How I Became a Location Independent Travel Photographer

Naomi and I just celebrated our 40th month of being on the road full-time and living a 100% location independent lifestyle. Looking back, it seems like a lifetime ago when we made that crazy decision to sell nearly everything we owned and adopt a life filled with travel photography. In a way, it really was a lifetime ago because we were completely different people back then living very different lives; two people with a dream of what could be, teeming with optimism, but with no real idea of how it would all work out in the end.

What most people don’t know is that it was an incredible struggle for us to get to where we are now. Success has not come easily and before we made the decision to become location independent, we had spent a few difficult years trying to cope with an impossible amount of debt, losing nearly everything to the housing crisis and eventually having to file bankruptcy. The video explains that journey and how those hardships ushered in a transformation not only to our lifestyle, but our priorities and a complete shift in our ideas of success. It’s weird to think that we had to lose nearly everything to gain what would become the greatest collection of experiences and memories of our entire lives.

How to become location independent

I’m not going to lie to you. While the thought of location independence and full-time world travel sounds exciting (it is), it is also paved with challenges along the way. The first challenge is mentally preparing yourself to make the transition and being ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

You must be willing to let go

If you watched the video, then you know that Naomi and I had already lost our house before we decided to file bankruptcy and start over with a new outlook on life. In a way, that made the decision to become location independent easier, because we had already been forced to simplify our lives. Letting go of the rest of our belongings was easy when compared to what we had to let go of before. Either way, what can seem like a simple decision can often become the biggest barrier for people wanting to adopt this nomadic lifestyle. Some people simply can’t let go of a career, of certain possessions, of a home, or even more difficult, a family pet. Out of everything we had to part with, our cats who had been with us for 13 years were the hardest to let go of, but we knew we couldn’t let them be the reason we didn’t reach for our dreams (don’t worry, we found them great homes with friends and family).

Is it worth the trade off? Am I ready to let go of everything and simplify my life down to the absolute essentials? Can I embrace change and step outside of my comfort zone or am I too afraid? What’s most important to me in life, material possessions or life experiences? These are some of the hard questions you must ask yourself before moving towards becoming location independent.

Start by simplifying your life

After mentally preparing to let go, the next step is to actually start simplifying your life. Begin by reducing monthly bills and slowly getting rid of your possessions. Put things on Ebay, Craigslist, have an old-fashioned garage sale, or do some good and donate them to those in need. If you start to declutter your home little by little and piece by piece, then the process will be a bit easier. Then, once you get through the stuff that’s not hard to part with, you’ll start to discover which possessions are most important to you. That’s when things become more difficult. You’ll have to either let these important possessions go or put them in storage, the cost of which can really add up over time.

Keep in mind that if you can liquidate a good portion of your possessions into cash, this can be seed money to fund the start of your location independent lifestyle. So my suggestion is to let it go and sell as much of it as you can!

Our living room in the last day or so before departing.

What we like to call “the last hold out” on the day of departure.

Even if you get it down to the bare essentials and you decide you don’t want to become location independent, the act of getting rid of some of your possessions is still a positive change and it can be therapeutic in a way. It’ll help teach you that things are just that, things, and if you really need something again it can usually be replaced.

In the end, Naomi and I ended up renting a small 5ft x 5ft air conditioned storage unit to store that last 5% of old family photos, heirlooms or keepsakes, and hard drives containing important files that we just couldn’t part with.

Take your job on the road

Depending on how long you plan to be on the road and the total sum of your savings account, this may be one of the most important parts of the location independent puzzle. Whatever you do for a living, it’s essential that you can do it on the road. Thankfully, there are more and more jobs out there today that can be done from anywhere. Both Naomi and I fell into that category when we set out—with her being a graphic and web designer and me being a photographer heavily involved in social media. As long as we had an internet connection, we knew we could make it work.

Are you able to do your job from anywhere? Maybe you have a flexible schedule already or a very understanding supervisor that’s willing to work with you. These days working remotely is something people do often, so should it really matter what country they’re doing the work from?

If you’re stuck in a job that has no flexibility, you’re likely going to have to transition into a different position or save up and take a sabbatical.

