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10 Easy Steps To Advanced Photography Skills


By Trey Ratcliff (aka Stuck in Customs), one of the most famous and renowned HDR photographers on Flickr. In his article Trey describes some professional insights and useful photography tips that he collected over the years of his career.

A camera does not work like an eye; film does not work like memory. There is a fine line between a photo that is quite nice and one that is quite breathtaking. At some unknown point, a photo can cross the Rubicon and be forever a piece of beautiful art. That hinterland between a regular photo and evocative art is a shifting area from person to person and taste to taste. However, that zone can be narrowed a bit once you start to consider the way the brain stores memories and emotions.

And yes, it gets a bit touchy-feely here trying to determine if your work has crossed that line. With rigorous practice and peer feedback, you can start to appreciate where that zone is and, consequently, improve your hit ratio.

Farewell India1
The back of the Taj Mahal during a summer sunset.

The good news is that divining your way to more beautiful photos does not require rune rites of scapulimancy. There are some basic things and mantras to keep in mind as you practice and fail, then practice and succeed, then practice and fail, then practice and succeed, and rinse and repeat. We’ll detail a few of these below.

1. Think About The Brain Link

I’ve always thought about photography differently. I grew up seeing out of only one eye, thanks to several botched surgeries in the 1970s using refurbished archaeological tools of the Australopithecus medicine men.

When you see out of one eye your whole life and then start using a camera in your mid-30s, something happens to you! You come to realize that a camera works nothing like the eye. Forget 3D; I’m talking about the way the brain stores images and scenes.

Upon birth, you have legs, but it takes a few years for your legs to get along with your brain well enough to actually walk you around the savanna a bit. The eyes are the same. They get wired faster than the legs, but the neural pathways from the optic nerve to the parts of the brain that matter take a while to find their chemical trails. You start to sense light levels, then shapes, then edges, then relative positions and the like. And then, around the age 2 or 3, you finally come up with a tagging system that allows you to know generally what a “barn” looks like. Your brain has been working nonstop over that time to give you the visual and memory infrastructure to enable this watershed event.

Fourth on Lake Austin2
Fourth of July on Lake Austin: the first HDR photograph to hang in the Smithsonian.

Now, let’s fast forward to today. You’re older, your brain is more or less fully formed, and you happen upon a barn in a field. But it’s not just any barn: it’s the barn you’ve been wanting to see your entire life. And in the distance, a storm is brewing as a gentle sun sets. It’s beautiful; you lock it into memory. The way you lock it into memory is nothing like the way a camera records the image on film (or a CCD). This is what I quickly came to realize as I sat there, looking at a photo I took with a fabulously expensive Nikon and showing it to a friend. “Well, you really had to be there.” I’m sure you’ve all said that!

Now, this first step is a big step: it’s a philosophical re-assessment of how the camera works in contrast to how the memory maps a scene, the latter being a process of layering visual reality with the emotions and memories linked to that scene. You see, you are not just remembering that barn but are remembering every barn; you are not just remembering that storm but are remembering every storm. A beautiful photo must tell the epic tale of the memory, linked with the other emotions that fold into a whole.

2. Engage In The New Global Salon Link

In the 1860s, all art roads led to the Salon in Paris, which was the most important judged competition of art in the western world. During a period of just over 10 years, the Impressionist masters battled it out in a competitive and cooperative tour de force that created a panoply of creations that we now cannot imagine the world without.

The reason Paris became the center of the art world and an explosion of new art is the combination of new technology in travel and communications combined with Napoleon III’s focus on infrastructure around the Salon.

The Megopolis Hong Kong - What Happens Around Dusk (by Stuck in Customs)3
Hong Kong from a peak on a summer night as the city comes alive.

Today the same thing is happening, although perhaps not everyone really realizes it in a grand historical sense. It’s called Flickr. Flickr has become a techno-Salon, allowing the world to easily use the Internet to enter the competition and force each other to evolve and improve their art. The automated “Explore Algorithm” does a pretty good job of automatically filtering the best photos that are uploaded every day. Go ahead and look at some of the current best of the last 7 days4.

