Review of Trey Ratcliff’s HDR DVD
UPDATE: I have included some recently released discount codes for this DVD set both here and at the end of this post
UPDATE: Trey now offers a downloadable version of his HDR tutorial which comes in at a lower cost. Full details are available on Stuck In Customs
I have made it fairly clear that one of my primary photographic influences is Trey Ratcliff and his HDR photography that he posts at Stuck in Customs. I am not sure exactly why I first gravitated towards Trey’s work, but I think it might be something as simple as I picked some random episode of This Week in Photography to be my first experience listening to a photography podcast and his work was recommended by one of the hosts. For someone who had no photography background, looking at Trey’s HDR work was amazing. Even some of his non-HDR stuff (the fireworks at Disney World come to mind) had a look that I wanted to have in my photography. Thankfully, Trey is very giving when it comes to HDR education. His HDR tutorial is a fantastic resource for those both learning HDR photography and looking to bring his/her HDR photography to the next level. Still, even though his HDR tutorial is great, I have difficult learning exclusively from static text on a page. It is for that reason that I found Matt Kloskowski’s HDR tutorial on Kelby Training to also be helpful as I learned HDR technique. Seeing video of someone actually working on images greatly enhanced my understanding of how to use Photomatix. Still, I intrigued when I heard that Trey was going to create a DVD of how he created his images. I admit I was a little dismayed when I saw the price for the premium package ($397, and something that I will discuss at length later), but I still decided to give it a shot in hopes that Trey would deliver the definitive HDR education package.
Though I will frequently refer in this review to “Trey Ratcliff’s HDR DVD”, what you get for your near $400 is actually a HDR education package. The package includes 4 DVDs (which total about six and half hours of content and will be discussed in some detail later), access to the “Clubhouse” section of Stuck in Customs (a private forum dedicated to HDR education), and Trey’s eBook Top 10 Mistakes in HDR Processing (which I have previously reviewed on this site). The video segments that make up the DVDs appear to be collected from a workshop that Trey conducted over the course of a couple of days. Additionally, in this premium edition, you get the working files that are used in the screencasts so that you can follow along with the tutorials and you get additional bracketed images that Trey has taken so that you can practice processing additional HDR images without having to take the bracketed exposures yourself.
I am going to start off my review with more of a nuts and bolts examination of the individual parts and break down what you find on the individual DVDS. I’ll end with some more overarching examination of the whole package, which will include some analysis of both Trey’s photographic style and teaching style. Feel free to skip to the end if that type of analysis is all you really want.
Disc 1 sets the stage for the rest of the instruction found in the collection. It includes both a general introductory video and and a more in-depth introductory video that explains some concepts about both human vision and photographic vision. I’ll make the comment now and then leave it be for the rest of the review: The video quality of Trey himself talking is not particularly strong. I am in no way a videographer, but the video quality seems to be less than what I get from even my Flip MinoHD. This really should not matter, since it’s the information that he’s conveying that’s important, but at a $400 price point, I had higher expectations of the video quality. The video quality issue made me most nervous during the segment that was essentially a workshop introductory slide show. In this segment, slides are filmed while projected on the wall instead of overlaying the slides into the video presentation. On the next section of the film, thankfully, where Trey talks about some of his more famous photos, the photos themselves are overlaid, at a high resolution, into the video instead of simply filming from a projector. The section where Trey talks about his photos is full of information on both HDR technique (“7 stops into the sun”) and also on general blog strategy (How often should you post images?). The last introductory segment is an examination of what Trey keeps in his bag. These “What’s in the Bag?” segments are pretty standard, and always seem to scratch an inquisitive itch with photographers.
The second major block of videos on Disc 1 is a pair of videos of photo walks that Trey led. In both of these videos, Trey talks to the walkers (and as a result, the viewer) and gives his thought process as he’s setting up for and taking his HDR shots. The closest comparison that I can give these segments is a recent Kelby Training class with Jay Maisel. Both that class, and Trey’s walks, show a top level photographer, in his own environment, doing what they do best. I am not sure if Trey’s segments would have been helped by adding in a host that could ask him questions, but I do know that I was left wishing those segments could have been longer.
