Van Life Through the Lens of a Landscape Photographer
Vanlife is an unforgettable journey that offers freedom, adventure, and an intimate connection with nature. For landscape photographer and Anker Ambassador Justin Krompier, it was a way to take control of his life and pursue the creative career he’d always dreamed of.
In this inspiring Q&A, Justin shares his personal journey of vanlife as a landscape photographer, and how he found a way to turn his life around by pursuing his art and his passion for the outdoors. If your creative spirit yearns for the chance to explore the world on four wheels (and capture breathtaking scenery along the way), then read on for some sage advice on turning your dream into reality.
Landscape Photography and Van Life: A Dream Combination
Firstly, I want to ask you: Why did you choose this particular life? Why be a photographer who lives and travels in a van full-time?
Well, I just find being in a van is it's the most practical way, the easiest and honestly most cost effective way to do landscape photography. It gives me the ability to be exactly where I need to be, when I need to be there. And now that I have a heater in my van, that gives me even more latitude to be in colder climates if I'm shooting mountainscapes in the colder months, or really anywhere. Vanlife offers me just a deeper level of freedom.
But I had lived in New Jersey for, well, aside from college, my whole life. But I started doing landscape photography a few years before a van was even a twinkle in my eye. And the reality is without a van you're looking at flights, you're looking at hotels or Airbnbs, looking at renting cars, or depending on the kindness of friends throughout the country to house you—and it's just too much hassle to be honest with you.
I have this very fond, internal [desire] of that sort of whimsical character in a Jack Kerouac novel, and I've always wanted embody that in my life.
While I was in active drug addiction, there was no freedom—not on a personal level or on a physical plane level. And so when I got clean, nature has always been very healing to me, very therapeutic to me. I grew up outside in the dirt, getting dirty, getting hurt, getting cuts, bruises, playing sports, mountain biking, skateboarding, snowboading – all that kind of stuff. And so when I got clean, I kind of went back to that. I went back to, you know, along with a 12-step fellowship to help internally and mentally and spiritually, just being outside again and reconnecting to my inner child, I tapped back into that essentially.
I went on a trip to Israel when I got clean with one of my best friends. And it just reignited this love for travel. It reminded me of the first vacation I ever went on with my family that wasn't at a resort, which was Sedona, Arizona. And it reminded me so much of that, connecting to the land and to nature and the weather and the sun and the wind. And it ignited something, it lit a fire in me.
Not even like a month or two later, that same best friend [and I] got in his car and we drove across the country on a road trip — and from there it was over. I caught the bug and all I wanted to do was travel; I wanted to see the country, I wanted to see the world, I wanted to meet people, experience everything.
But to answer your original question, I've always just had this affinity for being outside. I've just always gotten so much internally from my spirit, just being outside. And the van, you know, is just a way to do that. And it's so much less about the van itself. It's so much more about where the van can take you. And my van has taken me to some unbelievable places. I've met unbelievable people and I've had unbelievable experiences that I'll never forget. So the van to me is just a way to achieve my photography, as well as the moments in life that I want.
Camera Gear and Staying Powered on the Road
What's all the photography equipment that you travel with?
So I shoot with my camera. It's a Canon R5. I have a 24-70mm f/2.8 Canon. I have another Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 and that kind of covers me. Those are just my workhorses and kind of covers me for everything.
I have a small, I think it's a Profoto B2 light kit that you can either charge the battery so they're mobile, but you can also just plug them in and power them off of a power source. So that's like a small studio light, essentially, but it's good for outdoor portraits and it's really light and small. So I use that.
I have just a regular flash for event photography. I have my laptop. I have some reflectors, some light modifiers and stuff like that if I need supplemental light. But so much of what I typically do is landscape photography. So it's really just my camera, my tripod, and some gradient filters.
How does the Anker PowerHouse serve your creative process and make off-grid photography easier?
As far as shooting brand stuff or portraiture, that Profoto B2 kit – the Anker absolutely comes in handy, because I just plug into that. Rather than just go off of the batteries, like if I needed to charge stuff or if I was away from the van and I needed to set up somewhere and my batteries were not already charged, then I bring that out and have that charged right then and there.
If I needed to do something outside of the van, the outlets are not super accessible—you would need an extension cord to run anything from my van somewhere. So to have like a mobile battery essentially that I can plug into and charge stuff is super helpful. I do most of my editing in coffee shops, but if I'm like where I am right now [in Baja], I will edit out of my van – but it's weather dependent.
Exploring the Creative Process
How did you develop your skills as a photographer? Was it through like any kind of formal training or education, or was it purely by life experience?
I did go to film school. So I learned a lot about cameras and how they work, I learned all about composition, light, f-stops, aperture, shutter speed, all that sort of stuff. I learned from film school and working on film sets and video sets.
When I got clean, I felt like I just wasn't doing anything with my life and I really wanted to create art. And I felt like a life without creating art just didn't feel right. And because I was spending so much time outdoors and I love to travel, still photography just made a lot of sense. I can capture these beautiful places, and sure it's not on video, but I could shoot photographs of them and I ended up just really falling in love with the process of it and telling a story in one frame rather than 24 or 30 frames a second.
I definitely learned a lot watching YouTube videos, but for the most part I kind of taught myself. It's different than video, shutter speed is just completely different. It's just a different animal, but it was really trial and error. It was really me bringing my camera out and just learning. I just picked up my camera that I had for years after film school—I was supposed to make videos on it and it was just collecting dust in my closet—I picked that up and on weekends we'd go on hikes and trips and, you know, I broke that thing out and dusted it off and it was just kind of trial by fire.
