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10 Ways to Make the Most of Your New Camera


Photographs are an important part of the travel experience and, with so many budding photographers in this community, I wanted to create a semi-ongoing series about travel photography. Since I’m not photographer, I’ve invited professional photographer Laurence Norah of Finding the Universe to share his wisdom. He wrote a long series last year and will be returning again this year with more tips and tricks! In this post, Laurence will help you make the most out of any new camera.

In my experience, people are often disappointed with their first efforts with a new camera. Somehow, the shots don’t look quite as good as they were hoping. That’s because while your new camera might be capable of taking better photos, it is going to require a bit of time and effort to learn how to make the most of it. I’ve spent time teaching folks how to get the best out of their equipment, both online and offline, and know that it takes some trial and error to get where your photos look how you want them. Practice makes perfect (I promise)!

In today’s post, I want to share with you some of my tips for getting the most out of your new camera, based on my years of experience as a professional travel photographer, working with a variety of different camera manufacturers and shooting around the world. I’m going to teach you my top ten tips that you can start to apply today to take your photography to the level you want to get it to.1. Read the manual

Road through Meteora Greece by Laurence NorahModern cameras are complex pieces of equipment with myriad functions and capabilities. The way you access and manage these functions varies between camera models. Don’t worry, I don’t want you to sit down with your camera manual and learn the whole thing by rote. But it is the best place to find out at least the basics of how your new camera works.

Despite my years of experience, when I’m confronted with a new camera, it still will take me time to get used to finding all the features I want to access — even simple things like changing the focus mode or ISO setting can be buried deep in a hidden menu. To this day I still struggle if someone hands me a camera from an unfamiliar manufacturer. I’m just not going to get the best out of it because I haven’t learned how to use it properly.

Grab a hold of the manual to at least get an idea as to what all those buttons do. That way you don’t miss a shot because you couldn’t remember how to flick between focus modes!2. Learn the basics of composition

Quirang Views Isle of Skye by Laurence NorahThe key part of photography is you the photographer — not the camera.

Thankfully, taking better photos with your new camera isn’t rocket science and anyone can learn the basics (heck, even Matt did it). (Matt says: It’s true. My photos were terrible but even my unphotogenic mind picked up a few tricks!) If you teach yourself some basic rules for how to compose photos, you can shortcut your way to taking awesome shots.

These rules aren’t hard to grasp. They just require you to apply some simple principles to all your shots. For example, a road leading into a shot will naturally lead the viewer’s eye along it, while a splash of color can be used to accentuate a subject.

Over time, as you use these rules more, you’ll start to apply them naturally and you’ll develop your photographer’s “eye” (i.e. the ability to compose a shot without having to think about it too much_.

Take a look here for an in-depth post covering some of those key rules: the rule of thirds, leading lines, use of color, and more.3. Learn about the exposure triangle

Bakers Beach Sunset in San Francisco by Laurence NorahThe basic concepts of how a camera works to capture light are important to master but unfortunately can be confusing to wrap one’s head around. Many people just give up and leave their camera in auto mode, never fully realizing the potential of their device.

This isn’t helped by camera manufacturers adding ever more bells and whistles to their products in an effort to stand out in a crowded marketplace, meaning you might not be sure which controls are important and which are superfluous.

Here’s a tip: the most important controls are those that affect what we photographers call “the exposure triangle,” namely the shutter speed, ISO rating, and aperture — the three key elements of a camera that we have control over and allow us to vary the amount of light that we capture.

Understand those things and the photography world will be your oyster. Changing each one has a different impact on the way a shot looks, but overall they control the same thing: how dark or bright the image is. Start to experiment with your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and don’t be afraid to get it wrong — digital “film” is free!4. Learn about light

Kanchanaburi Tree by Laurence NorahAt its most basic, a camera is just a device for capturing the light.That hasn’t changed since they were first invented in the 1800s.

Light is therefore a key component of photography. Different times of day offer different qualities of light, with the light around sunset and sunrise offering a warmer, softer quality to our images, while midday light is less flattering, with harsh contrast and flatter colors. Ideally, you want to shoot closer to sunrise and sunset and less around midday if you can.

Where the light is coming from is also important. If you shoot directly into the sun, you’ll find your subject will likely be a black silhouette. Instead, you should position the sun behind you when shooting, to properly illuminate your subject and give you the best results.5. Challenge yourself

Edinburgh Zoo by Laurence NorahAs a travel photographer, I’m lucky because I’m often out traveling the world and finding fun things to take pictures of. However, I’m happy to admit that I can struggle to find inspiration during the downtime between trips. And if you’re not traveling regularly, you too might struggle to find reasons to get out and take photos.

