can increase the total amount of awesomeness that flows into your life. You'll be creating new stuff, interesting work, and trying new things. There is a special kind of awesome when you surprise yourself, and you certainly will with this kind of photography.

A big thanks to Trey for providing some fantastic tips!

Make sure to check out his website, called Stuck in Customs, for inspiration and to learn more about this technique.

What was your favorite tip?

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