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On the Road

What to consider working and traveling as a digital nomad and photographer

By January 15, 2024January 19th, 2024No Comments

One of my uni subjects talked about what it is like being a digital nomad. It prompted me to write a thing or two down from my own experiences:

  • I think that the easiest and least taxing way to earn money while traveling is to work as a freelancer or as a contractor doing online work that can be done asynchronously and without tight deadlines. I’ve done exactly that for about 6 months in 2012 while traveling through south east Asia. If I worked a couple of hours, I got paid for a couple of hours (and I could choose when and where I wanted to work) and the Australian dollar got me a fair way in those countries. The other times (13 months travel, 4 months travel) I worked on my own projects.
  • Traveling and working at the same time is hard work and is usually more busy than just being at home. Nearly every day you need to figure out what you are going to do, where you will be, how you are going to get there (travel distances on the bus, car or plane can be long and unpredictable, especially in remote areas), where you are going to stay, what you are going to eat etc.
  • In my experience being fulltime employed by a serious employer on salary becomes near impossible when you need to deal with clients, other team members and/or tight deadlines, no matter how progressive the company is or how completely the work can be done online. Time zones are a pain and there are still a lot of remote areas that don’t have stable internet. You could stay in larger cities but then you’d become more of a digital expat rather than a digital nomad. I’ve requested this with my employer several times but got denied every time because of tax implications. This may loosen up in the future when tax and regulations manage to catch up.
  • Finding someone to take over your house/unit/room for several months can be a pain. I’ve learned that finding people who are willing to take over the entire place is a lot safer than renting out rooms individually. 
  • Moving frequently, especially flying, has a negative impact on the environment. I’ve always preferred to travel overland but you’d have to calculate in the extra time.
  • Loneliness could creep up unless you manage to get out of your shell every now and then. My primary reason for travel has always been to take great photographs (traveling for the sake of traveling had worn out quickly) which can be a lonely endeavour as a lot of patience is needed to wait for that perfect shot. Some places have social options you could check at down time but many also don’t. Hostels are a good place to meet people but they can also compromise your sleep greatly and it can still be difficult to find likeminded people; there is a large variety of reasons why people travel and stay in hostels. I have found to alternate between hostels and hotels as the best way to travel solo so far for my travel purposes.
  • Stays are always limited by visas and yes some countries offer favourable visas but a lot of other countries don’t. You could consider a visa run but keep in mind that many countries only allow 90 days in a total of 180 days.
  • Costs greatly depend on how cheap or expensive the country is and on the period that you’re visiting. There is a big difference between traveling in high and low season or between travelling in the US or Vietnam. I find that the pros in low season nearly always outweigh the cons, unless you truly have torrential rain every day. Otherwise the reduce costs, crowds and cooler weather make the travel experience so much more pleasant. Don’t forget the hidden costs: tips, fuel, tax, entrance fees etc. Lastly, different travel agencies ask different prices. Ensure to at least visit a couple before you commit to a price; or ask a trusted local how much something should cost on average. On my last tour to the Sahara I paid 650 MAD while a guy on the same tour had paid 1600 MAD. Big difference. Also downloading a ride share app could give you an idea of how much a particular trip should cost before entering the negotiation process with a taxi driver.
  • It can be difficult to find healthy food as you won’t always have the opportunity, or time, to cook and the restaurants do not always provide the healthiest or varied food. I usually try to find the healthiest restaurant I can and it’ll often turn out to be the most delicious too.
  • You live out of a small backpack or suitcase (which becomes your home) so you’d be wearing the same clothes every week. You could buy more of course but you’ll always be bound to a weight limit in terms of luggage (unless you don’t mind carrying more or paying more for flights) and carrying photography gear (lenses, tripod) and work stuff (laptop) is already pretty heavy. Bring a couple of laundry tablets you could use to wash yourself, saving a bit of cash or time when there’s nothing around.
  • I never had space to pack gym clothes/shoes (or was close to a gym) so I usually felt a lack of exercise, however doing simple exercises in your hotel room or just walk/hike plenty during the day could perhaps give you your exercise fix.
  • There is a fair risk for something to get stolen, broken or accidentally left behind. My iphone got stolen in Hanoi while i needed it to do my freelance app work. I dropped my laptop in Bagan and the screen cracked, not allowing me to work for a while. I left my big DSLR in a taxi in KL. My drone got confiscated in Morocco (they scan everything that comes into the country). My 70-200 Canon lens dropped near Morro lake in the US and no one could fix it for a while. Shit happens to your stuff and will continue to happen. Expect it. Try to find designated little pockets for you stuff and ALWAYS put them back in that same little place after using.
