This interview is sponsored by Really Right Stuff.
Elia and Naomi Locardi take their commitment to landscape and travel photography to the next level with their location independent lifestyle. In 2008 the Locardi’s found themselves in the middle of the daily grind pursuing the ‘American dream’. The economic crash could be seen on the horizon and like most Americans they found themselves in a situation where they owed way more on their home than what it was worth. During this time, Elia and Naomi did the only thing they knew they could: They left their old life behind and decided to chase their dream.
You both live a pretty amazing life. Global travel on an ongoing basis and living what you call a ‘location independent life’. Can you tell us your story of how this came to be?
Elia: I had left my job as a College Professor as the economy was crashing. We were upside down in debt with our home and during that time we were working towards bankruptcy. It was a small comfort to learn that we weren’t alone and so much of America was in the same situation. We were eventually able to get out of that hole that kept us in a really dark place for so many years, leave it all behind, and simplify our lives.
We had realized that we had spent all of our time focused on careers. For us, focusing on a career meant getting a better title at work, financing a new car, buying a home and trying to live the American dream.
Once we were able to shed all that, we realized that travel was something we always wanted to do but always had excuses why we couldn’t do it. Reasons such as ‘we don’t have time’, ‘there’s an important project deadline’, ‘there’s no money, debt, bills are stacking up’ – whatever it was, you name it, we had let 8 years go by without taking a single vacation.
Our first trip wasn’t just about visiting Italy, it was also the first time we were able to genuinely escape what we thought were the shackles of our own life and do something we had always wanted to do.
When I picked up photography I realized that this was what I had always loved to do, and all the other stuff (my former career) was just work. This was passion. This was art. That was the transformation for me where picking up the camera meant ‘this is what I want to do with my life’.
The actual move to become location independent happened halfway through 2011 when we traveled to Thailand. At that time we were asking ourselves, ‘why are we living in the United States, why don’t we live somewhere like Thailand where you can stay in luxury accommodation for $18 a night?’ That thought process slowly grew throughout the year. There are so many more affordable places to live that the question came to be ‘what’s holding us to the United States?’
We were traveling back and forth so much that our house became a temporary location that we would go to before going someplace else. It very rapidly stopped feeling like a home. So, we hatched up this plan in Stockholm, Sweden over coffee (because all we could afford was coffee). While there we had a conversation about whether or not it could be possible for us to stay on the road full-time.
At the time, in 2011, there weren’t many people doing that and there weren’t many people blogging about it. It was sort of an emerging thing. So, right there over coffee we talked about it and committed to it. Then, the process of actually doing it ended up being much more difficult than we had anticipated.
Naomi: If you come back to a place after being gone for a while, you’ll find the less you are there, the less it will feel like home. You’ll also feel less attached to the things there. You come back and ask yourself ‘why do I have all this stuff’? So, the process of let go of those things began as we started to travel. Then, when the time came to physically let go of those things, it was much easier because we didn’t feel as attached to them and knew that we weren’t defined by them.
Elia: We looked at everything we could get rid of. We had two cars – we sold one immediately and converted the money into RRS tripods, Think Tank Photo bags and other things we would need while traveling full-time.
We started to convert anything that we owned that had value into cash, to buy the gear that we would need to be able to go on the road. In the beginning we didn’t have much money at all and we were basically making all these plans on the faith that we’d be able to succeed.
When I was first getting serious about photography, in 2010, I actually didn’t even have a camera, I was using a borrowed camera from a good friend. The first camera that I owned was a Nikon D700, which was a gift from my grandmother after I told her that photography was what I really wanted to do with my life. My first computer came from one of my best friends lending me the money to buy it, and I recall him saying “look, if I’m going to lend you this money, promise me you’ll do something with it if this is really your dream”. (He’s very proud of me now by the way – thanks Derek!).
