Meet Digital Nomad and Kung Fu Photoshop Panda Ben Willmore

Ben Willmore travels around the country with his fiancé full-time in a 40' tour bus taking photographs and teaching people how to become better photographers.

the sun sets near Crater Lake, an older RV in the foreground. Photograph by Ben Willmore.

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Photograph thumbnail by Ben Willmore

I first met Ben in 2002 or so. I was a practically fresh out of college graphic designer working for a PBS station in Erie, PA, he was already a master of Photoshop doing a seminar out of a small auditorium in the city. The day my boss came in and told me, “Hey, instead of coming into work, I want you to spend the next three days learning more about Photoshop,” I was ecstatic. I mean, I absolutely loved my job. Out of high school I’d worked as a janitor, a gas station attendant, a maintenance man. During my years at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh I’d delivered pizzas by bicycle and pushed coffee in the city’s subway stops. So creating graphics and animations for a television station was a dream job for me, but hey, who doesn’t love to ditch the office in exchange for sitting around and playing on their computer for a few hours?

I learned more from Ben in those three days than my instructors managed to teach me in over two years at AIP. Honestly, he’s that good. The term “ninja” is thrown around all too frequently on the web these days, so let me make this clear: Ben is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle of Photoshop.

That alone, however, probably wouldn’t make him a good candidate to show up here on Meanderings, though. I was watching a video about full-time RVers a few months back and noticed a familiar face during one of the interviews: Ben had taken his life to the road. And why not? He’s a digital worker, an entrepreneur, and he travels the country doing seminars. Sounds like a perfect fit for the full-time lifestyle.

I had originally wanted to include Ben on our How to Make a Living on the Road article, but due to some snafus with how Facebook alerts you to fan page messages and the fact that he was spending a stint in Iceland teaching people how to take gorgeous photos of one of the world’s most spectacular nations, he wasn’t able to get his answers back to me in time. Still, I am now proud to present to you, if a little late, my complete interview with Ben Willmore.

Wand’rly:
First, the basics: can we get your name & age? Do you travel solo or with a family?
Ben:
Ben Willmore, 45, travel with my fiancé.
Wand’rly:
Can you tell us a little about how you make your living on the road?
Ben:
I present seminars, write ebooks, create training DVDs, etc. all related to digital imaging for photographers.
Wand’rly:
You began traveling in 2006 but have been doing your Photoshop workshops for quite a while longer than that. How did the transformation from having a fixed address to being mobile change your business? Is it actually easier to do workshops around the country now? Are there any new challenges?
Ben:
My business hasn’t really changed at all from the transition to being mobile. I always fly to the events I teach at, so it doesn’t matter where I’m based. It can be a pain to have to decide which airport to fly out of since I have to make the decision 14 days in advance and I often don’t know where I’m going tomorrow, so planning that far ahead can be a pain. The biggest challenge is 1) mobile internet speeds, 2) educating people so they don’t expect me to be available from 8-5 to return phone calls, etc since I’ll be out exploring instead of sitting at a desk.
Wand’rly:
What types of preplanning did you need to do in order to get the business ready for your new mobile lifestyle?
Ben:
Mainly figuring out how to make sure the bills get paid and dealing with any mail. I have someone who does just that in Colorado. That and scanning all our paper documents so we no longer need to store the originals.
Wand’rly:
During your first few months of living in your RV, were there any big hiccups that you hadn’t foreseen? Did anything prove easier than you expected?
Ben:
It’s hard for me to remember the first few months since that was so long ago. I did ruin a brand new tire before I learned how to properly adjust my mirrors. Bringing all my breakable glasses, plates and other household items was a mistake. We now only use unbreakable kitchenware. Not securing a laser printer caused a problem after having to make a quick sharp corner. It took me a good year to get away from thinking I should be working for eight hours a day. I now work when I have to and explore the rest of the time.
Wand’rly:
I attended one of your workshops way back in 2002 (I believe) and have to say, I learned more from those three days than I’d learned in all of my two years in art school, so I can personally attest to exactly how much value your courses hold. Aside from keeping up with new versions of Adobe CS, have they changed much over the years? Has traveling allowed you to do anything different there than before?
Ben:
I used to use stock photography in my books and seminars. I now shoot enough to be able to use 100% of my own photography. I’ve also gotten away from teaching subjects relating to graphic design and concentrate purely on photography-related topics, which is where I’m most passionate. I also now teach in the field photography workshops in exotic locations like Africa and Iceland. I wasn’t very well known as a photographer until I started living a mobile lifestyle.
Wand’rly:
How have your expenses, business or otherwise, changed since being on the road? Less, more, just different?
Ben:
Just different… or possibly a little less. We move around a lot. Two years ago, we explored 30 states and that means that we spend a lot of fuel. We don’t have property taxes, state income taxes or many of the other regular expenses that are associated with home ownership. Every five years seems to be an expensive one where you need new tires, batteries and other stuff that can really add up.
Wand’rly:
When making the transition to becoming a full-time wanderer, what were some of your favorite resources to get more information?
Ben:
Mainly various web sites… I don’t really remember which ones since that was seven years ago. I’ve also really enjoyed Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-hour Work Week.
Wand’rly:
I can appreciate that along with the lifestyle comes the dissolving of a “typical work week”, but can you tell us about how many hours you work per week?
Ben:
It varies widely, but in an average week I might do real work for about 15 hours. I try to work as little as I can so we can experience life more. That’s one of the largest changes I’ve had since going mobile.
Wand’rly:
Do you ever have difficulty staying focused with the world as your playground?
Ben:
Very much so. It can be difficult to concentrate when you’re always in a new location and I also have the problem of taking too many photographs and not spending the time to process and turn them into finished images. It’s more fun to be out shooting than to be inside processing images.
Wand’rly:
How do clients feel? Do you tell them? Do they ask?
Ben:
They know about my lifestyle and seem to deal with it just fine. The main thing is when international clients want me to book flights over a month in advance. I have no idea where I’ll be located and once I pick a place to fly out of, then I’m stuck going there instead of being free to wander anywhere.