Click “Reload” a few times and I promise you will have seen something that impresses. It is quite unbelievable the level of art and beauty that is created every single day. Now, all of this amazing art on Flickr can either inspire or intimidate you, depending on your mindset for competition. I hope it inspires you to upload one photo a day and see if you can make it in the top 500 or even the top 10. And don’t give up. Competition makes everyone better; this is an undeniable truth, and you are not realizing your full potential if you remove yourself from the process.

I can think of a number of things Flickr can do to improve this new global competition. Its AI algorithm to find the most interesting new artists still makes many mistakes. Maybe I will save that for another article! But in many ways, Flickr is close to squandering an amazing opportunity to set the art world on fire.

3. Get Rid Of Your Toy Camera Link

Oh, look at that camera you have! It’s so tiny and slim and techno-looking. Look! It fits right in your pocket! Oh my, you can take it to parties and sporting events, and it’s so convenient. Oh, it is 10 megapixels, too? Oh my. Well, that is a good camera then!

No, it’s not. It’s a toy: give it to your kids or the nearest gradeschooler (for whom it was designed) and get serious. I know that 19-year-old punk at Best Buy told you that your compact camera is really neat and just what you need. But are you gonna listen to him or me?

Get yourself a DSLR (I have suggestions on my page5 that aren’t very expensive for people just starting out). For those of you who don’t know, a DSLR is one of those cameras you see the pros carrying, but it doesn’t have to be a giant one like what you see in the NFL endzone.

Sorry to be rude about the toy thing, but you want to take more beautiful pictures, no? Well, a decent DSLR has such a good sensor chip, combined with more flexible lenses, that your batting average will dramatically improve.

The Lost Hindu Temple in the Jungle Mist (by Stuck in Customs)6
An ancient Hindu temple at sunset in the jungles of Indonesia.

Also (people with DSLRs already know this), it is important to have a good wide-angle lens for landscapes. Beautiful photography does not have to be of a landscape, but it commonly is, and this is what many people envision when they want to make their own beautiful photos. So, we should talk about wide-angle lenses here for a moment.

If you are used to using a toy camera, then you have never really seen the world through a good 10 to 24mm lens. It’s almost the difference between regular TV and HDTV. The vistas are wide and bold; the clouds, sun and mountains all fit; the river and bridge are easy to compose; and so on. Once you go wide-angle, your landscape will never be the same!

4. Carry A Tripod For Those Beautiful Sunsets And Sunrises Link

Oh, what’s that? You don’t want to carry a tripod? What are you, a 9-year-old? Now, come on. You’re a grown-up, and you want to take some seriously beautiful photos. Do you think pros carry around tripods because they like the extra weight? No, of course not. They know what the heck they’re doing.

If you bit off on getting a DSLR, then you are going to need a tripod, especially for sunset and night shots. Unless you have the steady hand of a T-1000, you are going to get some camera shake.

A tripod allows you to do the following things with landscape photography (in no particular order): set up and take your time to compose a photo with serious intent; keep noise low as the shutter stays open longer; look cool as you carry it around; keep the shutter open for 5 or more seconds for those fleeting sunrise and sunset shots; use it as a weapon in a tight spot while traveling (not kidding).

The Bombing of Dresden217
Dresden, Germany

So, are you still worried about carrying it around? The problem, you understand, is mostly your attitude. Let me provide a different perspective. Nothing in life is worth doing unless you’re serious about it. Believe that you are going to shoot that sunset, and you are going to take your nice DSLR and tripod out there and make it happen, and no one is going to stop you. You’re carrying that tripod around because you’re serious about it. Otherwise, you could just go sit on a pretty beach at sunset and drink beer with your friends and not be serious about it. Go ahead… but you won’t be getting any beautiful photography out of it.