There is a misconception of the American dream that you seek happiness with an ending. In old western movies for example, you’ll watch everyone ride off on horseback into the sunset. That was the end and it was beautiful. The next day, however, you fall off, or get stung by a scorpion, you have saddle sores; they never tell you what happens after they ride into the sunset.
I always tell people that everything we do is a constant work in progess and that today feels the same as it did two years ago. It always keeps evolving. You can’t look at this as a means to an end. You have to look at it as an investment in time.
You mentioned that you had the support of family, friends, and faith, but I don’t want to overlook the fact that it was a lot of hard work. I think that our readers would love to hear about the work involved in equipping yourselves for this business you were getting ready to create.
Elia: We knew that it was something we wanted to do and we decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to have to go all in. That meant getting rid of everything, not looking back and going for it. Not looking back was key. We had limited funds but what we did have was determination to succeed.
Even though there was no guarantee of success, we never let that enter our minds. It was always knowing that no matter what happens, we were going to be fine, as long we made the pride and quality of the art come first. If we tried to produce the best images possible and tried to inspire people, there was no way we could fail. It’s as simple as staying positive as possible.
Naomi: I think that the main goal we started out with was really life experience and doing something we felt passionate about. We didn’t have the grand plan in place on how to build the business in the very beginning. It was more about focusing on the life experience, enjoying ourselves and what we were doing as much as possible. The plans for the business really developed as we went along, following our instincts and inspiration for what path we should take with it.
Elia: I also knew that from a business standpoint the lifestyle was something I could use to write about. Propelling ourselves around the globe gave me a constant stream of content and imagery to blog and post about. I knew I would be able to build an audience. In 2011, as social media began to evolve, I recognized the importance and value of it. The cleanliness and vibrancy of my style stood out during a time that many people were creating very overcooked looking HDR images.
You know, what’s most interesting is that I wasn’t the first person to go to these places and capture these images, but at that time, I was one of the first to share them on the social media platforms when people were actually watching. It was this perfect storm of this new audience, this new form of media, and a time to share these inspiring places. Now, years later, we are inundated with many people going to these places and sharing the images all over social media, but in the early days, there were only a few of us. It was through that traction that opportunities grew, connections were made, and relationships were built. What was really a catalyst for the business was the network of people we started to meet internationally.
What does a random week look like for you both?
Elia: A typical week for us would best be described as non-typical – it is never the same. A typical week is full of spontaneity and randomness.
Naomi: The only thing that’s typical is trying to balance photography with the business demands, the emailing and project coordination. So, there is a lot of business time, and shifting between the roles of artist and business person.
Elia: Naomi answered that very well. I would also add that the only thing that locks things together is the fact that we always start the day with coffee. When we wake up, the first thing we do is make coffee.
Let’s ask the practical question. With the constant moving how do you stay on top of your jet lag and moving between all those time zones?
Elia: This is a fun question because after having traveled full-time since 2010, being location independent for 4 years, and flying somewhere between 150k-200k miles per year, things have become very abstract. We have become so used to changing time zones that it doesn’t even matter anymore. Many nights I wake up at 01:00 or 02:00. Sometimes I will get up and answer emails or watch Netflix until I fall back asleep. Basically, after you travel through time zones for so many years you become fairly acclimated to jet lag. When people ask us how we do it, we just simply answer that ‘deadlines don’t change just because you are tired from traveling.’
Naomi: You have to do what you can when you can. Whether that’s in transit, or down time in coffee shops between events. I don’t know what I would do without my iPhone! It helps keep us connected. We do things where and when we can, no matter what time it happens to be.
Clearly this has evolved into it’s own business with speaking engagements, writing, and educating. How many hours do you spend photographing for yourself in a month’s time?
Elia: What’s interesting is that most of what you will see in my portfolio has been captured while photographing for myself and then piggy backing on projects that I’m already doing. Very rarely will I take on a project where a client has specific parameters of what they want me to shoot. Usually I’ll tell them that I’ll be in this location and I think I can get such and such for you’.
