How to Become a Nomad and Travel in the Digital Era

How to Become a Nomad and Travel in the Digital Era

As a photographer, becoming a digital nomad empowers you to see the world as a native, not as a tourist. It’s helped me take better photos, boosted my creativity, and given me more time to dedicate to photography outside my day job. You don’t need to wait till you hit the road: you can start becoming a digital nomad now before you ever sell your house.

A few years ago I started the journey to becoming a digital nomad.

Many landscape photographers have adopted similar remote-friendly lifestyles to devote more time to their craft. I’m inspired by Elia Locardi and Dave Morrow’s dramatic transitions to location independent lifestyles.

Particularly as a photographer, becoming a digital nomad empowers you to:

  • See the world as a native, not as a tourist
  • Dedicate more time to your craft outside your day job
  • Experience a region in various seasons, especially off-season
  • Travel to more remote spots that tourists won’t see
  • Take advantage of last-minute flight deals without hesitation
  • Flex your plans on the spot to accommodate weather

It’s helped me take better photos, boosted my creativity, and has given me more time to shoot by trimming the fat out of my life. I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon spots like these cabins under the Sass de Putia, which capture the mix of Swiss, Italian, and Austrian influence throughout the Alpine region:

Cabins under the Sass de Putia in South Tyrol, Italy.

Practicing a nomadic lifestyle can help you discover unique perspectives that aren’t found in a travel guide.

Sold? You can start becoming a digital nomad now before you ever sell your house.

What is a digital nomad?

Global nomad, perpetual traveler, backpacker, location independent — there are many flavors of digital nomadism, but they all have a remote-friendly lifestyle in common.

In a nutshell, digital nomads are people who leverage technology to work from anywhere.

That leaves the spectrum pretty wide: it’s not all or nothing. To adopt the digital nomad lifestyle, you don’t have to:

  • Sell everything you own
  • Stay in AirBnBs all year long
  • Dress like a vagrant
  • Always wear a backpack
  • Be a blogger
  • Grow a beard

So don’t let impostor syndrome prevent you from starting a new adventure!

Even before I “became a digital nomad,” the mindset helped me nail packing so I could comfortably explore regions on foot, like the hill town of Brunate, Italy.

A sea of fog from the hill town of Brunate, overlooking Lago di Como in northern Italy.

Should you become a digital nomad?

Since being a digital nomad isn’t about AirBnBs and blogging, why would you become a digital nomad? Ask yourself if:

  • You want to see and experience the world
  • You are a perpetual learner
  • You prefer new challenges over an established routine
  • You want fewer things to dictate your lifestyle
  • You value experiences over possessions

If a handful of these made you think, “Yep, that’s me,” then a digital nomadic lifestyle pretty much checks all the boxes!

1. Start adopting the mindset

Digital nomadism is more about the mindset than it is traveling perpetually. Long before I started traveling frequently as a photographer and speaker, I started embracing the digital nomad mindset.

I initially struggled with a few cognitive biases, a.k.a. “brain bugs”:

Sunk cost: I held on to unused (but perfectly good) possessions because it seemed like a waste to send them on their way, especially after the time and money I had invested in them. I allowed the sunk cost — my investment — to influence my decision. Ironically, those possessions only brought frustration, stubbed toes, and moving fees.

Well-traveled road effect: Despite a self-professed desire to experience new places, I tended to get stuck in ruts like taking the same route. Because it was familiar to me, I perceived it as the most efficient way of accomplishing my goal. I had to invent ways to ensure I explored more of an area, like turning on the “Avoid highways” option in Google Maps to take back-roads.

Turning on the Avoid highways option Google Maps

Take backroads by turning on the "Avoid highways" option in Google Maps

2. Focus on results, not effort

Working a job on the go erodes the concept of time, making traditional measures of “productivity” irrelevant. So before you hit the road, practice focusing on measurable outcomes — a.k.a. “results” — and celebrating those outcomes, rather than how much time or effort you invested.

Avoid qualifying your goals and to-dos in terms of time or an activity. Instead, pick measurable results that move you towards your end goal so you can see progress over time.

Here’s an example: if your goal is to shrink down your wardrobe, you might have a to-do item like this:

“Spend an hour going through my closet today.”

This is not measurable or moving towards your end goal of shrinking down your wardrobe. You’ll likely waste an hour getting rid of a few things, then be disappointed when you step back and see how little you accomplished. Instead, your to-do could be:

“Consolidate my wardrobe to fit into a duffel bag.”

