Life on the Road: The Realities of Traveling While Working as a Filmmaker and Photographer
In the last few weeks I interviewed both the Wickstrom’s and the Hage’s, creative couples who make their living while traveling full time. In this article, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned from spending two months on the road with my partner, while trying to stay on top of projects and work on new ones. Come to find out, it is not as fun and dreamy as it sounds.
Two years ago I moved out to Southwest Colorado with my partner Jen, chasing dreams of outdoor adventures in the mountains and working with and for people who were rooted in that lifestyle. While it’s been a crazy few years with many notable projects, ultimately we’ve decided that living in Cortez wasn’t the best choice for us personally, but also wasn’t conducive to expanding my business, Wilkinson Visual.
What I began to realize was that most of the projects I was doing, freelance and with my business, wasn’t central to any one location. I was editing for clients in Michigan, producing videos in Colorado, flying to St. Louis every few months for freelance work, and spent time in New Orleans, San Francisco, New Mexico, South Carolina, Minnesota, New York, and the UP of Michigan, all for work-related projects. Flying all the time (especially out of a small airport) was beginning to get a little old.
After that realization, I figured why not take this business on the road? With a handful of projects already scheduled out towards the west coast, it gave us the framework for an extended roadtrip, where all we had to do was fill in the blanks between locations. Jen and I weren’t certain where we wanted to call home next, so by traveling around for a while, we would be able visit potential places to live as well. I could edit and write from just about anywhere, so it seemed manageable for a short time.
The video below was sort of our travel announcement, that summed up our plan.
As far as the focus of the business goes, we’re still keen on outdoor adventure documentary projects, but have also been delving into work with locally-focused businesses like farm-to-table restaurants and microbreweries. Jen is working full time now with Wilkinson Visual, so with her on board we’re hopeful to pull in more clients and build our portfolio of work.
Life on the Road
It always sounds so dreamy to go live on the road and explore, and in some ways it absolutely is. But many harsh realities surface when you’re in the thick of it. We’ve already experienced a few, and it’s only about 3 months.
With a handful of jobs spread across the western US over the course of two months, we packed everything we would need to live, but also to shoot our projects, into a truck. We planned to sleep in a tent on most nights, and grab the occasional cheap motel when we just needed some air conditioning or a proper shower.
Easily our biggest challenge came from dealing with our travel companion, a dog. The hot days of summer meant there was no leaving her in the truck, and many folks were vacationing around holidays, which meant dog kennel space was hard to come by. I love my best friend, but she was more than a handful so I’d likely leave her with a friend for an extended period if I had to do it all over again.
The second biggest challenge was the limited space of the truck. It was plenty big for traveling, but trying to write an article or edit photo was not the easiest to do. If we were to do this trip for longer than 3 months, I’d take a cue from the Wickstrom’s and Hage’s and seriously look into getting a small trailer like an R-pod or Scamp. Having a place to comfortably work and relax should not be underestimated!
Getting Work Done
Having weekly blog posts to write, gear reviews to complete, editing projects to finish, and the usual barrage of emails meant every few days I needed to connect to civilization. At most we spent 2 days off the grid while in certain national parks, but because we were trying to make this lifestyle a sustainable one, we HAD to keep on top of our workload.
It is very easy to slip into a “I’m on a vacation” mindset, and ignore emails and projects. There were many days I would have rather gone out exploring or hiking, but I had to remained disciplined to get projects done on time and stay ahead of the constant waves of work. I found it helpful to try and think of a typical work week of 5 days, with two days on the weekend to play– so for every day I would spend playing in the woods or driving (basically time I’m not working) I would make myself spend 2-3 full days getting work done.
If I were to plan things a second time, I would have made more time in one location, rather than being on the go as often– I would have been able to stay caught up on work but also take the time to enjoy sites more.
Connecting to the network and getting power
As others has noted, cafes, libraries, and friend’s houses are key in getting onto wifi on a regular basis. E-mail could be checked easily enough from the phone, but uploading video files wasn’t something I wanted to do from a mobile hotspot! It eats up your data. We found that laundromats will often have free wifi, and with a quick scout around downtown areas we could find outdoor patios with wifi, power, and that were dog-friendly! Triple bonus.
