What would it be like to take a year long travel sabbatical to photograph the world? When I started in November, I expected it to look like my last five years of landscape photography trips — just back to back. After just two months of being location independent, it’s fair to say I was pretty far off the mark. Here are seven lessons I’ve learned.
1. Long-term Travel is Completely Different from a Long Photography Trip
As landscape photographers, we’re often doing our best to squeeze in trips around a full-time position. But when you dedicate a year to your photography on the road, your schedule is based entirely around photography; it’s a difference that can be hard to appreciate until you experience it.
The temptation is to devise the same strict schedule of shoots and invest the same energy you’re used to on short landscape photography trips, into a long-term sabbatical. But when week three rolls around and you’re exhausted, it begins to feel like you’re not working hard enough to produce results. If you face a string of failed shoots, it just makes the feeling worse.
Why is it so different? For a 1 to 3 week trip, you can hold your breath and dive into your craft with the expectation of recovering afterwards; but to travel and photograph long-term, you need to learn to breathe underwater. And while you grow gills, you may drown in a depressing mix of failure, exhaustion, and listlessness.
“I’ve traveled for weeks before and didn’t feel this way, so why I do I feel overwhelmed and listless?” It’s absolutely okay to question what on earth you’ve committed to — I had a crisis at least twice a week during the first month! Pain and doubt always accompany learning, and the challenge is not to be crippled or beat yourself up for feeling this way.
So make allowances you wouldn’t normally entertain on a shorter trip: take a few days off, stay in an area longer than you need, and don’t beat yourself up for creating fewer keepers than usual. With a short trip, you can afford to plan everything in advance and sustain a breakneck pace. But on a long-term trip, that’s a recipe for burn out.
2. Traveling Alone is Different from Being Alone
I’ve traveled solo frequently for weeks at a time. Catering to the unusual demands of landscape photography — early mornings and late nights — is easier when you don’t have to drag your hangry travel companion(s) too.
For my first stop, I extrapolated this freedom and decided to rent a campervan in Iceland so I could stay exactly where I wanted and dedicate myself entirely to photography. But traveling Iceland by campervan highlighted what I took for granted: interactions with hosts and locals. You can travel solo and love it, but you can’t travel in isolation for long. At home, you wouldn’t isolate yourself in a closet for weeks at a time, right? To thrive on the road, you need to make room for and pursue a social life.
“Anyone could have told you that!” True, I don’t claim to have a new revelation, but it’s important to go a step further: don’t just avoid isolation, but optimize your trip for interaction. That means deciding what social interactions you value and prioritizing them, even if it seems like they will compete with your photography. One of the freedoms of long-term traveling is getting to choose which social settings you want to plug into. Rather than being locked to one particular city or workplace, you get to choose your social scene.
After three weeks in a campervan, I identified what I wanted most during the next leg of the trip: to stay at B&Bs, stay in the same town for at least a week, and connect with local churches.
Sometimes Walter Mitty-esque travel experiences happen without effort. But often you need to actively pursue social experiences, so make it a priority — even for the sake of sustaining your landscape photography.
3. Expect to Reset Your Expectations Constantly
Expectations, expectations. Managing personal expectations is essential to staying motivated and forecasting how you will grow over the year. Probably the most consequential expectation is setting a keeper rate: per day or week, how many portfolio-quality images do you expect to capture? Is that assuming you will shoot at a couple points of interest every day?
Shooting in winter has its challenges, and solid cloud cover for a week at a time has made my expectation of two keeper shots a day laughably ambitious. In reality, I get one or two keeper shots per week, and that rate is incredibly volatile: one day I might snap four keepers, then go two weeks without any.
The best way to guarantee you get zero keepers is to become demotivated and stop trying. Spend a few minutes to look for trends that you can base your expectations on, and when you go days or weeks without portfolio-quality images, it won’t entirely demotivate you.
4. Discover a Sustainable Pace and Take the Weekend Off
Before launching into your trip, you should absolutely try to set a pace in tandem with your expectations. For example, to meet the expectation of one keeper shot a day, you could plan to scout two points of interest each day.
The danger is committing to a pace that is unsustainable, and refusing to reevaluate it until you’re burned out. Long-term travel isn’t a sprint, so unless you want to spoil the joy of travel and photography, plan to reevaluate your pace (and the expectations motivating it) on a weekly basis.
To start, I highly recommend “taking the weekend off.” You may choose to do some hiking or photography on the weekend, but don’t set any expectations except to enjoy yourself. With the flexibility of travel it’s easy to forget what day of the week it is, but without a semi-regular rhythm of work and rest, travel becomes a chore instead of a joy.
What if Saturday has a splendid weather forecast? By all means, enjoy the flexibility you’ve worked for and snap some great shots! Go all in and work hard — but make sure you have a break lined up afterwards.
Personally, I’ve found that shooting two points of interest five days a week is ludicrous. Although this was the norm for my short-term trips, it turned out to be completely unsustainable in the long-term. So depending on the weather, I aim for five shoots a week. Some days I hit two or three destinations, and others I spend enjoying coffee shops and local culture.
5. Flexibility Without a Plan is a Recipe for Lethargy
I was giddy at the thought of infinite flexibility: I could go to any country I wanted, as long as I wanted, and modify my itinerary on a whim. I decided to keep my plans sparse to easily accommodate changes, but every time I hopped in the car, I was left asking “what do I do next?” For the next hour I might try putting together a lousy itinerary over a slow cellular connection, then drift into deciding where I should book accommodations for the next day.
Planning will emerge no matter how much flexibility you have, so plan to plan. Set aside time each day to find a solid internet connection and plan the afternoon, evening, tomorrow, next week, and next month.
It’s impossible to have too many plans: be liberal in breaking them, but don’t neglect to make them. The purpose of planning is not to follow the plan, but to discover your options and determine a rough direction. Without planning, travel turns into a muddle of bouncing around — the perfect storm for lethargy and disappointment.
6. Find an Activity that Turns Your Failures into Tangible Assets
As landscape photographers, so much is outside our control. With practice we can become more versatile, but sometimes countless hours of planning, driving, and hiking still lead to a failed shoot.
But don’t just toss out failures: funnel your energy from disappointment into tangible deliverables like a journal, blog, or video. When I come back from a day of failed shoots, I try to think retrospectively and turn my takeaways into a post. This article is one of those examples: after several weeks of subpar results, I fleshed out my feelings with my brother over FaceTime. The initial outcome was a more realistic outlook, but chatting with him also helped me turn days of failure into educational content.
Don’t just cut your losses: turn your failures into assets.
7. You Can’t Practice for a Year of Travel Too Far in Advance
I’ve been honing my travel skills for five years. I’m still just now discovering kinks and pain points, but the transition to full-time travel has been remarkably smooth because I started practicing two years ago: getting down to one bag, mastering car rentals, soothing minor illnesses abroad, eliminating ties to a mailing address, and even identifying cognitive biases that detracted from prior trips.
If you want to travel as a landscape photographer for a year, don’t wait till then to discover obstacles: treat every day as a chance to obliterate an obstacle. Take day trips to hone your packing, go on long hikes in the rain to optimize your clothing, and eliminate a few items from your camera bag. Long-term travel isn’t a discrete event to wait for: it’s a lifestyle that starts years before you book the flight.
Enjoy preparing and practicing for a year of travel starting today. Aim to make the transition a non-event, and I guarantee it won’t be: it will be the experience of a lifetime.
Are you planning to travel long-term for photography or already on the road? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned? Share them in the comments!