5. Admire Impressionism Link

I spoke earlier about the Salon of Paris and what happened during the Impressionist movement. While the process and examples of what happens when artists start cooperating and competing is interesting from a social-group evolutionary perspective, this section is more about the art itself.

Early critics of the art form found it crude, sloppy and unconventional, to the point that they felt it didn’t even deserve to be placed alongside the classic masters. But the public was awestruck by the new art form. It doesn’t take a critic to know good art, but it does take a careful and discerning eye.

Consider the colors and styles of Degas, Cézanne, Monet and Renoir. There is not a single detail about any well-known Impressionist painting that is the slightest bit “realistic.” But yet, the rough shapes and colors still make sense. Something about it just feels right. What is that something?

The Majesty (my largest photo ever. (by Stuck in Customs)8
An icy lake at sunrise, fed from the seasonal melt at Glacier National Park; a panorama of 90 shots.

To me, what feels right about Impressionism is what we discussed above. These Impressionist images go deep into viewers’ brains and evoke memories of shared scenes and events. The memory is in fact an Impressionist playground of fleeting colors, shapes and edges. A face here, a blur there, a hint of something almost there, but not quite.

Look at Monet’s work. Think about how the yellows of a sun in the distance is the same yellow as an up-close flower. But something about the colors makes the sun feel brighter than the flower. How does he do that? Can you get closer to achieving this with your photography?

As you look at Impressionist paintings, juxtapose them with your own photography. If you want to evoke the same sort of feelings, then consider how it was done without resorting to realism.

6. Practice With HDR Link

What is HDR? It’s short for High Dynamic Range photography, and it’s all the rage. I have a tutorial on HDR on my blog9. But here, I’ll explain HDR in a circuitous but meaningful way.

About 80% of my photos are in HDR, but I do something a little different. As you start looking into HDR (many of you already have), you will begin to notice how absolutely horrible most HDR looks. When many people begin experimenting with it (myself included), it is overdone and looks too psychedelic. Over time, mine have improved via rigorous self-examination and an evolving methodology.

Remember that bit about me growing up and seeing the world with one eye? Now, we come to the second part of this daring mini-biography as we are cross the stepping stones to my point. My background in college was Computer Science and Math, so I’ve always thought about things in terms of algorithms and software. The very first time I used a DSLR camera, when I was 35 or so, I very quickly came to the realization that something was missing.

This is Nathaniel (by Stuck in Customs)10
A young Amish boy allows me to freeze time after I help him carry wood with his sisters.

That missing something was the “software” layer between the eye and the memory. Consider what you do with the barn and apply it to how the camera works. You survey the scene. Your eye jumps around from interesting object to interesting object, sometimes moving slowly, sometimes quickly. Your eye lets in more light in some areas, less in others as your pupil dilates. You squint into the setting sun and see warm colors splashed across the clouds, grass and barn. You remember other barns, other storms, other sunsets. You may have been with someone or were alone, but you certainly remember. You lock it all up in your mind’s eye forever.

Because we are visual creatures, a photo or painting can evoke great memories. But the only way to trigger some of those intense memories on a deep level is to adjust the light levels in the photograph, so that the light levels and color match those buried in your head. The HDR process can help achieve these goals.

7. Take Your Camera Everywhere Link

Don’t just take your camera out on those rare occasions when you actually decide to set aside a portion of your day for photography. Face it: we’re all busy people with real lives, and setting aside three to four hours for anything extracurricular is tough. But it takes only a few seconds to get inspired for a photo, and it’s no good if your camera is back home.

The Icy Pit to Hell (by Stuck in Customs)11
Gulfoss in Iceland. Catholic theologians of old believed this was the entrance to hell.

Keep it in the trunk of your car in a fun little photo backpack, with a small selection of lenses. You never know when you will see something wonderful. Use this opportunity to take at least one photo a day. It doesn’t have to be a grand landscape; just something small and nice that you may not have noticed before.