When you don’t see me shooting is when I’m teaching workshops, because I’m more concerned with everyone who is participating in the workshop or photo tour that they are getting great pictures for themselves, everything else for me is secondary. That’s the same with all of our instructors at Dream Photo Tours (a tour company that Naomi and I co-founded with fellow photographer and friend, Ken Kaminesky), all of priority is based on maximizing the client experience.
The message I try to tell people is that I want my work to be the strongest element and the core of what everyone sees. I want to be the guy that can market himself well, but also has an incredible portfolio. If I stop doing photography one day, I want to have images that I can be proud of and that, hopefully, can stand the test of time.
Naomi: I think the key is to follow your inspiration. To work on the projects you are inspired to do and try to make the financial aspect secondary.
With the demands of deadlines, meetings and schedules, how do you two stay passionate with the art of photography?
Elia; I wake up excited everyday – after coffee, of course. I think that many photographers, especially the ones who are really passionate about their work, tend to shy away from the business side of things, and I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy working with companies and collaborating with different brands. In fact, I enjoy coming up with different projects, proposals and ideas. I didn’t realize I would end up loving the business world equally as much as I love photography. I guess it’s because I consider the art of relationships and the art of a business deal to be just as much an art form.
Technology keeps me inspired too, and having the honor of working with companies like FujiFilm who are so passionate that their passion then rubs off on me. They hand me these incredible cameras and lenses. I’m working with DJI and every 5 minutes they have a crazy new product coming out that’s changing the world. Really Right Stuff makes the best tripods on the planet, in my opinion, and it inspires me to see the quality and thought they put into every piece of every product they make.
With all of the traveling and mobile lifestyle, what does a ‘vacation’ look like to the Locardi’s?
Naomi: I think it’s just being someplace that you can disconnect. I don’t know that there is a special place. It’s more about taking time off to move away from the internet and reconnect with nature.
Elia: We did take some time off to go to the Dolomites for five days. Being in the mountains was really nice for us. Being from the Florida Keys beaches aren’t all that exotic to us, so we really enjoyed the mountains. I think that would feel like a vacation.
Out of all the countries you have visited thus far, do you have one that stands out as the most memorable or the most loved by you?
Naomi: There’s a couple…
Elia: We would have to say that the top two countries for us would be Italy and Japan right now. Italian culture is our heritage and I credit Italy to most of my success as a photographer and now a videographer because it has given me the opportunity to create incredible content based on its natural beauty.
We also have a strong connection with Japan and the Japanese way of life. The country has a distinct beauty in each of the four seasons. Being able to experience the rich culture and observe the way people there love their country, and the way they travel throughout Japan themselves, cherish photography and cherish the history they have is amazing to us.
Tomorrow you receive notification that time is going to stand still for your business and there’s no demand, and money is an object. Where do Elia and Naomi head, and why?
Naomi: This is something we’ve been discussing. There are still a few places on our bucket list. I really want to go to Mongolia and disconnect for a while. I want to learn the country and understand their unique culture. Many of the areas around there look really interesting.
Elia: I’ve been looking at Central Asia. But if time stood still…
Elia: No! It’s too cold! If time stood still, I would go back to Italy for a while I think. I’d visit the south. There are some areas I haven’t visited yet and I’d explore more of the coast. Or, I’d check out some of the lesser known areas of Greece.
Naomi: The huts over the ocean in Bali and Bora Bora maybe? The ones where you can see fish swimming under your glass floor – that would be a great vacation.
You use technology and social media for businesses but you maintain a simple life. I’m hearing from both of you how much you value being disconnected, how do you find the balance of those two things?
Elia: The harmony you noticed is simply sharing honestly with the audience without being negative. We try to inspire them to have a better day. It’s really the core of what we try to do. We share our passion because it’s the core of who we are. The harmony for me is between business relationships, friendships and the actual photography. Everyone I do business with, I do it because I like the people, and I really respect and use their products. If I can help a company develop a product and make photography better for everyone, then I feel like it’s a win for everyone.