Here’s a list of some of the most common jobs for location independent people:

  • Graphic Designer
  • Web Designer
  • Writer
  • Blogger and Online Content Creator
  • Photographer
  • Social Media Manager
  • Virtual Assistant
  • Bookkeeping or Accounting
  • English Teacher
  • Consultant
  • Affiliate Marketer
  • Software Development
  • Professional Online Poker Player
  • Considering sustainability is the key

    If you can already work from anywhere and you make a ton of money, feel free to skip this step. However, if you’re like the rest of us, this is extremely important to consider. To really become location independent, that is to travel full-time with no set date of return, you’re going to need to be able to sustain your location independent lifestyle.

    Here’s the cool thing. If you’ve sold everything you own, you should’ve recouped a bit of cash already. If you’ve cancelled your car and insurance payments, your cable and internet bills, your cell phone plan, and most importantly your rent and mortgage payments, you now have the ability to apply that money towards an on-the-road lifestyle instead.

    Here’s where a bit of very simple math comes in… add up the amount of money you make in a year, and divide it by 365 and that’s the maximum daily living cost you can afford. It also helps to figure out the total average amount of expenses you currently pay on a monthly basis and divide that by 30, so you can compare your current daily expenses to estimated future ones.

    Obviously, this number will vary greatly for everyone. If you’re like us, this number was pretty low in the beginning and it required a bit of creative frugalness to make it work. Thankfully there are parts of the world that are much more affordable than the western world, like parts of SE Asia for example. No matter where you land in the beginning, you’ll need to be aware of what you can afford to spend, be careful with your money and plan your travel around that average daily limit.

    Pack as light as possible and don’t cheap out on your luggage

    Remember that you’re now taking your entire life with you on the road, so the less you take, the easier it will be to move around. Naomi and I employ what we call the “one trip rule.” This basically means that we must be able to carry everything we have in one trip, without having to go back for anything.

    With my job as a travel photographer, who now also does some videography work, we travel with a lot of electronics because it’s the nature of our business. Basically, every inch of carry-on space is dedicated to this, while our checked baggage shares some of the gear load as well. The rest is obviously clothes and things we need to live while on the road.

    Keep in mind that airlines in western countries typically restrict baggage weight to 23 kg. (50 lbs.) and in most of Asia, that restriction drops to 20 kg. (44 lbs.). In some countries, like India for example, restrictions can be as low as 15 kg. (33 lbs.), so you’ll really need to think through what to bring with you. If you don’t consider the weight of the bags, you can get hit with astronomical overweight baggage fees from various airlines.

    If you’re a photographer or videographer like me, I highly recommend Think Tank Photo gear. They have by far the best bags on the market in my opinion. For general luggage, I recommend both TravelPro and Eagle Creek. They both make high quality products built to last. Naomi and I use the lightweight Travelpro Maxlite bags (currently at series 3) 25” Expandable Rollaboard® Luggage for our checked bags. Whatever bag style you choose I’d suggest avoiding the spinner style wheels for long-term travel as they tend to be more exposed and have the potential to break more easily—trust me, that’s the last thing you want to happen before or after a long day in transit.

    It’s worth investing in high quality travel gear

    I mentioned not cheaping out when selecting the appropriate luggage for a location independent traveler, but that rule applies to pretty much anything important you bring on the road with you. As a rule of thumb, if it’s difficult to replace while you’re on the go in who knows which country, it’s worth making the initial investment in quality products that will stand the test of time, and more importantly, the punishment of full-time travel. Otherwise, you may be completely out of luck when something malfunctions or breaks.

    My profession as a Travel Photographer, requires a lot of gear and believe it or not, since I initially invested in durability and quality, everything has far exceeded and outlasted my expectations. My Really Right Stuff Tripods still work perfectly, my Fujifilm Cameras and Lenses still work and look like new, my Arc’Teryx winter clothes have a lifetime warranty, my Wacom Intuos still hasn’t left my side, and I’ve never had to buy a Think Tank Photo Bag twice.

    However, I did recently find out that my Retina Macbook Pro was not actually waterproof. Oops! Thankfully using tools like Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive for my important documents means they are always backed up to the cloud.

    I’m location independent, now where should I go first?

    The answer to this question is largely determined by what you can afford and what locations most excite you. If you’re really trying to keep costs low, then I strongly recommend Central or South America and SE Asia. Of course, whether you choose Mexico or Cambodia is totally up to your personal preference. For example, Naomi and I tend to spend a lot more of our time in SE Asia than our home region of the Americas.