8. Understand The Fantasy/Reality Membrane Link

Do you have kids? Are you a kid at heart? Think about when you were a kid and what happened when you turned into a jaded old grown-up. Maybe by the end of this section you can ask yourself some new questions about reality.

Kids have this remarkable “membrane” between fantasy and reality. They can jump back and forth between the two in an effortless way. In fact, the membrane itself is wonderfully “thick,” in that there is a vast dream-state wilderness where the world is both fantasy and reality. When pressed, kids will tell you what is real and what is pretend, but that is often a painful process that pries them from the escapism they felt so viscerally just a few moments before.

Learning to Draw by Candlelight (by Stuck in Customs)12
My personal foray over the last year into learning how to draw.

When we are all grown up and serious, that membrane is razor thin, and there is little tolerance of “pretend” and “fantasy.” Why is this? Is it because we are surrounded by other serious people and want to conform? Is it because fantastic escapades are what “kids” do and thus not pertinent to our lives?

Obviously, we can all still get into that fantasy zone, and we all love it. That’s why movies are still such a potent force; they give us social permission to be like kids for two hours, once a week. It also explains the growing relevance of online games.

But when we start talking about photography — well now, that is a different subject! Photography is a serious art form, practiced by classically trained masters whose reality is quite serious indeed! There mustn’t be anything fantastical in the art form. The process goes from camera straight to the film, you see!


9. Learn To Draw Link

This is a weird one, eh? Who on Earth has time to learn to draw? Well, you would have time if you stopped wasting it on less important activities. You’ve got one life here, so you might as well start applying yourself. “I don’t have any time! I have kids to look after, a full-time job, a bunch of cool games to play, books to read, exercising to do, a bit of photography, and blah blah blah.”

As a personal experiment, I wanted to see if anyone could learn to draw. This is similar to an earlier experiment I did on myself to see if I could take something I hated and turn it into something I enjoyed. That experiment was with coffee, but I was afraid that learning to draw would be harder, particularly because of the jitteryness introduced from the first experiment.

The Place Where Rebekka's Horses Run Free (by Stuck in Customs)13
A tame wild-haired horse on the windy fjords of Iceland.

I’ve always admired people who can just grab a pencil and paper and make something amazing. Man, I’ve always wanted to be able to do that! I began the experiment with the hypothesis that great natural artists can draw anything without any instruction whatsoever. These are true masters, and I was unlikely unlikely to reach that level. However, I thought I could become adequate at drawing and be at least satisfied with myself. A great side-effect, I envisioned, would be new insight into photography: into line, shape, light and composition.

All of this turned out to be true. So, if you have hit a rough spot or are in the doldrums with photography, take up drawing. A few instructional books out there are practical hands-on guides that give you basic pointers. I think you will be quite impressed by how it starts to bleed into your photographic art!

10. Make Mistakes Link

Make a lot of mistakes. Throw yourself and your art out there and see what works and what doesn’t. Show your stuff to true friends who will give you frank feedback.

Don’t be like those sorry saps on American Idol who make fools of themselves in big auditions because they’ve spent their whole life listening to their tone-deaf mom tell them they are incredible at singing “Over the Rainbow” or because Aunt Mabel enjoyed it so much during the grade 2 play.

Get yourself online and begin making friends by finding other photographers who you respect. Beg and plead for them to come look at one or two of your photos and give frank feedback. They will cut you apart, but just take your medicine, lick your wounds, and go out there and improve.

Fin Link

And there we have it: 10 things to shake up your world a little bit. I’m no Baudelaire when it comes to writing these sorts of polemics. However, just as he drove Manet to be Manet, perhaps I can do my own little part to stoke the fires and help drive a new art revolution. Evolve and evoke, or whither into nothingness.

Extra Credit Link

To end off, here is a random selection of some of my other favorites.