But photography is a skill and the best way to improve a skill is to practice it. You can read articles like this all day, but the truth is, you need to get out into the world, apply that knowledge, and start training your brain to become a photographer.

One way to do this is to start setting yourself challenges, giving yourself a focus and reason to get out there. Maybe it’s something simple, like a photo of a new subject every day. Maybe you set a weekly theme and stick to it. Whatever it is (and there are plenty of places online to find photo challenges too!), just make sure that you give yourself as many opportunities as possible to learn. That way, when you go on a trip or adventure that you really want to capture, you’ll be ready!

Matt says: Come join the Nomadic Matt Community Photo Challenge and you can get your photo featured on my Instagram account.6. Get used to taking it with you

Pacific Coast Highway California by Laurence NorahThis is related to the previous tip, in that practice makes perfect. The best camera is always the one we have on us. So if you’ve just gotten a new camera, get into the habit of taking it with you wherever you’re headed, and get some practice using it. If it is always with you, you’ll never have an excuse not to take it out and use it (remember practice makes perfect).

Leave your camera by your keys, near your jacket, or next to your shoes. Make sure it’s always with whatever it is you leave your house with so you remember to take it with you. Just having it with you will increase the frequency in which you use it! Even going from zero to one photo a day is better than nothing!7. Get a cheap prime lens

Fairy Pools Isle of Skye by Laurence NorahIf you have a camera that lets you change lenses, like most mirrorless or DSLR cameras, then I highly recommend spending a little bit of money on a prime lens. A prime lens is one with a fixed focal length, which means you can’t zoom in or out.

This will force you to move around and really think more carefully about your composition before you hit the shutter button. Prime lenses also have very wide apertures, which has two advantages: they let a lot of light in, so you can use them when it’s darker; and they let you achieve a shallow depth of field, allowing you blur the background and really let your subject shine.

The best thing about a prime lens is that the basic models can be picked up very cheaply — for less than $100 USD in fact. For Canon, my recommendation is the 50mm f/1.8, also referred to as “the nifty fifty,” a lens that every Canon photographer should own. Other manufacturers offer similarly priced equivalent lenses.8. Start shooting in RAW format

La Pedrera Barcelona by Laurence NorahWhen I teach photography workshops, one of my goals is to try and get my students to switch to shooting in RAW rather than JPG.

If these letters don’t mean anything to you, don’t panic. All they are is formats for the way your camera saves the image data it captures.

The difference is that a RAW file contains everything your camera has captured, while a JPG is more of a finished product, which has been edited by the camera and reduced in size for your convenience.

While a JPG is indeed more convenient (you can directly share it to social media), it also allows you less control in the editing process.

You can think of a RAW file as a roll of film and a JPG as the finished print. With the RAW file, you have full control over the development process, and as a result you have full control over the final look of your image. It is a bit more work at your end, but it’s ultimately worth it.9. Start editing and curating your photos

Folly beach pier sunset by Laurence NorahSomething I learned early on in my photography career was the importance of editing my photos. Even minor corrections, like straightening a horizon or adjusting sharpness and contrast, can make the difference between an OK photo and a great one.

Don’t be put off by the thought of having to spend a lot of time editing your photos. Even an application as fully featured as Adobe Lightroom can be picked up relatively easily and you can use an even-simpler editor like Snapseed on your mobile phone to make your shots pop.

I love the creative possibilities that photo editing opens up for me. I also want to share another photography tip that I’ve learned, which is the art of curation. You need to become one of your biggest critics. I’m often asked why I don’t take bad pictures. The reality is that of course I take bad pictures! I just do my best not to share them anywhere. Curating our own photos is really important: always try to only share your very best work, so the world will think that you too only take great photos!10. Keep going

Stonehenge by Laurence NorahThe reason that people succeed at tasks is not because they are necessarily better at it than other people. It’s because they keep persevering, despite the setbacks, frustrations, and mental barriers to success that they find along the way.

Photography is the same. The best photographers in the world all started out with no idea at all what they were doing. What got them to where they are today was a drive to succeed and a willingness to put the effort in.

I was 13 when I got my first camera and I’ve been shooting ever since. So don’t give up! Make photography your passion and it will reward you!