  • Pack modular and rollable. I used to carry a massive backpack of 20kg+ around and it was mostly from hostel to transport to hostel, just in case I needed to go on that one big hiking trip. It didn’t make sense and it took me way too long to admit that it didn’t. Now I’m packing a much smaller backpack (55kg) inside a rolling duffle bag that allows me to still take out a bigger backpack when I need it (you nearly never take all your stuff on a big hike anyway, so you can leave the duffle bag with some other stuff behind at a hotel somewhere).
  • Travel insurance can be expensive especially if you’re carrying expensive camera gear and a laptop that you’d like to be insured too. Also make sure that it includes activities like riding a motorbike or skiing (if you’re planning on doing those) cause it’s nearly never included by default.
  • Bring headphones with a cable. They are simple, light and fit into the audio jacks of cheaper airlines who can charge you $6 USD for a pair. They also still work when your fancy Airpods have run out of battery. However, the fancy Airpods do come in handy when your normal earplugs just don’t cut it blocking out the snoring concert in your dormitory. Do make sure that whenever you do something out of the ordinary, like bringing AirPods to bed when you normally don’t, that you remember to take them with you when you leave. I’ve left my AirPods in a hostel bed twice. The first time I was able to get them back, not the second time.
  • Make friends on your tours. Not just because it makes the journeys so much more fun, but also when your bus decides to take off early from a toilet stop there will be someone there who knows that you’re missing. Also, ensure that you take a pic of the numberplate or know who you can call when you get left behind.
  • Language can be an issue, I usually had to just walk into restaurants in remote china to point at what i wanted to eat. Pre-download dictionaries or the best thing is always to know someone you can call anytime to help you translate. 
  • Be prepared for travel guides to be out of date. I’ve made my way to a remote national park in China where there was supposed to be a guesthouse but when finally arriving there at night it was closed down. I seriously considered sleeping inside the forest until I randomly knocked on someone’s door who luckily had a bed and some food.
  • Be willing to hitchhike in emergency situations. Sometimes its easy to get somewhere but very difficult to find transport from that location and there wont be any didi/goget/uber/bus around. 
  • Pre-download maps when you are entering areas where the internet is unreliable. The map on your phone is by far the best friend of the 21st traveler.
  • At least bring a few pills to block your tummy in emergency situations. If you travel for longer periods of time in remote countries you WILL get food poisoning at some point and you do not want to be stuck in a bus without a toilet. I got food poisoning 4 times while travelling 13 months mostly through Asia.
  • Some (touristy) places have set perimeters of where they allow/want tourists to be. As soon as you step outside of these boundaries you are met with aggression. They don’t want you there but they do want your money. This can be daunting at first but it is important to respect other people’s rights while also standing up for your own. Be kind but take no (bull)shit.
  • The moment of seeing something special that you would like to photograph can be extremely short. It is a window of opportunity that will only open once and will never occur again. My advice is to always go for it while still being respectful (and always have your camera ready). If you’d like to photograph a person, always ask first and be prepared to pay something for it. You will regret if you don’t, which is a feeling I have felt too many times.
  • In terms of lenses, I usually carry the 70-200 by default. Those subjects that require speed usually also require the 70-200. Yes, it is very heavy and I can’t wait till I’ve got a lighter kit but for now, landscapes usually give you a bit more time to switch to the 24-70 etc. rather than the other way around.
  • I bought a 2TB SSD drive that is rugged and super light. I have this automatically backing up to Dropbox when I have access to wifi. This drive has only the current trip material, but I also carry a larger portable 5TB drive with my entire catalog just in case I need to access older stuff. Dropbox does not allow you to access any of these backup files directly from the phone or iPad apps so I usually also select a few good items on Lightroom and turn on syncing for that selection, which will allow you to access these on all your other devices. (Although the syncing can be a bit buggy unfortunately.)
  • The world is changing fast and globalisation steadily marches on reaching all corners of our planet. It will become a little harder every year to visit or photograph a world unspoiled by the McDonalds M or by locals wearing Nike shoes. The best time to go really is as soon as possible. It has also never been easier with our mobile phones.. the map, translation, guide and booking apps have never been this good.
  • Unless you’re financially comfortable (which I usually wasn’t) it’s always a bit stressful looking at your money while on the road, cause you never know how long it’ll have to last. The risk of quitting your full-time job or taking long periods of leave can cause stress and insecurity. However, I do believe that as long as you work hard to grow and develop yourself, in whichever way, in which ever place, in whichever discipline, you shall be just fine. This has turned out to be true for me till this day.

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