The Lonely Trinity (by Stuck in Customs)14
The Lonely Trinity

Hindu Ascent (by Stuck in Customs)15
An elderly woman, who has never cut her hair, ascends the stairs to her daily Hindu pilgrimage

A Snowy Night at the Kiev Opera House16

Dante's Gates of Hell (by Stuck in Customs)17
Dante’s Gates of Hell, a sculpture by Rodin, captured in proper lighting

Stuck in India - Humayun's Tomb18

On Frozen Pond19

The Veins of Bangkok20

The Bombing of Dresden217

One Night in Bangkok22


Footnotes Link

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Trey Ratcliff describes himself as a slightly evolved monkey that happens to carry a camera. He's become unintentionally popular from his photography blog, mostly because his mom emailed about 350,000 people to tell them about it. Trey can found there on his blog or followed on Twitter at @treyratcliff, where you'll be the first to get news of his latest daily creations.

  1. 1

    Ugh. Too much HDR. I’m sick of it. Reality is where it’s at.

  2. 2

    I’ve always loved smashing magazine but I’m on HDR overload. Its beautiful, in moderation. Easy does it next time :)

  3. 3

    The author is such a toss pot! How much self-important crap can you fit into one article? Stop taking yourself so damn seriously! Get a life.

  4. 4

    Some interesting points here – I teach students at degree level and at times are amazed at how unengaged they are. An article like this simply states how it is; get out, get working, be serious and passionate about what you do. Make mistakes and learn from them, enjoy the challenge of learning a new language – visual language – and begin to explore who you really are.

    The ten points mentioned are all relevant but particularly the one about drawing – It gets you looking and understanding relationships between the essential elements that make up an image and it also teaches you that most important point about translating 3 dimensions back into 2. All photography is an illusion – it’s how much we realize this that makes the difference.

    I also run a photography blog that deals with similar themes – I’m just starting out so some subscribers and comments would be welcome! You can check it out here:

  5. 5

    Oh boy a little controversy and some constructive criticism I see! :)

    It’s all good… thanks for the feedback. I think if you want traditional photography advice, there are hundreds of books on the matter. I obviously have my own set of thoughts on the matter, and I’m perfectly at ease with people that disagree. I’m convinced that people see the world differently… I notice this in many arenas. Whenever people DON’T see the world like you (whether it is in visual photos, politics, religion, or whatever), they are always very ready to tell you that you are wrong and the way they see the world is right. Anyway, it’s okay and I take it all in stride.

    One other comment on HDR photography that I did not throw in… I’m also sure that the pupil needs to move around in order to accept different light levels (just like on the scene). Sometimes, with a small thumbnail, like here or on Flickr, the eye/mind auto rejects so many light levels at once. This is a finer point, but one that I think is important… this is why I keep the pics at 900 pixels across on my blog, so that they eye can traverse the photo, like the eye does when really on location.

  6. 6

    Great tips for both amateur and professionals alike

  7. 7

    wow.. HDR photos are absolutely amazing…
    thanks for your great tips

  8. 8

    Great info! Thanks!

  9. 9

    Nice to see some advanced photography-related articles on SM! Thank you, guys.

  10. 10

    Really nice article! Hope to see more photo-related in Smashing Mag!
    Great job

  11. 11

    Amazing list! Really makes you start thinking about the simple yet dramatic photos that can come out of following these steps.

    And definitely some amazing photos as well. Will be sure to follow your work!

  12. 12

    I’m sorry, but that’s a piece of crap! The whole idea of HDR technique is to produce a NATURAL LOOKING high-dynamic-range photo. These photos shown here are good example how NOT to tone-map your pictures…

  13. 14

    The best and most expensive DSLRs in the world will not make up for an “artistic eye”. I’ve seen photographs taken with “toy” cameras and cellphones that are truly inspiring and beautiful.

    @Jason: I agree, too much HDR. It’s like they’re trying to make up for the lack of talent with too much color. Just look at the Hong Kong skyline photo, it would just be ordinary if it wasn’t HDR.