If you are trying to become a travel blogger, you might have a writing goal:

”Spend 30 minutes a day writing.”

Habits are great, and this one is measurable to some degree, but it isn’t directly tied to becoming a successful travel blogger. Instead:

“Finish outlining a 500 word post.”

That’s a result you can measure, work towards, and take pride in completing.

In the end, no one cares how much time or effort you spent on your work, and neither should you! Optimize your time by focusing on activities with measurable results, and use as little of it as possible.

3. Get comfortable with less

Unsurprisingly, an important component of nomadism is culling down possessions to a bare minimum, so start practicing results-oriented de-cluttering (here are 12 things to ditch, and 12 to keep) and digitize everything. If you’re already a minimalist, it’s straightforward to continue your trend.

But it’s just as important to minimize the comforts you depend on. We rely on so many conveniences — air conditioning, laundry facilities, a private vehicle, a spacious kitchen — that may need to be left behind. It’s one thing to tolerate a life with minimal comforts, and another to embrace it.

It will be a rude transition if you aren’t already practicing, so start applying a minimalist mindset to vacations and day trips. Do you feel like you’re “away from home” because you “absolutely need something?” Try going without items, find alternatives, and modify your routines. Do you always feel like you’re missing something after packing? Take notes for next time so you can discover your actual essentials and fit them into one suitcase, then a duffel bag, then a small backpack.

In other words, live like you’re already on the road!

When I tacked some landscape photography to the end of a business trip in Portland, my packing regime needed just a couple alterations. After arrival, unusually heavy snow prevented me from visiting my intended region, but it was straightforward to completely re-plan my itinerary since I lived out of one backpack. I ended up at Washington’s hidden Spirit Falls:

Washington's hidden Spirit Falls, just north of the Columbia River Gorge.

As you practice minimalist packing, you may find you dread certain aspects of travel; I always stress out at airports and on long flights. When you get uncomfortable or anxious, take notes for next time! I have found that lightweight clothing, a particular plane seat, ibuprofen, and certain meals help me immensely.

Start living like a digital nomad today

Since my first international conference in Scotland in 2014, I’ve traveled to 13 countries for landscape photography projects and speaking engagements — perhaps a small feat, but for someone who five years ago had never been on plane and unreservedly hated traveling, it was totally unexpected.

That first trip helped me realize that travel wasn’t what I dreaded: it was dealing with my flabby lifestyle. Ultimately my love for landscape photography persuaded me to adopt a better lifestyle — one that would enhance, rather than hinder, my photography.

If you want to enjoy the benefits of being a digital nomad, you don’t need to sell everything or wait till you hit the road. Like fitness, location independence is not a destination, but a journey — and your life will be enriched no matter where you stop.

So start the process now to adopt one of the most empowering lifestyle changes out there for photographers.

Ready to nerd out on gear, travel tips, and all that? Next time, we’ll cover how to nail effective packing.

Lead image by via Pexels.

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Jonathan Lee Martin is a fine art landscape photographer, educator and globetrotting digital nomad. He’s traveling the world for a year to discover unique landscapes and help fellow landscape photographers lighten their load to go further.

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I see a whole generation of childless photogs spanning the globe.

This is something I'd like to do, but I've not been able to find remote work.

If you're technically inclined, the programming and graphic design industries are phenomenally remote-friendly on average. If not, many folks have had good success teaching English overseas (a few of my colleagues in tech did that before becoming developers), but then again it's hard to find a position in the country you have in mind.

Still, to me the cool part about a digital nomad lifestyle is that you can start adopting it *now* and practice it, so even if you don't get to travel full-time (which definitely includes me), you can see if you enjoy the lifestyle before you hit the road!

A part of the issue is I'm deaf as a post, and that scares employers off. I've had loads of interested inquiries and interviews in the past ~6 months, and as soon as I disclose (which I have to because I need phone accommodations) they bail or ghost me.

I've thought about looking into programming/dev work, but have no idea where to begin. I'm starting to do some youtube/affiliate/etc but it's still in early stages. No idea if that'll pan out.

That's an interesting challenge—lately I've seen a lot of excitement (and awareness) in the web community around better accessibility practices, so many tech companies (esp. news publications) might actually see that as a plus!

Probably the easiest (and free!) way to see if programming is for you, is to try a free online bootcamp. Here's one of my favorites:

It won't magically turn you into a high-value developer, but it's a great way to start and see if you even like it! My brother recently switched careers, and 8 months into his journey started an entry level job building websites, and is now doing part-time work remotely.