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Remember that photography is a long-term game, and just having a new camera won’t automatically mean your photos are going to improve. You need to invest a bit of time and effort into it — but the rewards will be worth it.

Laurence started his journey in June 2009 after quitting the corporate life and looking for a change of scenery. His blog, Finding the Universe, catalogs his experiences and is a wonderful resource for photography advice! You can also find him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr.LEARN TO GET OUT OF AUTO!

capture the world photography courseIf you are looking to really get into photography and want to master your camera and take amazing photos when you travel, Laurence and I have developed a comprehensive photography course that will get you out of auto and have your friends go “Wow! That’s really breathtaking!” in no time. It will help you get out of auto and feel more confident and secure in your ability to take pictures from day one!

How to Know If the Travel Info You Find is Legit


A couple of years ago, I rs in San Francisco and was invited by the folks at Google Travel to visit their campus, where we spent a lot of time geeking out over travel booking data and metrics. One of the stats that stood out for me was that most consumers spend over 40 hours researching their trip and look at over 20 sites!y

When I started planning my first trip around the world in 2005, there weren’t all the online resources we have now. I remember there was blog on backpacking Europe (basically what some girl did on her study abroad), a couple of forums, and a few others here and there.

Today, we have the Google Trips app; 100,000+ blogs; countless forums, communities, and sharing-economy websites; and everything in between. You can find information for anywhere you want to go. No destination is too obscure.

But, in that sea of endless information, how do you know what is accurate and trustworthy?

Like you, I spend a lot of time researching destinations before I go: blog posts, books, trip reports, hostel reviews, etc., etc. I love digging deep into the places I’m traveling to. It makes the trip seem real and like I’m discovering some secret.

But since I’ve been looking up information online and working in the travel industry for years, I can spot the BS really easily.

And today I want to help you do the same. Here is how to tell if the information you’ve found is valid — or should be treated skeptically:

(Note: I’m going to break down my thoughts in extreme detail, but it actually doesn’t take that long to process all this. I’ll give you some perspective at the end. It’s not as long as you think!)Factors to consider when reading about destinations

Sponsored content: When I first come across an article, I scroll to the bottom to see if the content is “sponsored.” Sponsored content is (a) when a blogger is given a trip or product in exchange for a review or mention (and payment) on that blogger’s website, and (b) content that is basically advertising or marketing material (think some “awesome” contest they are telling you about). While organized press trips have been happening in the travel business for decades (and I’ve done them), sponsored content is something different. Since there is an exchange of money, I feel like it’s marketing (for reasons that tie together below). I will still read the article – and it still might be useful – but I definitely want to know if someone was paid to go to that destination or promote that content. After all, there is a natural human inclination to sugarcoat the negatives if we’ve been paid to write about a place or product.

When I see “Thanks for the free trip, (insert tourism board name). All opinions are my own.” without explanation, I’m wary. What was free? What was paid for? Did they receive money? I want to know more. I tend to take the suggestions with a grain of salt unless I see clearly what was sponsored, in a statement like “Visit Islay provided the car and accommodation and also connected me to distilleries so I could get the behind-the-scenes tours for this article. Meals, flights, and transportation to and from the island — as well as all that whisky I bought — were at my own expense.” So I want the article to be clear on what was and wasn’t paid for – because that will directly impact some of the other important things to keep an eye.

Replicable experiences: If the writer is writing about an experience that I can’t do or a situation I can’t replicate, the advice isn’t useful to me as a reader – and I immediately move on. It’s great that someone got to do something cool like eat at a 3-star Michelin restaurant or cook dinner with Bourdain — but how does that really help me experience the place? Those kinds of articles make for fun stories but nothing more. When I’m researching a destination, I don’t want a fun story, I want a helpful story.

Detailed content: How detailed is the article? The more facts, figures, and other details they include, the more I know they know their stuff. For me, advice that is detailed, practical, and replicable is the best kind of advice. I look for blogs and content that give me insight into a destination or product like I would expect from a guidebook or magazine. All these signals tell me “This website has quality and trustworthy content and I should use it to plan my trip.”

This is why whether or not the content is sponsored / branded / whatever term people use is so important to me because the more the writer is paying their own way and doing what I would do, it’s more likely to include the nitty gritty facts and figures that will be useful to me as I plan my trip.

