Pretty Little PicturesS

Trey Ratcliff sees the world with a gamer's eye.

When he looks at Beijing through the lens of his camera he sees Tron. When he finds a secluded bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand he thinks Hobbits. When people ask the famed HDR photographer how he edits his colorful, evocative images, he compares himself to a StarCraft player.

So it's not surprising that when he created a camera app for the iPhone he connected it to Apple's achievement-rewarding Game Center. Game Center is Apple's struggling on iPhone gaming community. It lets you keep track of friends and earn in-game achievements. But usually only games are connected to it.

The photography of Ratcliff, who runs the world's top travel photography blog, have hung in the Smithsonian and been featured on a slew of television shows from the BBC to FOX. But he still enjoys the ease and simplicity of occasionally snapping a picture with his iPhone.

"I use the iPhone for 'fun' photography, which can be every bit as exciting as photos taken with a more serious camera," he said. "When you start taking photos, you see wonderful and interesting subjects and compositions everywhere. It's a very nice feeling to whip out our iPhone and create something tiny and wonderful."

The decision to make his own iPhone camera app and give it game-like achievements, Ratcliff says, was driven by his desire to get people to take more pictures and to have fun with them.

"I think it's fascinating how achievements are both completely unnecessary but really satisfying!"

"I think it is fun to have some sort of comparative measurement of your experience with the app," he said. "The more you use it, the more achievements and points you get. We also use the achievements to encourage you to discover all the features of the app that you might not otherwise see.

"I think it's fascinating how achievements are both completely unnecessary but really satisfying! Also, there's something about being rewarded when you were not really expecting it. It's like a small Swiss child running up to you in the street and offering you a piece of chocolate, just for being an awesome dude."

Ratcliff's 100 Cameras in 1 app delivers those achievement "pieces of chocolate" to iPhone photographers who use, reuse and mix up the 100 filters built into the program. He says he came up with the idea for the app because he wanted a program on the iPhone that was faster, cleaner and had more variety than what was currently available.

Use the right filter and you earn the People Person or Worldly achievement. Other achievements include Repo Man, Ambrosia, Cat Head and two with references to Unicorns.

Ratcliff, whose background is in computer science and math, worked with developers Lavacado to ensure that the guts of his app did what he wanted it to. For instance, he points out, as you are looking at the first page of filter results, the program is in the background creating the images for the next page, cutting down on any delay.

But what really makes the app unique is that it relies on Ratcliff and the way he views the world to offer up the sort of filters that can change the way you view yours.

Pretty Little Pictures

"Over the last several years, I have collected about a thousand textures from all around the world," he said. "I find unique textures everywhere from China to Spain to Argentina. We started with these textures, selected the best 100, then started applying them to a variety of sample photos.

"With some, we would use overlay blend modes, hardlight with others, and occasionally use other blending techniques like luminosity and hue. With certain effects, we would also take the photo and layer it back on itself in combination with the texture. We sat there for hours upon hours, going through every individual effect and tweaking it out for various situations from people-shots to landscape-shots to architecutre-shots to see what worked and what didn't."

The end result is 100 filters that apply a multitude of changes, from texture and hue, to contract and saturation, to your images nearly instantly.

"I've ended up with about 22 or so "favorites" in the app that seem to make almost any kind of image look magical," he said.

And the filters have magical, emotional names too.

There's "The Smell of New Fire", "A Gentle Feel of Warmth Against My Side" and "The Sky Was As Blue As Your Eyes."

I asked Ratcliff about the oddly fitting names for the filters, and for a moment he seemed at a loss for words.

"I think that we all have a poetic side to our existence, yes? I think many of us experience the world in a rich, cinematic way," he said. "In our mind, we have a romantic notion of little events here and there. Photography and creation is very much a right-brained activity. Poetry is like a skeleton key that can help open up that side of everyone's personality."

The concept taps into the increasingly popular idea of gamification, the notion of applying the basic ideas of games to the mechanics of everyday life to make them more fun.

But where do they come from?

"The poetic names are not all personal to me," he said. "Like any writer, I can envision many kinds of minds and many kinds of thoughts. A good example is 'When I felt sad, and you were not there'. This is something that either we have all experienced, and certainly something those around us have experienced it. It's kind of a sad thought, but it does open up some different thought patterns — and I think hitting unexpected parts of the brain are important in the creative process."

Unleashing a person's creativity, allowing them to enjoy photographer is a huge part of why Ratcliff created 100 Cameras in 1, he says. It's also why tying it to Game Center, making picture taking a game, was so important to him.

Those in-app achievements will reward people for experimentation and, he hopes, encourage people to take more risks and try different things.

"Unfortunately, in our society, there is still a taboo against 'making mistakes'," Ratcliff said. "There is a soft pressure to be perfect every time. But when it comes to creative, artistic, right-brained endeavors, mistakes should be encouraged as the ONLY interesting path towards making something wonderful and unique."

The concept taps into the increasingly popular idea of gamification, the notion of applying the basic ideas of games to the mechanics of everyday life to make them more fun.

"The typical experience for humans trying something new is either failure, mistakes, or humiliation," Ratcliff said. "Over time, we decide to stop taking the risks and stick to what we know. 'Gamification' can reverse that trend and give people these little pieces of chocolate for re-engaging with their child-like explorer selves. It's all inside of us... but society does it's best to beat it down."

Pretty Little Pictures

Pics: Top and second image taken by Ratcliff with his professional photography gear. Third and fourth taken by me on my iPhone and run through the filters of the 100 Cameras in 1 app. The bottom shows a portion of a BioShock 2 screen run through three different filters.