The final segment on Disc 1 is the first part of what is probably the “meat” of the DVD set: an “over the shoulder” look at Trey processing a HDR image. Though these videos will generally feature a few seconds of footage of Trey talking to workshop attendees, a majority of each of these segments will be a screencast from Trey’s computer. The screen cast software that was used to create the video looks to be the same they use on creativeLive, and it does a good job of showing what keyboard commands are being entered, as well as giving a good indicator of where the cursor is. I think that, generally, you can watch any of the HDR screencast videos in any order you like, however, I would probably watch the Paris Church Tutorial on Disc 1 before moving to the videos on Disc 2. A number of the videos will discuss how Trey manages his images (Trey has also written a full eBook on that subject), but this particular tutorial goes the most in-depth on how to work with Lightroom, Photoshop and Photomatix. This video also makes it clear that Trey is not afraid to use plugins in his work (Noiseware and Topaz Adjust were used specifically in this image). Even as someone who’s read Trey’s HDR Tutorial a number of times (both online and in his A World in HDR book), seeing him actually process an image provided an increase in my understanding about HDR processing.
Disc 2 consists primarily of screencasts of Trey processing HDR images. The one exception on this disc is a video that shows how to crop and straighten images in Photoshop. People who have familiarity with Photoshop (or Lightroom or Aperture) will probably not gain a lot from this one segment. The screencasts on this disc cover a wide variety of topics. If you are still unsure about how to setup your images in Photoshop, than I recommend starting on the Venetian in Vegas tutorial, since that tutorial covers the “getting images into Photoshop” topic in great detail. Other tutorials on this disk really start to explore Trey’s methods for mixing the underlying bracketed photos into the tone mapped photos, including sections on fixing blown out highlights, modifying the color of certain image elements, and really looking in-depth on how to make good looking skies in a HDR image. Disc 2 is also the first time that Trey introduces NIk Software’s Viveza into the workflow (he also uses some onOne software, however, I tend to zone out on those parts because I’ve always disliked the interfaces on most onOne Software (Genuine Fractals being the exception)).
Disc 3 also contains a number of screencasts, but these screencasts seem to focus more on making sure that a specific topic is learned. These include things like noise reduction, removing halos from HDR images, handling moving objects and people within HDR images, processing single RAW HDR images, converting HDR images to Black & White (not surprisingly, using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro), and “double tone mapping’. Some of these technique segments will probably be more valuable to some users than to others. The halo removal one is probably the most important, since haloing is a common problem in HDR images. The noise reduction technique (using “Trey’s Burst Effect”) and the “double tone mapping” section are particularly interesting since these are techniques that people who follow Trey’s work will quickly recognize. On the other hand, if you really want to learn black & white conversion with Silver Efex Pro, then you might be better off spending time attending one of Nik’s daily webinars.
Discs 1 through 3, I believe, are all in the “Basic Edition” of the DVD, but Disc 4 is only included in the Premium Edition. Disc 4 contains three additional screencasts from Trey that show Trey processing the images he took during the Austin Photowalk that was shown on Disc 1. These videos are purely screencasts, however, and they do not include the few seconds of workshop footage that introduce other image tutorials as well as the audience interaction aspect of the other tutorials (depending on your point of view, the lack of the audience interaction could be seen as either a positive or a negative.) The screencasts on this disc are pretty comprehensive, showing some of Trey’s advanced image remixing techniques, as well as his “double tone mapping” and his “Trey burst” effect. They were a solid way to bring together all the techniques that were shown in the earlier discs.
In addition to the screencast tutorials that are found on Disc 4, Disc 4 contains all of the bracketed images that are used in the video tutorials found on all four discs in the DVD collection. Though watching the DVDs are instructive, having the ability to follow along while using the same images being used on screen is extremely helpful. The disc also includes extra bracketed images to practice the techniques on images outside of those Trey uses in the tutorials. Finally, Disc 4 includes a copy of Trey’s eBook “Top 10 Mistakes in HDR Processing”, that normally costs $10.
CLUBHOUSE AND COMMENTS
Purchase of Trey’s HDR DVD set gives you access to an exclusive Stuck in Customs forum known as “The Clubhouse”. At this point, I can’t say how active this forums will be, however, based on an examination of the current threads and posts, it does seem to have promise.
At this point, I will also add in a few general comments that did not seem to fit in any other section. This is not a DVD set about how to use Photomatix, it’s a DVD set about how to create HDR images. There is much more Photoshop instruction provided on these DVDs than I originally anticipated, including some rudimentary instruction on how to do things like basic masking. Trey uses CS4 for his tutorials, which means that certain things that would be possible if using CS5 (including Content Aware fill) are not covered. Additionally, he makes a mention of a masking plugin for Photoshop that is probably unnecessary with the enhanced refine edge techniques found in in CS5.
