Trey Ratcliff’s Trip to China Included Drone Confiscation & a Chinese Detention Center

Pushing the boundaries on where you should and shouldn’t use a drone is scary enough in most situations. But “most situations” don’t seem to be daring enough for noted travel photographer Trey Ratcliff.

Detailing his experience over on his blog, Stuck In Customs, Ratcliff tells the tale of how his endeavors to use a drone in the Forbidden City of Beijing earned him some time with Chinese authorities in a detention center.

The story goes that Ratcliff decided to visit the Forbidden City during his time in Beijing, and that, while there, he figured it would be the perfect spot to capture some footage using his new DJI Phantom 2 and GoPro Hero 3+.


For five days, Ratcliff successfully captured Phantom footage across Beijing. But it was one attempt to take an aerial shot of the White Dagoba on Qionghua Island that changed his luck. What he didn’t realize as he released his quadcopter that day was that he would be flying almost directly above the Chinese NSA and FBI buildings.

Drone in the sky, Ratcliff started to notice “a rather surly looking female police officer [headed his way].” It turns out she meant business, because it wasn’t long before Ratcliff and his friend Ady were being held in a small, dimly-lit detention facility.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 11.38.27 AM

After charming talk from Ady, a thorough look-over of his Phantom drone and desperate attempt to explain to authorities that he was a professional photographer, he and Ady were let go with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. But the story doesn’t quite end there.

The following day, authorities showed up to Ratcliff’s hotel room and, without any warning, confiscated his drone with a promise that it would be returned to him when he left the country. Much to his surprise, when he arrived at the Beijing airport on his last day, so did the authorities… drone in hand.

To hear a more detailed account of the story, or if you’d like to see some of the photographs Ratcliff captured from the five days he was able to fly his drone, check out his blog post by following the link below. And the next time you’re in China, maybe do a quick sweep for super secret government buildings before you launch your quadcopter…

Beijing From Above, Aka The Story Of How I Was Detained By The Police Because Of My DJI Quadcopter[Stuck In Customs]

  • Chang He

    He’s fortunate to have been let go. What is unfortunate is the blissfully unaware narcissism that allows him to say he was “locked up” when actually he was just questioned, and which allows him to write 1500 words on the topic and not mention the hundreds of thousands of Chinese political prisoners who don’t get a “slap on the wrist” but who suffer and die for justice and truth.

  • Kynikos

    What a halfwit.

    For his next trip, he should put a GoPro on his head and nonchalantly walk naked through the streets of some third world Muslim rathole while drinking a beer and groping anything in a Burqa.

  • Anomouse

    He’s been an ass from the get go, I would have paid the Chinese for his bullet

  • Keith D

    Lesson of the day: Be aware of your surroundings.

  • Keith D

    I just watched the video and saw the pictures on his blog….all that trouble for a mediocre video and extremely over-processed photos.

  • arachnophilia

    i’m surprised that “stuck in customs” didn’t get stuck in customs…

  • SiriusPhotog

    HaHa….good one!

  • Eden Wong

    One of the most ridiculous “non stories” that I have ever read. What an idiot.

  • Alex Tardif

    Wow man, some harsh words there. Never understand the haters of TR… I met the guy in person, a bit quirky maybe, but seems like a truly genuine, humble, and overall nice dude. Had a significant influence on me picking up photography as a hobby few years back. I like what he does with his blogs and social stuff and his photography is pretty great in some ways. What’s your beef with this?

  • derekdj

    So basically, the moral of the story is know the local laws and customs before you assume your hipster rights are applicable.

    He’s actually lucky the Chinese authorities didn’t hold him longer under suspicion of espionage. They do much worse with locals. China imprisoned 32 journalists and photographers last year; one for just photographing a street protest in Tibet.

  • tonkotsu


  • Lemon

    He makes a very good living with those over-processed photos. Haters gonna hate…

  • Adam Cross

    because Muslims only live in third world ratholes? :S nice to see where your head goes.

  • Adam Cross

    “was that he would be flying almost directly above the Chinese NSA and FBI buildings.” … what an absolute tool.

  • Kynikos

    I didn’t say that, did I?
    No, I did not.

  • Kynikos

    I know a Canadian-born person (of Mainland-China-born parents) who was arrested in Shenzhen for what would be a misdemeanour in Canada. Got 12 year sentence in a Peoples’ Re-Education and Labour facility in 2001. Served eight.

    This guy with the drone is lucky he didn’t end up on death row.

  • Pickle

    Yes, I’m negative but Trey is probably the most overrated internet famous photographer in the world. In a world full of people like “Fro”, and “Neekon Guy”, that’s saying a lot. His HDR pictures are horrid. I’m not sure why anybody takes this seriously when his pictures look like acid trip paintings from the 60’s. That’s not photography. If he wants to be known as the HDR guy fine, but don’t dare call him a photographer.

    And how does he pay for all his travels? Is he making money off his photography or someone else financing it? Please China, keep him. We’ll even give you Bieber.

