Interview with Trey Ratcliff

Trey Ratcliff is the renown photographer behind the travel photography blog Stuck in Customs and a pioneer in HDR photography. He has written a popular tutorial on HDR photography, and answers your questions on Twitter as @TreyRatcliff.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Trey Ratcliff: Even though my educational background is in all the hard sciences of Computer Science and Math, I really tend to get much more of a thrill out of the artistic side of my life. Rather than bore you with all the little bits of my life, I’ll just keep it simple and say I love struggling with innovative art and pushing it in new directions.

If you really want to know more, I keep one of those “About Me” pages with enough info to satisfy 90% of stalkers.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

TR: I did not get into photography until the digital photography revolution, about four years ago or so. This was both good and bad. Bad in that I had no classic training. Good in that I had no concept of the “right and proper” way to go about things.

PP: What was your first camera?

TR: A Nikon D70.

PP: What equipment do you use these days?

TR: Now I have two cameras – a Nikon D3X and a Nikon D3S. Both are great!

However, these are very expensive cameras and not needed for people just getting into HDR. I have some lower-level recommendations over at my website.

PP: Have you ever shot film?

TR: No I never shot film. I used to feel guilty about this for no good reason. I no longer feel any regret.

PP: When and how did you discover HDR photography?

TR: I discovered it almost immediately after getting a camera. I took a photo with a nice camera and then looked at the result. It wasn’t what I saw! The photo was so dull! Then it got me thinking… my degree is in computer science and math, and I started thinking about the eye and the brain in terms of algorithms. It occurred to me that they camera and the screen are a similar analog, so perhaps there were some algorithms that could help map the reality to the viewing mechanism.

PP: What attracts you to HDR?

TR: I love HDR because it captures the world how I see and feel it. I know not everyone sees the world like me, but that is okay. I see it in a rich, cinematic, romantic manner. Without HDR, so many photos just come out drab and disappointing.

PP: What’s the most common mistake you see people making when making HDR photographs these days?

TR: I see people not “fixing” what the default HDR algorithms spit out. I have a full HDR Tutorial on my website that stresses the importance of making important corrections to the HDR algorithms that will process a photo incorrectly. Often times, some parts are perfect, but others need to be remixed with the original photo.

PP: Where do you see HDR photography headed?

TR: I think that the main trunk will continue to evolve whilst the discipline splits into hundreds of beautiful splinters. There is plenty of room for this further specialization to grow. I started HDR Spotting last year to help foster this innovation and highlight other HDR photographers. As you know, I really love HDR, and I’ll do whatever I can to help promote it and other HDR photographers that love it as much as I do!

PP: Is there any particular reason you use Nikon rather than Canon? Do you have any relationship with Nikon?

TR: I like Nikon because the shutter sounds much more manly than the Canon, which is, by all practical accounts, a bit effete. When then Nikon fires away, it’s like an AK-47, ripping massive mechano-vibrations across the landscape. I picture rippling soundwaves, blossoming out and leaving a small wake of destruction… I see little wavelets flowing out across grassy fields when I pull the trigger…

And no, there is no relationship with Nikon. In addition, it does not matter how you define “is”, because it remains the same in every possible definition thereof.

PP: How many countries have you been to? How much time do you spend traveling?

TR: I don’t know for sure… I don’t keep track. Not enough! No matter how many places you go, you always think about the places you want to go. That’s how it is… I’m both incredibly thankful that I’ve gotten to see the things I have and excited to see even more.

The amount I travel varies… It’s harder with a family with a wife and three kids. I try to take everyone whenever I can. I might travel 25% of the year or so… depending…

PP: How do you decide on where to create each photograph?

TR: Aha! I stop and take a picture whenever I see something beautiful. If I feel like there is beauty, and I can compose it as such, I stop and take a photo.

Today I drove 300 KM across northern Iceland. I stopped over 60 times to get out of the car and run across a smallish field to take a photo… and then ran back to the car. I did this time and time again and never got tired of it. I make a rule… that if I see something that looked interesting — I go investigate. If I passed it in the car, I turn the car around and go investigate. I never break this rule. It’s very important to turn the car around each and every time… regret is a horrible thing with which to live.

PP: How do you make a living and finance your travels? What are your sources of income?

TR: The website is very profitable. My wife runs the business and she has a small team of 6-9 part-time people around her. I get to focus simply on taking the photos and writing the daily blog post while they do all the hard work… this is wonderful because I can just stay in a right-brain mode. I owe my wife and the team a lot.

The website makes money from advertising, licensing, and partnerships. We also sell tutorials, ebooks, and this sort of thing too… Most everything on the website is free, but we have a few things on there for people that just can’t get enough. I think it’s a great model…

PP: What advice do you have for an aspiring photographer who dreams of doing what you do?

TR: Hehe – DANG I hate this… I get so many emails… I have over 20K unreads… it is very very hard — because this is a common thread of questions that I see repeated again and again.

I hate answering it because it’s not the thing people want to hear. Or maybe it’s not what they want to hear. Firstly, you don’t want to do what I do — YOU want to do what YOU do. That is — you need to be unique and not do what I do at all. If you look at me, I didn’t set out to be “like” anyone else. There is a saying out there that you should not seek out to “find yourself” — but instead “create yourself”.

The only way to be interesting is to be yourself and stop worrying about what other people are doing. I find that photographers are too worried about impressing other photographers! Stop that!

If you are doing something interesting and can combine that with a bit of business, then you can make money by simply being interesting. Sounds nice, eh? Well it’s not all so easy… and there is no predictable formula for success.

Now, if you’re lousy at business (it’s okay – you don’t have to be good at everything… we live in a world of specialization), then team up with someone that is good at business. You don’t have to do it all yourself.

And, barring all that… I also STRONGLY recommend making money outside of photography to keep the photography pure. I cannot over emphasize this, although I feel it is too late for many people to hear this… If you are a photographer, and you are half-way decent, then you are probably quite the right-brained creative person! Great! Use that creative juice to make money in ANOTHER way… the world needs creative people and will pay for it… and this will keep the photography fun and pure. As soon as you start depending on photography for your financial livelihood, it can lose the magic.

Otherwise, you’ll end up spending your evenings doing a 5.0 Gaussian Blur on that gnarly mother-in-law for that $900 wedding that you didn’t want to shoot anyway…. That sucks… don’t do that to yourself. You deserve better.

PP: What is your goal in photography? What do you hope to achieve?

TR: I have no goals and nothing in particular to achieve… it is like asking why do you breathe.

PP: Who are your favorite photographers?

TR: Edward Curtis is my favorite well-known photographer. And then — besides that, I like the “internet” photographer. Sites like PetaPixel always show me the most inspirational stuff… there are so many skilled wonderful photographers out there… thousands of people no one has ever heard of – just doing amazing work – that inspires me too.

PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed on PetaPixel?

TR: Helga Kvam

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

TR: I’d like to encourage people to keep sharing as many great links and resources as possible on PetaPixel. Note this is totally selfish… since I look to sites like PetaPixel for constant inspiration and new ideas… It is really tremendous what is happening out there, and I want to thank the amazing community there!