Kindness of strangers, and making new friends
During the last few months, I’ve been blown away by the kindness of families and couples I barely knew. We were able to stay at six different people’s homes, and this saved us a ton of money in camping or hotel costs. In some cases I traded some photography for a place to crash, and in other cases we had associates who had relocated to an area we were visiting that graciously opened their guest rooms for us. Reaching out and making time to connect with acquaintances, even newer ones, can not only make a journey like this much more affordable, but you get to develop new friendships as well.
I put my large light kit, c-stands, printer, and all sorts of other bulky, not often used items into a storage unit. I took with me my full complement of lenses, cameras, and everything I needed to edit video remotely. I broke up that equipment into three different bags to make it easy to manage but to also keep track of what was where.
Bag 1: F-Stop Gear Loka
In this bag was my photography kit. A couple of Canon DSLRs, about six lenses, filters, batteries, accessories, etc. I separated my full frame 5Dmkii with a 16-35 and 24-70 in one ICU, my go-to kit, and then had other lenses and a backup body in the second ICU.
Bag 2: F-Stop Gear Ajna
In a single, large ICU I packed a GH4 kit along with some wireless mics, a videomic pro, lenses, adapters, filters, and some other video-centric items.
I have never been one for roller bags, but this thing has been the single most useful item of my entire business for the last 3 months, except for maybe my laptop. This bag is able to fit a 17” MacBook Pro, five mini-hard drives, one large RAID drive, mouse, power strip, Zoom h1 recorder, headphones, card reader, two battery chargers, all kinds of cables and adapter plugs, thumb drives, checkbooks, and more.
It converts from a roller to a backpack when needed, but basically I can roll into any place and within 2 minutes I’m editing client video projects with ease. It’s padded and keeps the items safe, while still being small enough to carry on to flights. Without this roller, I’m not sure how I would have managed all of these drives and my laptop, safely.
Besides the above, I brought a few tripods, a slider, and the Feather Lite Camera Crane.
What’s not so glamorous
Paying bills. Getting checks from clients. Receiving shipments. Basically anything that you do that’s associated with an address that you don’t live at anymore, will become a minor headache. I straight up left my home, so had to start using my parent’s address to have my mail forwarded. When I finally made it over there, I had a stack of checks and bills, thankfully none of which were past due. Paperless and e-billing is a great way to go, but not all businesses are into that. Most businesses I work with have to send me a check and are not set up for direct deposit for contractors, but more and more are starting to come around.
Keeping checkbooks and tabs on finances and “taking care of the books,” is a challenge when you’re trying to slim down what you take with you.
There’s no way this would have been possible without smart phones. We had many stretches of days where we had no set place to be, so we had to constantly figure out where we would be sleeping on a given night. Doing google searches for campgrounds, finding dog-friendly motels, places to eat, and of course places to work. It takes time and can be extremely stressful when things aren’t going well!
Take the time to find places to reliably work or sleep for a day or two, in key places along your path if you plan to do a road trip. It will save many headaches (and arguements!) and you can spend more time enjoying traveling.
It’s not as cheap as you might think
I had delusions that living on the road would be a much cheaper lifestyle, and boy was I wrong. We tried to buy groceries and cook meals often, but we would still have to eat out once every few days. When we had the time to find a dispersed campsite, it was completely free, but established campgrounds ranged from $15-$24 a night. Motels of course were pricey depending on the area, and even the cheapest ones were $50-$80 a night. Driving means spending money on gas, and being in the summer meant constantly buying ice for the cooler.
As I noted earlier, having a trailer would be awesome for making this more of a sustainable life. We could have made home in a parking lot, campsite, pretty much anywhere we parked.
Jen is based out of Michigan for the next week or two while I’m traveling to Colorado for a project. I decided to fly this time, rather than make the long drive back out. We’ll be deciding in the coming weeks whether or not we want to stay on the road (and buy a trailer) or call Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, or some other place “home” which for us just means a place that can receive our mail and serve as basecamp in between our travels. I’ve learned that it is helpful to have a place to call home that isn’t on 4 wheels, and if it’s close to a major airport, that’s even better.
If you’re thinking about taking the jump into the nomadic lifestyle and living on the road for a while, try it out, even if just for a little bit. Post your questions and I’ll do what I can to answer them. Also, I’d be happy to continue this series on traveling photographers and filmmakers if you guys dig this content- give me your ideas and questions and I’ll interview some more people who make working on the road a sustainable lifestyle.