Landscape photographer traded her apartment for the open road

We’ve all heard stories of people selling their belongings and taking to the open road on an indefinite adventure. What’s that like? We asked landscape photographer Mandy Lea about her experience traveling the nation’s parks in her teardrop camper.

What inspired you to go on this indefinite journey?

I was working in Austin, Texas, at a camera store, and I was running the education department. It was very 9 to 5, and I would freelance outside the store. I was very overworked. It consumed my life, and I was divorced and didn’t have anything going for me besides my job. I got super burned out on photography, which was my passion. I went on a vacation to Grand Teton. I was photographing a sunrise one morning and I had this crazy epiphany that the world is bigger than what I’m doing, and I have to get out there and see it.

© Mandy Lea

So that’s when you bought your teardrop camper?

When I came back to Austin I had no intention of buying a teardrop. [And once I bought it] I wasn’t planning on living in it. I thought I needed to get out and take pictures of landscapes, and so for the first year I did that. I would travel all the time. I would go out on long trips and shoot landscapes and hone my landscape skills, and then after a year I decided, you know what, I have to do this full time. I have to leave my apartment and just do this all the time. I began packing my teardrop and giving away all my belongings and my furniture.

About two weeks before I was supposed to leave, I went outside my apartment and my teardrop was gone. Somebody had stolen it. It was heartbreaking. I did a Facebook post at the time that went crazy viral. I just posted it to my friends and said if anyone sees it let me know. And I got so much support from complete strangers. That really inspired me to just keep at it, to keep going and get a new one and make it happen because there were so many people who saw my work and wanted me to succeed. I had insurance so I bought a new teardrop and I did it.

How long have you been in the road?

I hit the road full time a year ago and I’ve gone about 40,000 miles. I’ve mainly been to national and state parks.

How do you support yourself?

It’s a combination of things, and any one of them alone doesn’t support me. Between selling images, teaching photography workshops, and speaking at tiny home events, I’m able to support myself on the road.

How long do you stay in one place?

I move very quickly, about every couple of days. I camp for free in national forests. If I go to a national park, I may stay for a week or two but that’s about as long as I stay anywhere.

© Mandy Lea

How do you spend your time?

It’s hard to break down because it depends on the month. I may have a week where I just do nothing but photograph and I may have a week of nothing but editing. There is a lot to the business side of things—social media, website, booking workshops, answering emails. I think people don’t realize about the computer time I put in. So it’s about a third pictures, a third editing, and a third business admin work. And I drive a lot, too. I will spend 20 hours a week driving at least. That can be kind of frustrating on those days.

© Mandy Lea

Has your nature photography evolved on your journey?

Oh, my landscape photography has definitely improved. The more you do something, the better you get at it. Every photographer has their own style and you can’t totally control it. It just forms out of experience. My own personal style has been created around me. There is a certain mix between a real journalistic style and a more fantasy HDR style. I’ve found a middle ground that I find pleasing. I’ve gotten better at taking my experience and translating it into photography. 

What’s your favorite story so far from your adventure?

I have a YouTube channel and I was doing a video blog where I documented myself on a hike in Big Bend to shoot a sunset. I hiked out to photograph the sunset, and I had to hike back in the dark, which I was prepared for. I had a headlamp. I had seen signs warning of bear activity. As I was hiking to my car, because I had my headlamp on, I saw a cougar. It was 20 feet away. I pulled my bear spray out and I had it in my hand and booked it to my car. I made it back to my car but when I threw my bag in, I forgot to put the safety clip on the bear spray. It sprayed all over the inside of my car and all over my camera gear and tripod. And it’s oil based. It took me a month to get the bear spray out!    

Amanda Arnold is the associate editor of Professional Photographer.