It’s a Wednesday afternoon in August, and travel photographer Trey Ratcliff is gathering last-minute gear for his trip to the Burning Man festival in early September. Ratcliff is in the midst of his free “Photo Walk Across the USA” tour, where he visits 12 of the biggest U.S. cities and, over a two-week period, joins locals to take pictures and share advice. Having completed tours in 11 cities before our chat with him (the 12th in San Francisco was done on September 19), it’s safe to say that this camera slinger has been pretty busy of late.
He didn’t buy his first camera until the age of 35, but the StuckInCustoms.com creator has the number one travel photography blog on the Internet, over eight million followers on social media, the honor of having the first high-dynamic-range photo hung in the Smithsonian and the distinction of being featured on numerous media outlets like ABC, CBS and NBC. Traveling to over 4,000 cities, Ratcliff is changing the world of photography, sharing his creations on social media and, ultimately, touching the lives of millions around the world.
Though his photo walk tour has completed, the New Zealand resident has no plans to slow down. His next big Photo Adventures trip — on these excursions, he spends a week in a major city with a small group of people teaching photography and post-processing — is being held in Italy next year, while a sold-out photo and yoga retreat is happening in New Zealand this October 5 through 10. We catch up with Ratcliff while he’s staying at The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey to get the scoop on his photography projects, his approach to social media and how it feels to influence millions of image-capturing people across the world.
On your website, I see that teaching and mentorship are important factors to you, so I wanted to know how these photo walks have influenced your work?
So, when we started the photo walks, it was really just a way to give back to the community. It’s really because of the fans — or “Internet friends”; that’s what I call them — that the blog became popular and it totally changed my life. So, I go around and do these free photo walks as a way to give back. But what I really found out is I get just as much out of it as they do. I mean, people are so sweet; they’d come up and talk about how photography’s changed their life. How much it made them more present, more conscious, all these kind of things. That was never really my intent. I think it’s starting to accidently become my intent, but I know how much photography and travel has changed my life and it tends to be one of those things you can actually share the joy of with other people and it changes theirs as well.
What would you say are the key things you keep in mind when it comes to taking good photos?
I would say, probably one of the smartest things to do is get photos of little things that catch your eye. Not every photo needs to be some epic work. You don’t have to go to Paris to get the ultimate picture of the Eiffel Tower. You can be a photographer that takes a photo, then walk around and look for patterns, or little truths that maybe only you see. And maybe, you don’t share the photos with anybody; they’re just for yourself. But I think that’s a really important process for people to go through.
What are some of the approaches you take when it comes to social media and how that intersects with your photography? How could an up-and-coming photographer incorporate social media into their work?
Well, I’d say the kind of unexpected thing I do is I’m super genuine and unpredictable. It’s always me that does it; I don’t have someone pretending to be me. People auto-schedule stuff, using all of these tools. I just go on and I do different things than I do on Instagram or Facebook or Google+ or whatever. I treat each one in its on way, with its own audience. Different audiences, different things. Also, I am known for being so gosh-darn genuine on the Internet that we ended up really having some nice social media partners. We’ve got a great partnership with The Ritz-Carlton and they’re super cool because, whenever I go into one of their rooms, they give me all these custom chocolates and wine or whatever. And they always have these little hashtags on there like #RCmemories. So, what I usually do is I usually jump online and I might do a Facebook Live video. I very rarely do anything about photography. It’s just about lifestyle or weird things that happened, that kind of stuff.
So people are visiting your profiles for the authenticity?
I think they first come for the photography and then I think they stay because they can get to know me as an individual. And so you just have to be really open and vunerable. I see so many people on the Internet pretending or being a character like, “Oh, life is so awesome. Look where I am.” It’s just ridiculous, right? You just have to be real and talk about the bad things that happened and the good stuff that happens and anything about life. You’re like a real person, you don’t have to be some idealized perfect traveler. You gotta get real with it.
What would you say were some of your most memorable cities during your photo walk?
Gosh, it’s hard to say. The police shutdown in Atlanta sticks out. The idea that they won’t let a few hundred photographers walk around and take photos in their city, in a certain spot, it’s just ridiculous to me. It’s just a super peaceful crowd, just artists out there just creating. It kind of makes me feel sometimes that we are in this police stage or something; it’s weird. So, that one definitely sticks out. Phoenix sticks out because it was almost a 100-degrees photo walk. L.A. was great. I think it was our biggest turnout yet. We had a thousand people scouring the beach together, walking up and down the Santa Monica pier. Amazing. All the cities were great. They all look good architecturally, nice people, great times. There’s a ton of memories in all of these places, but those are just a few weird ones.
What are some of your favorite destinations around the world?
My two favorite places that I’ll never get tired of are Iceland and New Zealand. And it’s actually thanks to the blog that, three years ago, I moved from Austin, Texas to New Zealand. So, I kind of made it my new home and moved there with my wife and three kids. So, I feel very lucky that I get to live in one of the best photo locations in the world.
Name some of your favorite things to capture.
I really like landscape, you know. The earth is so beautiful. It’s amazing. Just countless beautiful things to see everywhere. Yeah, I’d say any kind of natural landscape. I want pictures of everything honestly — people, you name it. But I think what I’m always drawn to is just the beauty of the earth and the landscapes. I can’t get enough of it.
You recently collaborated on a camera messenger bag with Peak Design. What was that experience like?
So, we tried to, and maybe we succeeded, reinvent the camera bag. It’s much different than any other camera bag. I’d say my three favorite features are one, most camera bags have this Velcro system, like little boxes, and you put your lens into this square hole and you have all of this wasted negative space. And so, we came up with this new system, these Velcro things go in-between but they bend around whatever gear you happen to have so there’s no negative space inside. You’re able to fit more stuff into a much smaller and more sleeker-looking bag. I really like how I can attach my camera on the outside of the bag. That’s great for two reasons: one, it’s very easy to use; it’s just there, at the ready. And the second reason is that it doesn’t take up any room inside your bag, which leaves more room inside your bag for other stuff like water bottles or snacks. And the last little thing — it’s a super small thing but it kind of shows the detail — is that, when you open the front pockets, there’s little green stitching on one side and on the other side it’s red stitching. And that’s a place for fresh batteries and fresh memory cards. The other side is for dead batteries and old memory cards. There’s no battery confusion.
What’s next for you? I hear you’re into yoga.
Yes, I’m into yoga and meditation and all things zen. We do have a combination yoga and photography retreat coming up in New Zealand. We do, maybe, two photo adventures per year — usually one back home in New Zealand and some place else exotic. So, we have the New Zealand one and then next year, during Carnival, we have Venice (Carnival of Venice Photo Adventure, February 4 to 10, 2016).