  14. 15

    The camera does not make the photographer. There are some photographers that take AMAZING photos with a point and shoot (or toy camera, as the author said).

    I’m done with crappy HDR… like most of the photos “featured” in this article.

  15. 16

    Man, what a load of cr4p. I am so over HDR and you dont need a DSLR to take good pictures. Just look at all the fanastic low res stuff on flickr taken with ‘toy’ cameras.

    Get over yourself, per-lease…

  16. 17

    I totally disagree with the comment about having to purchase a DSLR. I personally have one, but my inspiration comes from this guy from Japan Kishimi He takes most of his shots with the PowerShot G9. All of his photos are pure awesomeness. DSLRs are great, but only if you know how to work it. This guy from Japan doesn’t need a DSLR…he’s got a natural eye and with that you can use whatever you want to shoot with.

    • 18

      If your personal inspiration comes from this guy, you should change your inspiration source :). That’s just bright lenses used at wide aperture. Nothing really fancy down there, nothing close to a “natural eye” :).

  17. 19

    I’m with Jason here.. way too much HDR.

  18. 20

    Wow, 1st time I completely disagree with an article on this website. Please let this author enjoy his flickr fame with these horrible pictures but don’t let him pollute SM again.

  19. 21

    agree with the commenters, where’s the link between “advanced photography” and hdr photoshopping? i think hdr is just a hyped thing that will soon be considered lame and disappear

  20. 22

    ah and btw.. flickr have nothing to do with an art salon, and yes with popular preference. all you have to do is follow the very link provided here (best of the last 7 days) and see how really crappy pictures make it to the top. i got a picture of sugar made birds, a heart with some toys, and a kid with a black eye.

  21. 23

    Oh, now I understand what HDR is. You take a great photo and then digitally manipulate it to the point where it looks as if some B-grade graphic designer whipped it up in Photoshop on their coffee break. Cool. What was the point again?

    Does anyone think this HDR thing is a bit like 80s fashion? That we’ll all – especially the author – will look back on this trend and be really, really embarrassed in about 10 years time. Heck, I’m embarrassed now.

  22. 24

    the ancient Hindu temple above is call “Candi Prambanan” … very dramatic indeed

  23. 25

    I like the DREADLOCKED person

  24. 26

    Please. No more hdr.

  25. 27

    I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who is completely sick of the ‘HDR look.’ HDR is a very powerful tool, but the work above is trite and boring. In addition, the author’s masking skills in photoshop are terrible. You should not be able to see halos around buildings if the photographer knows what they are doing.

    There’s a lot of capable photographers out there. I’m sure Smashing Magazine can find somebody who can really contribute some skills. How about David from the Strobist blog? That guy has contributed more to modern photography than all the HDR shooters in the world…

  26. 28

    Thank you so much for this! I am awestruck by HDR photos and haven’t yet figured out to get the look out of my SLR. Yes, I’m a poser! It’s awesome that my #1 web design blog is becoming one of my favorite photography blogs too…

  27. 29

    Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever heard worse advice.

  28. 30

    great article, and even more awe-inspiring photographs! good job!

  29. 31

    I prefer my photos to be natural. Not look like they were done in 3-D studio max. Ease up on the HDR. You mentioned something about taking feedback from friends and others.. well… here you have it. I’m pretty sure the masses have spoken. Out with the HDR. The Amish kid photo looks like something my nephew did for his first Photoshop project. There’s potential in the images… just don’t try so hard.

    I do agree with three things: draw, bring your camera everywhere and well, just always be prepared.

  30. 32

    Mr. Ratcliff…you are so amazing. Such a fabulous artist. Ever since I stumbled upon your work I have loved it. Thank you for sharing this insight. You are such an inspiration…I’m gonna take my camera out right now and hopefully *hopefully* fire off a good, non-over-processed HDR. Chances are slim, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.


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