    Where to go also depends on what type of job you do and how much you want to move around. Some people that become location independent create what I call “soft bases.” Essentially, this is just renting a place for one or several months and traveling out from there to explore the surrounding areas.

    For example, they rent a place in Phuket or the popular Koh Samui in Thailand for a while and take cheap flights, trains or buses, in and out to explore the rest of SE Asia. Once the area is explored, they move onto the next soft base from there and repeat.

    As a Pro Travel Photographer, my job flings me from one end of the globe to the other on a regular basis so Naomi and I have never been able to stay somewhere long enough to establish a soft base. We’ve literally been living out of our suitcases the entire time we’ve been location independent. The longest we’ve stayed in one apartment or hotel since leaving in 2012 has been 16 days total.

    Just keep in mind that moving to a different country in Asia and setting up a whole new life in one place doesn’t really make you location independent. It just means you’ve moved.

    Consider variable costs and plan your travel efficiently

    Being frugal doesn’t mean that you can only travel to cheap countries though. Once you trade round trips for one way flights and utilize efficient regional exploration, you should already get more bang for your buck.

    Remember that daily living cost I was talking about before? If you stay under it for a while by traveling to less expensive places, then it should mean that you have a surplus of funds in the bank. With this in mind, you can use those funds to spend time in Europe and more expensive places for a while. Once that surplus starts to disappear, it’s time to recuperate again in a more affordable location. Alternating between higher cost and lower cost locations has been a big key for our success with location independence.

    Managing finances successfully isn’t something I can teach you in one short post, but it is something that plays a direct role in where and how often you can travel. The more carefully you plan, the more you’ll be able to do and the longer you’ll be able to live on the road.

    You must be willing to work for it for it to work for you

    Say what? Did you think that once you sell everything and become location independent that suddenly things will be easier? I hate to burst your bubble, but that’s simply not the case. You’re still going to need to work to sustain yourself if you want to do this long-term. Even as I write this I’m getting ready to board a flight. Trust me, I would rather be playing Angry Birds Space on my iPad, but writing and blogging is a part of how I make my living.

    This lifestyle over the past few years has taught me that I must be as efficient as possible with my time—no matter where I happen to be. That’s why I try to use travel days to my advantage, accomplishing work that can be done offline, so that I can enjoy more time out and about in the places I’m visiting.

    From an outsider’s perspective, the thought of a location independent lifestyle seems extremely glamorous and like you’re just on permanent vacation. Behind the scenes though, let me assure you that it requires a lot of effort, both mentally and professionally. You’ll need to manage your time efficiently, be a self-starter, have self discipline, account for differences in time zones when working with clients abroad, spend a lot of time dealing with slow, expensive or non-existent internet, not to mention manage billing, accounting or other business tasks which may be new to you.

    The short story is that most location independent people like us are still working and supporting themselves in various ways, they’re just doing it from different locations around the world. I can tell you first hand that you must have the determination to succeed to really make this lifestyle work long-term.

    Tread lightly and treat the world with respect

    We live on a beautiful planet that’s just waiting to be explored and one of the most destructive elements to some of the Earth’s most beautiful locations is tourism. Please do not be part of that problem and try to support sustainable initiatives wherever possible.

    The world is now your home, so please, treat it with respect. I’m not just talking about the apartment you rent or the hotel room you stay in, I’m also talking about the world heritage sites you visit and the people you encounter along the way. Let’s help preserve the things around us to the best of our ability so that traveling to these places can still be enjoyed by generations to come.

    When you travel to places you are essentially an ambassador for your city, your state, your country. Be a good representative of your home and know that the choices you make as you travel affect more than just yourself, they leave an impression of all that you represent.

    On a similar note, you can also find ways to give back to the countries you visit. For example, Naomi and I run a company called Dream Photo Tours and one of the things we do is work with local non government organizations in the locations and communities we visit to help give something back. Cambodia for example, is one of our favorite countries to support and a good portion of our profits from the Photo Tours we lead there go right back to support their programs in the community.

    Elia and Naomi with the kids at the NGO they partner with in Cambodia.

    Don’t let your life pass you by

    For a large part of my life, I put off the things that were most important to me in order to pursue a lifestyle that turned out to make me miserable in the end. Don’t let that happen to you. No matter what your dreams are or how big they may seem, you need to take the first step forward on the path to make them a reality.

    I wish you all the best as you move closer to your dreams or work to become location independent yourself!