Naomi: There is a work-life balance we attempt to achieve. Sometimes, we fail at it. But with this lifestyle everything is so integrated because there is not much division between time and space for the businesses and our personal life. Our lifestyle is constantly in flux and it most often has to be a mix of personal, work and all of it integrated together. Last year I tried to implement Sundays off, meaning I don’t check emails or log on to social media, but that’s hard to stick to depending on the projects or deadlines we have going on.
Some people say ‘when you find what you love to do, you’ll never work another day in your life’, I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with that. But it is definitely a lot of work to be self-employed, we still have good days and bad days like everyone, but for the most part we enjoy our work because we focus on the work we want to be doing.
Let’s switch gears and jump behind the scenes of your photography. Elia, what was one of the ‘aha’ moments in your photographic journey where things ‘clicked’ for you?
Elia: I think it all speaks to the beginning. I wanted to be able to embody emotion into a frame. I tried to do this through the psychology of color, which is very basic. Hot, cold and how that makes you feel. I knew that I’d need to figure out how to make the physical translate into the nonphysical. At first, I would use the environment at it’s best time, best light, and decide if it will look best at sunrise, sunset, golden hour, blue hour, or twilight. That was the first ‘aha’ moment I had: shooting the blue hour instead of night photography. What I loved the most was not using natural light or artificial light but using them both in harmony. Using natural light and ambient light, combined with the artificial light of cities together to create something that makes a visual harmony. I learned that the blue hour spoke to me more powerfully than a sunset. Later, I also started to feel that I needed those lights in the city to come on, and I needed that sky and the beautiful colors of sunset or sunrise. Almost from the start, I had this epiphany that light became the most important subject for me and it evolved from there.
Do you manually blend exposures or what’s your process behind that?
Elia: My style of blending is revolved around simplicity. All of my work is very clean, crisp and seamless. I developed my own technique of manual blending using a combination of complex masking, but usually simple painting, painted masks, and simple blending. My minimalistic approach is designed to create the maximum and cleanest result.
So where can we go to learn this process from you?
Elia: I released two online tutorials last year with fstoppers.com. We wanted to teach concepts in the field, in camera, composition, camera settings from shooting on location to getting the files and using them in Lightroom, and in-depth post-processing in Photoshop. We created two tutorials together and we released them both last year. They are both part of a series called ‘Photographing The World’.
The first one is Landscape Photography and Post Processing. It’s 12 hours and15 lessons that progressively becomes more difficult as students move through Iceland and New Zealand. Lesson 1 starts with the basics, the thought process, composition and the basics of my workflow. By lesson 4-5 people are seamlessly and manually blending multiple exposures together. The second video we released is called Cityscapes, Astrophotography and Advanced Post Processing. It picks up in difficulty where the first one leaves off and starts blending time together – the technique I described earlier.
Luminosity masking has become this huge term in photography and everyone has decided to automate it. I don’t teach how to automate it but how to manually create it because it’s so much easier than everyone makes it seem.
Tell us about your camera gear. You are a Fujifilm Global Ambassador, what made you choose Fujifilm out of all the brands out there and at your disposal?
Elia: I’m very excited because Fujifilm just launched the new X-Pro 2 and I had it sent to me in Florida so I could use it at Gulf Photo Plus for the 3 workshops I taught there. They have made incredible changes with this new camera. I’m getting technical and philosophical questions about why Fujifilm all the time on social media. What I tell people is that I used FujiFilm way before I became a global ambassador for them (one of only two in the world), and they really represent one of the most beautiful legacies in photography. When I was learning photography, I was shooting Fujifilm Provia and Astia film. If you pick up one of their cameras now, check out the color modes, they are the same as the original slide film – superb. It also took me 3 minutes to figure out how to use my first Fujifilm camera when I picked it up. And when the X-T1 came out, it was the coolest camera I had ever used. Naomi, for example, loves her X-100T so much that she won’t even let me touch it. To be able to see Fujifilm’s progress and watch how the X-Series has developed in it’s 5th year is extremely inspiring.
