24 Minutes with photographer Trey Ratcliff
Best known for his amazing travel photography, Trey Ratcliff is a self-taught photographer, who was "born blind in one eye and still only see out of his left". You'd be surprised to know he only started his craft when he was 35 years old. He found a niche in the subject of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography where landscapes and buildings take on a new dimension with a life of its own. While he may have been a little late to the game but his technique has been nothing short of amazing. Ratcliff, who has a computer science and math degree, gave up a career in tech to pursue his newfound love.
As he began sharing his photos and knowledge on his blog, Ratcliff started gaining followers who were all keen to know more about the strange world of HDR photography. With his growing popularity, he started hosting public speaking, photo walks and Facebook Live sessions.
In 2015, Ratcliff partnered up with The Ritz-Carlton for a US tour. The #80Stays partnership continues again last year to today where he's traversing the globe to share creative vision and experience the wonders of each city. During his stop in Kuala Lumpur, we caught up with Ratcliff to discuss inspirations, travels and social media.
Hi Trey. Welcome back to KL. We hear you've been here before, what's your history with our city?
Yes, I've been here 11 times! KL has a special place in my heart because it's really where I got started with photography. I travelled here for work and thought this city was so beautiful and interesting. It was like visiting a parallel universe where things were just a little different and I thought to myself that I really should get a camera. I took my first photo—a beautiful sunset from KL Tower but that turned out terrible! It was horrible and it made me angry. Like, how can KL be so beautiful but my photo is just terrible. Laughs.
So I set out on mission to start processing my photos. My background is in computer science and math, so I put my geek hat on and sort of think about the photo like it's a ball of data that I can manipulate. And I did! That I think is why I love KL so much because it reminds me of how I got my start.
You host photo walks in almost every city that you go to. How did this come about? Talk us through what these sessions are like.
Photo walk is still a concept that most people aren't familiar with. The idea is for a bunch of photographers to get together and walk around the city for an hour or two and take photos together. I didn't invent the concept of photo walk. It's been around. These are free events and anyone can come. We've had anything like over 500 people in some locations to just a couple of hundreds in others.
I have had to lug around a speaker system and a mic so everyone can hear me, then I stop a few times along the way to share tips and tricks, and help inspire people. I talk about the shot that I'm taking—the composition and all the tech stuff. But this session is also about the kind of storytelling that I'm trying to do. Then we encourage everyone afterwards to share their photos online and make new friends. The thing about photographers is—we're generally very lonely people because we're always by ourselves, taking photos or be in front of a laptop working on those photos. It's a very solitary existence. So this is a great chance for this group to come together and learn together. It's a safe place to create and ask questions—I think this is a very affirming thing.
What can people expect from your photo walk? What tips and tricks do you like to share?
I try to do a mix of mental, spiritual things and practical, technical things. Because they're both important. When you are taking photos, don't tell yourself how it's going to come out, or how you'll become popular, or how you're going to make money...just let go of all that. And just create like a child. That's the core thing.
Beyond that, when it comes to technical advice—for people who are just getting started I encourage them to leave the camera on auto. There are a lot of "real" photographers out there who will tell you that unless you shoot in manual all the time, you're not a real photographer. And they almost made you feel bad about it. But of course, it's really more about them than it is about you when they say things like that.
You know cameras are amazing; it is like 90 percent computer and 10 percent camera. So if you leave it on auto, the computer will make the same decisions as a pro 95 percent of the time. There's no shame in that. Just work on the composition and storytelling. Let the computer figure out all the technical mumbo jumbo that you shot and learn from there.
Tell us a little about your partnership with The Ritz-Carlton. How has it been for you personally?
It's been great! We have so many ideals that overlapped. With the people at The Ritz-Carlton, they just love serving you. There's this empathy among them and they get real enjoyment out of making you happy. I think this is something that we share. I was raised by my mum and sister, so that made me very empathetic. I like to keep people around me happy all the time.
What's your most humbling travel experience to date?
First of all, I think all travels are humbling. I know that travel has made me a more gentle person, less judgemental and much more easier going. It's nice, you know. No complains about anything and it frees your mind to be creative.
In terms of specific humbling things, every year I take my family on an "around the world" trip and we were in India and Bangalore previously. The Ritz-Carlton there prepared this thing called 'Community Footprints' where you go out into the community and give back. So I went with my kids and we spent the day helping out some underprivileged folks there. It was great for my kids because they are so spoilt. Laughs. So many kids are spoilt! But it's good to bring them out into the real world and see how so many people live.
Having gone through many #80Stays experiences, can you name three cities/countries that really made an impression on you?
Well, it's hard to pick three. Like, if you have 20 kids and you've got to figure your three favourites. Laughs. It depends on the day and their behaviour. Laughs. Ok, they're all great and I'm happy in any country. I would say three of my favourites that surprise me are Hungary—Budapest is really a great city, love it there; then Japan always impresses me with their wonderful culture and great food; and like I said, Malaysia! KL because it has such good memories for me—it's where I got my start, so I always feel very comfortable up here. I've spent some time in Melaka too and all around Malaysia, Langkawi is a great place for taking photos.
So being behind the lenses, how do you find the balance between actually living in the moment and also capturing that moment?
Right, this is a popular fallacy. That if you're taking photos you cannot enjoy the moment. I say this too about parents when they go see their kids do a Christmas play, that if they're taking a photo, they cannot actually enjoy it. This is not true! I think there are multiple levels of fusing these two things together. Just very simply—when you're looking through a camera, you basically have a little bit of a rectangle as the viewer right? Then it's just black all around. So you have a tunnel vision and see exactly what you want to focus on. You're not distracted by everything else. So in a way, it helps you focus on what is most important. And that really brings you into the moment.
We see that you're super active on social media with some 16 million followers across various platforms. How do you think this digital tool has shaped your travels and photography?
Obviously I share as much as I can on social media. And I always watch the way other people use social media. I'm interested in it. But I'd say don't be concerned about the reaction to it. So many people look at feedback and it affects them. I do read all the comments but I don't really let them affect me at all. Whether good or bad, you just can't believe one and not the other.
I think it's just natural for me to share and the right stuff will resonate with the right people. I've got an unusual social media strategy in that way. And a lot of it honestly has to do with not taking yourself seriously. This is something that I've learned through studying philosophy and doing yoga and meditation. It's like you just have no ego and just let yourself go. As soon as you let yourself go, you lose your vulnerability and you just say stuff – whether you think it's funny or insightful – and not worry about reactions. People's reaction really says more about them than it does about me. So I think that's a really good advice.
Follow Trey Ratcliff's journey on Instagram and Facebook, where he continues to share his travel experiences and photography tips. To track where he is in the #80Stays tour now, check The Ritz-Carlton site here.