What is your process like for capturing these landscape photos? When you drive out to these remote locations, what is it that you're looking for? Are you waiting for the perfect moment, and how do you know when you've found it?
Oh yeah, no, it's definitely an intentional process. Sometimes I'm just taking my camera on hikes and hoping that I catch a break with some good soft light. I'm always after really soft light. There are plenty of photographers that can shoot amazing, beautiful midday harsh contrasty images. For some reason that's just not my jam. I just love soft morning or evening light. I think it's soothing to look at. It is the most beautiful times of the day—that's what I'm trying to capture.
I'll find a location that I really want to shoot at. Sometimes it's an easy location—you know, at some of these national parks, Tunnel View and Yosemite, for instance, it's teed up for you. And it's just a matter of setting up your tripod, getting your filters out onto your camera and kind of waiting for the right time. So if there's an arch or there's a mountain or a saguaro cactus and the sun is in front of me, I'm waiting for that moment where the sun is just barely cresting so that I can capture a sun star, which I think is really beautiful. But for the most part, I actually like to shoot with the sun behind me and capture the alpine glow or that morning glow on mountains. That is like my favorite thing to shoot ever, and if there's a lake in the foreground and I can get a reflection, even better.
Taking the Leap of Faith
In your Ambassador video, you said something really moving—that you were in a job that wasn't serving you, that the urge to create never went away, and that one day you decided you are a photographer.
I want to ask you if you can share any advice with someone who is currently in a similar situation. Maybe they're thinking of pursuing photography, maybe they're thinking of vanlife, but what would you say to help convince someone to take a similar leap of faith?
The simplest way I can put it is: it is possible.
Okay, I was making good money [at UPS]. I had the best benefits on earth next to maybe working for the government. And union, all that kind of stuff. But I [expletive deleted] hated it. It was not me. I just felt like I was settling, like I was selling myself short. Like I didn't get clean just to have, for lack of a better word, a menial life where I just showed up at a place that I hated just to make money so that I could live for the weekend or for vacation once or twice a year. Like that did not work for me at all.
I've always wanted something more meaningful, and I felt like my life was very devoid of meaning. Sure, I can help inspire people with my story, but I didn't feel like I was fully embodying my ability, the possibility of my life. And I was listening to a podcast while I was driving that UPS truck and Chase Jarvis, the guy who kind of came up with the first incarnation of what became Instagram, said that 'the number one regret of people on their deathbed is that they did not live the life that they wanted to; they lived one that they thought other people thought that they should.' So that hit me like a ton of bricks when I heard that.
I think the worst feeling on earth would be lying on my deathbed and [knowing I could have] done it a different way. And had I done it a different way, I might have been happier or more fulfilled or left a better legacy or left the world better than I did. And that is just simply not something that I'm willing to do. And so while it was extremely scary to take a leap of faith, that is just the way I see the world: it's a prerequisite to a beautiful life.
And that fear never goes away. I just become more courageous. So at a certain point, the pain got great enough. I said "I'm not doing this anymore." And my ex-girlfriend and I, we rented an '84 Westfalia camper van and took it through California. We went to Yosemite, we went to Big Sur, and I got to live my dream for 10 days throughout California to two places I'd never been before. I got to travel in a van, be whimsical, be a character in a Jack Kerouac novel, and shoot photographs with my girlfriend. And it was beautiful. And it gave me a taste of what I really wanted to do with my life. And laying under the stars in Big Sur one night on that trip, I made the decision that I was going to leave my job. And within a month after that decision was made under the stars, I put my two weeks in.
I find that words are pretty important. The way that I speak to myself is really important. I have a lot of experience with my disease, addiction, talking to me in awful ways, in my own voice, telling me just terrible things about myself. And so when I can, I try to correct that voice in my head to something that's more positive. And I just think that if I say, for instance, "the man that I want to be would act this way." I mean, that's great, but I'm putting out into the universe that I'm not that man. There's a barrier there. Why don't I just be that man? I would do this. I would react in this way, instead of being like the man I want to be who would react in this way.
So saying something like, "I want to be a photographer," is implying that I'm not yet a photographer. But I have years of a portfolio under my belt. I am a photographer. So it was really important to me to not just say this is what I want to be or who I want to be. This is who I am and I will continue to grow.
Maybe I'm not the best photographer yet. Maybe I'm not making a million dollars yet. But this is the beginning of the process. I just think that it comes down to, for me, how free do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to live? What kind of legacy do I want to leave when I'm long gone?
I'd love to leave a legacy of hope. Because if this overweight, prediabetic drug addict with no job living at home could end up getting clean, finding a new way to live, becoming his own boss, being tied to no one or nothing, totally free and making a living can do it — then most people can do this.
Now It's Your Journey
Whatever your own life circumstances, it takes great courage to make a leap of faith and pursue your passions – and though the journey may be challenging, the rewards can be extraordinary.
To help you stay powered on your journey, Anker PowerHouse has a portable energy solution for every need on the road, whether it's to keep professional gear charged or to maintain peace of mind on your travels.
Given his intense personal journey of recovery and second chances, Justin comments that his landscape photos are just as much a message of hope as they are "a nice photograph on your wall." For further inspiration, be sure to check out Justin's website to see more of his work. You can also follow him on Instagram.
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