  • Pickle

    This guy sounds like a spoiled rich kid who is clueless about the world. In China there are courts where people go in with a fraud charge and by the end of the day, their relatives come pick up their bullet riddled and executed bodies for burial (after they pay for the bullets). This spoiled kid has no idea what it means to be “locked up” in China, but I’m sure he’ll act like a victim and talk about how great he and his Sony camera are in his blog.

  • Pickle

    Last part may be a bit far, but I agree with the first part 100%

  • Pickle

    If he can pay for all this trips and lifestyle with those pictures then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. By the way, nice name. I’m Pickle, Lemon.

  • Pickle

    I am curious, do you know any 3rd world rathole Muslim countries that are a shining example of what’s right with 3rd world Muslim countries? The closest I can think of is Turkey but that’s a secular country.

  • uaio

    Worst editing ever done in video. What a pity of footage!

  • Pickle

    Is it any surprise given how he over-processes his stills?

  • Adam Cross

    no, but it’s interesting you associate 3rd world ratholes with Islam.

  • Adam Cross

    you think Turkey is a “3rd world” country? … wow. Turkey is the 15th richest country on the planet with an annual gdp of $1.4trillion.

  • woofa

    What’s interesting about it? Did he offend your religion? Islam is the king of oppressive religion.

  • Kynikos

    Woofa: don’t sweat it.
    He’s the Ayatollah Complaini of trolls.

  • Pickle

    How could I have forgotten that when I was driving my Turkish car using my Turkish GPS on my Turkish Phone. You are correct however, they are indeed considered first world. I will make up for my mistake by eating a Turkish sandwich, no pickles.

  • woofa

    Def not sweating it.

  • slyman

    would you guys stop calling them drones and just say quadcopter? only place i ever see them called drones is in the media. it’s just sensationalism…

    i did think the video was pretty cool though for the sole fact that we don’t really get to see china like this.

  • battlepriest

    They are unmanned aircraft. Period.

  • slyman

    not saying they aren’t, it’s just annoying to hear them called drones when what you really think of as drones are the type flown by the military and the media knows this. that’s exactly why they call them drones.

  • Edac2

    I was thinking the exact same thing. Why ruin such beautiful footage with Sparkle-style transitions? It’s completely unwatchable after about a minute of that.

  • Peter Duke

    And now his drone will send video back to China every time he uses it. The Chinese probably reverse engineered chips sent over in Cisco routers by the NSA… #JustSayin!

  • Rafael Chambers

    just as Thelma
    responded I am in shock that anyone can profit $5143 in 4 weeks on the
    computer . look these up http://www.works77.ℭOM

  • Ely John

    Maybe getting caught was part of the his plan so to make him look like a bad*** in his blog. Maybe you should work on your photography skills Trey, and stop playing with those quadcopters lol

  • Paetroz

    Yeah, you pretty much said that, not verbatim but your thoughts are clearly expressed.

  • Paetroz

    Forget it dude. You are dealing with numbskulls.

  • Paetroz

    So what is photography? Please enlighten us as you seem to be the authority on what constitutes the art? I didn’t know about Trey’s stills until your comments made me visit his site. He certainly likes very vivid colors and sharpened imagery, and while it’s not my thing I can still see beauty in a lot of his work. Good composition and a surreal nature is there and I can appreciate the fact that he travels extensively and is incredibly devoted to his art, so it’s no wonder he has some degree of success. Time an time again some people just like to put down someone more successful than they are. Petty jealousy or envy ultimately serve no one, including yourself.

  • Paetroz

    Drones. Drones, drones, drones, drones, drones. There, got it all out.

  • Paetroz

    Just saw an ad at the bottom of this page for Parrot Bebop DRONES. So it’s not just the military or the media calling them that. Don’t get so hung up on terminology. In essence it’s a drone.

  • slyman

    meh, they’re just following the media. people have been flying rc helicopters and airplanes for decades, i’m sure some even put cameras on those and only in recent years have they started calling such things “drones”…

  • Loh Cheng Mun


    Footage is ok.

    Quality of edits and soundtrack quality matches each other; ie. are jarring to watch and ecstacy-like.

    Concept ideals

    The desire show the rustic and cultural aerial view of any old capital city is cool.

    Execution of concept

    Absolute no planning in gaining permits to shoot at pay per entry tourist places of interest. No respect was given to both the local government and the estate managers of state owned property.

    Doing this in most countries will likely get you rewarded with more than just a few questions at the detention centre.

  • ruleoflaw

    What would have happened to him if he did this in Washington DC? A lot worse than what rather kinda treatment he received in China.

    A single burly female police officer? No, you would get several truly brutal police, along with other secretive police types. Brief detention and questioning would also be doubtful in the land of the free. Getting the rig back at the airport, forget about that.

    I find it odd that he thinks he can go to another country and just do as he pleases. I have spent the last 25 years of my life living outside the USA, and every place I go, I consider myself a guest and it is a privilege (not a right) to be there.

    Never met the person, but because of his behavior that gives me the impression he feels he can do whatever he wants in a guests house, it would make me want to steer very clear of him.