You use Really Right Stuff tripods. Why?
Elia: Because we needed the highest quality products that existed when we started. They had to stand up to the brutality of what we were going to do and how much we would be traveling. I looked at Really Right Stuff and compared them against other companies. In the end, It was a combination of the quality of the product and the style of the tripods themselves. The fact that all the machining is done in the USA (down to the last screw) also made me really happy. I knew that if I invested in this tripod, it would last forever. That was before I knew the team at RRS personally.
Do you still have the first Really Right Stuff tripod you ever owned?
Elia: We do. We have every single one. I’m still using the TVC-33S. That is the first one I ever ordered. It’s cool because we are seeing them everywhere in the world now. A few years ago they were so rare that all my friends in Singapore at the camera shops would want to take my tripod apart because they didn’t have Really Right Stuff there. They were amazed how Really Right Stuff tripods were built so much better than anything they had seen before. They loved the design and carbon fiber pattern.
Which Really Right Stuff tripods do you travel with now?
Elia: We have a collection. We are about to take 3 with us to Dubai and Bhutan. The TVC-33S with the BH-55, which is the main one I use for images that are super blending sensitive. We also have the TVC-24 with the BH-40, and most recently we started using the TQC-14 which is super portable with a center column. We decided to put another BH-40 on top of that. We also have the table top tripods with the BH-25, and the pocket pod version as well.
We also worked with them a while ago on a clamp. They had been developing the safari clamp at the time. For a while, I clamped it to my tripod to create a dual camera setup, and then started clamping it to railings and edges of buildings and rooftops. We started talking about how great it would if it could clamp on any surface. Jump ahead quite a few months and they just came out with their new clamp and it’s called the Multi Clamp. I have it and it’s an awesome upgrade to the original Safari Clamp.
So through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to field test their products and I hope I’ve helped them make some of them a little bit better. With clamping in general, us ‘roof toppers’ and cityscapers clamp things to edges to get over the edge shots. It made everyone at the GPP workshops very jealous.
If you could turn back time what advice would each of you give to yourselves about life and photography?
Elia: I’d tell us to embrace the random. A couple years ago I’d spend days, weeks or months prepping for projects and now some of the biggest things I’ve worked on recently have been based on split second decisions where I didn’t have time to think about it – just to react. I used to be hesitant and think through decisions and now I have learned to be more decisive, embrace the randomness, and embrace the challenge, because ultimately I trust myself to be able to get things done. Trust your abilities and don’t be afraid to take on something that’s outside of your comfort zone because anytime you put your drive and passion into creating, you’ll evolve as an artist and become better in the end.
Naomi: Following your inspiration will never steer you wrong. Be guided by what you are inspired to do and take action based on that inspiration. It will lead you in the right direction.
In closing what is one piece of advice that you’d like to leave with our readers?
Elia: When we first moved to Florida, all I wanted to do was be on the beach and learn to surf. I had no idea what I was doing and I’d paddle out into the ocean and meet my neighbors who were professional surfers. From day one they were so encouraging to me. I’d say to them, ‘I wish I could learn this’ and they used to reply ‘don’t worry about it and just have fun. The best surfer is the one who is having the most fun’. That’s the same way I think about photography. It’s the reason I’m doing this, because it’s my passion. Follow what makes you happy, do what you want to do. Don’t do it for other people or change your work because somebody says they like it better another way. Work with your own style and have as much fun as you possibly can.
Naomi: For landscape photographers, you have to be ok with stepping outside your comfort zone. In fact, you have to plan to be uncomfortable. Accept that fact and it will all be worth it.
Interview by Tiffany Briley