After both reading his ebook, Composing the Photo, and watching this DVD set, I feel that I have a decent amount of evidence to craft my opinion about Trey’s teaching style. Trey is very matter-a-fact with his advice, and makes things seem, possibly, simpler than they are. Hearing him mention that his background involved computer science was not at all a surprise for me, as that could easily explain why he is able to explain rather complicated procedures and processes in a very straightforward manner. Also, he only explains those features of the software that he himself uses. He doesn’t waste time saying “button X does this, but I don’t use it”, he gets right to the heart of how he creates images. For someone like me, who appreciates getting a large amount of information in a short amount of time, I thoroughly enjoyed his approach. If, however, you are a more contemplative learner, especially someone who wants to know the underlying details of why to move slider Y, then Trey’s HDR DVD set might frustrate you some.
As is evidenced by the the amount of content listed in this review, Trey’s HDR DVD set is a comprehensive HDR education package. Despite the quantity, and quality, of content, however, there is still the question of whether or not the the package is worth it’s nearly $400 price point. Unfortunately, that is not a question that I can answer for everyone. Compare the $400 for the DVD to the $999 that it costs to attend his already sold out workshop in Austin or the $1,415 that it costs to attend his already sold out workshop in London. Though I cannot predict exactly what Trey will do in either one of these workshops, I cannot imagine that you would get any more comprehensive HDR education than you will get on this DVD set. You might say that in the workshop you get direct access to Trey, which is something you can’t get on a DVD, however, that is what the Stuck in Customs “Clubhouse” is for. Based on the posts I’ve seen in the Clubhouse, it looks like Trey is fairly active in that forum, as are a number of fairly strong HDR experts, who can provide you with HDR advice. Whether or not this type of advice acquisition is an acceptable substitute for direct access to Trey in a workshop is something that you will have to decide for yourself. In fact, having to decide for yourself is what you’re going to have to do about the price point. The HDR education that you receive from Trey’s DVD set is quite strong, however, $400, for many people, is outside the realm of “impulse buy”. I would say that you must be ready to make a commitment to being a better HDR photographer before making the purchase. Also, as a rather obvious point, you should probably be a fan of Trey’s style and you should want to learn how to create images in that style, since that is the type of image that you are going to learn how to craft.
In his introductory video, Trey states that his goal in his workshop is that you “make significant steps forward” in your ability to create HDR images. If you purchase this DVD set, follow along with the examples that Trey provides, and, generally, take his advice to heart, I have a fairly high degree of confidence that you will take significant steps towards being a better HDR photographer. The qualifier on that statement is that you will be a better HDR photographer in the stlye of Trey Ratcliff. If you are not a fan of his work and style, this is not the DVD set for you. Trey is an artist. He has particular things that he likes and those likes have shaped his vision. He has developed a process that allows him to make images that reflect that vision. If you visit Stuck in Customs and find his work to be beautiful, and/or inspiring, then his DVD set will bring you closer to making those kinds of images. Though Trey’s online HDR tutorial is a fabulous resource, seeing him actually process a number of HDR images will, most likely, provide you a much deeper level of understanding. Some of the techniques on Disc 3 alone, particularly about removing halos and handling objects in motion in a HDR image, really can help you take your HDR photography to the next level.
Trey, on a podcast interview, once referred to Rick Sammon as one of the “godfathers of photography”. If you’re going to make a list of the godfathers of HDR photography, however, than Trey himself would most definitely be on that list. If you are a fan of Trey’s style and want to take your HDR photography to a higher level, than this DVD set is something you should contemplate. The only question is, are you ready to invest $400 in order to gain access to comprehensive, high quality, HDR photography education?
Product Information Page for Trey’s HDR DVD
DISCOUNT CODES: 55BASICDVD for 10% off the Basic Edition and 66PREMIUMDVD for 20% off the Premium Edition
NOTE: Like all products from Stuck in Customs that I have reviewed within the last 2 months, the links I have to Trey’s HDR DVD set are affiliate links and, as a result, I will get a small percentage of the sale if you buy the DVD via a link on my site. I do not think this impacts my review of the product, except that the primary reason I could afford to buy the DVD set was because people bought it off an affiliate link I posted when Trey released the DVD. The other reason that I could review the DVD is that Trey’s contact in charge of affiliate programs gave me a discount that helped closed the gap between the DVD’s cost and my personal affiliate earnings. Even with this help, the DVD was purchased by me at, what I feel, is a substantial cost. Once again, I do not feel any of these items impacted my review of the DVD, however feel free to take them into account when reading my review.