I do know some html, enough to customize a template. But that's not good enough to land work, I'm sure. Will take another look at codeacademy - thanks for the little kick in the pants. :)

Ha, my pleasure—you can do it!

As a photographer I very rarely use the telephone at all. In fact, I hate it. Email works for everything. Occasionally I will have an editor request a phone call, but for all most of them know, I could be deaf. I encourage you work hard on your portfolio (in photography or design or programing or whatever) and give it a good hard shot. A good portfolio will do most of the "speaking" for you.

What field of photography, out of curiosity?

My preferred genre is landscapes, generally, which is a saturated market and I haven't really bothered to make a go at it.
Most of my portrait photography buddies have to have phone for communicating w/ their clients, so it's interesting that you haven't found it to be necessary. And in person as well. I do speak, but not as clearly as I used to when I was a kid, and people have a hard time understanding me nowadays.

Mostly editorial portraiture for magazines... email is where it's at. Texting too. 90%+ of the time there is no verbal communication with anyone at all until I shake the subjects' hands.

TY for answering!

So you don't communicate to direct your models? Do you just let them do their thing? Curious, haha. I don't do much portraiture other than an occasional selfie to practice lighting (note the avatar pic).

I do use verbal communication to direct my subjects, but surprisingly little. A whole lot can be communicated with your own body positioning. I will often stand or sit in the position that I would like my subject to imitate... facial expressions too. Small movements in head / shoulder / body angle are often accomplished with pointing... ie: i will raise my own chin with my own hand in order to communicate to the subject that i want them to raise their chin... things like that. It works, and it works well. I like a quite set. I don't like to talk. I like to see things and study things, not talk about them when working. Give it a shot. Set up some portrait sessions with friends and fail as many times as you can. Fall flat on your face again and again... eventually you won't.
If I were a photo editor, I would probably get a kick out of hiring the deaf girl. If biology is true, your ability to "see things" is probably better than mine. Use your handicap to your advantage. Wear it on your sleeve like a badge of honor. BE the deaf photographer.

I don't know about that -- in my 30s, I'm very tired of being known as "that deaf girl". "That deaf writer." "That dog with the deaf owner." There's more to me than just my deafness, and I wish people could see past that. Why are we not living in Federation universe where society don't bat an eye at different people?

That aside, there's something to be said about embracing a...I don't want to say flaw. A trait, I guess. And making it a selling feature.

Something to think about. :) Anyway, ty for sharing your work style! Always interesting to read/hear about different techniques.

I don't blame you, but at least in the photography world, embrace your trait... your feature... your individuality... your difference. As one of my favorites says:
“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Jen, have you thought about consulting to help these employers become more comfortable with employees that are deaf/blind/etc.? We're in the age of empowerment, where we make it clear that anyone can do anything, and more employers are hiring people with these obstacles. The problem is a lot of them don't have a clue about how to accommodate their new employees (for example, you mentioned phone accommodations). Most employers (smaller businesses, not corporate) have to ask someone about how this can work and how they can benefit with their new hire.... Why not ask you? Just a thought.

Interesting idea! I'll have to do some research and figure out how to make this work. I'm not very familiar with hiring practice, HR/admin policies and laws, which would be a requirement for this endeavor, I imagine. But I do have a couple friends in that field. Will talk to them.

The big question for me are how to sell images as a travel photographer when while traveling.

I just come back from a 6 month trip across USA and I didn’t find how! :/

Maybe a good start would be to have your website in English also.

Me too =) I haven't figured out selling prints either. I'm trying galleries and artist shows, but at the end of the day I rely on remote-friendly tech work, and maybe that's okay—when you can practice your craft just for the love of it, no (money) strings attached. How was your trip?

Super, i really like it! I plan to go again, but for 2 years next time!

Whoa, 2 years sounds fabulous! I'd love to do a road trip through the northern states and western Canada... *time to start practicing what I preach*

As a "NATIVE"? I think you mean, as a LOCAL.

I doubt you or ANY "digital nomad" (myself included) is/are in-tune enough with the negative impacts they're having on the lands they visit, and the planet as a whole, to call themselves a native. Especially if you're incessantly flying everywhere.

I've been looking for the phrase to capture this distinction, but your second point, "Focus on results, not effort" is exactly what has been on my mind of late. Thanks!

Absolutely! It's wild just how much it can change the way you approach work over time—more often than not, you get the best of both worlds: less time, more results!