Bigger picture: Moreover, I look at that content within the bigger picture of their website. If I come across an article and I like what I’m reading, sponsored or not, I click around the website a bit more. If this blogger tends to do the kind of activities I like to do, I think to myself, “OK, we have a similar travel style. This person’s advice is going to benefit me.”

If I look around a website and see they mostly pay their own way, have detailed content, and are in the trenches like the rest of us, I’m OK with the small amount of sponsored content I see because in my mind, it will be more fair and balanced than someone who does mostly paid trips.

Website appearance: What does their website look like? Does it look loved? Is the design from 1999, or does it look like someone keeps the site up to date? It’s like a restaurant. While looks don’t 100% correlate to quality food, you’re more likely to go “the food is probably good here” if the restaurant looks like it wasn’t like renovated during the Nixon years. For example, look at my site:

In 2008:nomadicmatt2014a

Now:nomadicmatt2014a

Which one would you trust more? (Exactly. The newer version.)

Are they too negative? There are so many factors that go into whether or not you like a destination: the people you meet, the weather, the ease with which you got around, whether someone in your dorm snored, and so much more! When I look at someone’s opinion on a place, I look to see if they are just ranting or are truly being fair. “This place was terrible and you should never go” is a rant that should be taken with a grain of salt. Read it, file it away, but mostly ignore it. Years ago, I went on a rant about Vietnam and swore I would never go back. Since then, I’ve grown as a writer and a person. I had to add a little blurb at the end of the article saying this was my experience but you should go and experience it yourself. That article stays up because it’s part of the site, but I cringe when I read it. It’s not the type of article that gives an accurate picture of a place nor is it one you should use when you plan your trip. Avoid articles like that!

Timely content: Lastly, how old is the article? Has it been updated? Travel changes so rapidly that an article that was written five years ago and hasn’t been updated since is one I don’t value. The article and content must be from within the last two years.Factors to consider when researching a company or making a booking:

Most reviews are negative: First, when it comes to using a company or booking website you don’t know, it’s important to remember one thing: the majority of reviews are most likely going to be negative. Consumers use review sites to complain, not to praise. It’s almost always how some company screwed them over. While that is sometimes the case (no company is perfect 100% of the time — and it’s not just obscure companies; I’ve had friends have terrible times trying to get a refund from Expedia), most of the time it’s because someone didn’t read the fine print.

So that’s the most important thing to remember: consumer reviews always tilt negative in the travel space, so you shouldn’t be too worried if a company has too many negative reviews (the devil is in the details, not some star rating!).

Consider why a review is negative: When looking at consumer reviews, I look to see why these people are having a negative experience. For example, if many of the negative reviews for a tour company talk about how their guide didn’t know anything, I begin to think, “Maybe this tour company isn’t that good.” But if the negative reviews are mostly “THIS IS THE WORST COMPANY EVER BECAUSE MY HOTEL WAS ONLY 2 STARS AND I EXPECTED 5 STARS FOR THE $500 I PAID!” then I’ll ignore those specific negative reviews. To me, these kinds of reviews are just rants, not helpful.

Expert opinion: What do travel writers, magazines, and newspapers say about this company? Do they match the negative consumer reviews, or do they paint the company in a different light? If tour company X has tons of negative consumer reviews but the majority of professionals say it is good, I’ll go with the professional opinion. If there’s a disconnect between what consumers say and what the majority of experts say, I trust the experts.

Next, consider the following:

How often a reviewer posts: When looking at user-generated reviews, I want to see how often a user posts (most sites show you). If someone posts just once and writes a scathing review, chances are they are trying to vent because they didn’t get what they want.

Beware too-positive reviews: People don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings, so on a lot of the sharing-economy sites, people sugarcoat their reviews, because these hosts or guides aren’t a faceless corporation. If some guy gave you a tour or if you stayed in someone’s house and it sucked, you’ll feel bad leaving a very negative review because you met that person and formed a (fleeting) relationship with them.

Beware a lack of details: This is how I ended up in an Airbnb that was directly above a bar. Everyone said “it was noisy,” but NYC is noisy, so I just assumed that is what they meant. Since that horrible incident, I only trust reviews that are specific, details, and clear on what was good and what was bad. “I had a great time” or “This place was so so” doesn’t tell you anything and those reviews should be ignored.

Beware paid placements: Next, make sure the top reviews aren’t paid placements. The majority of booking sites allow companies to pay extra for higher or top “recommended” placement. All those top results? Usually paid to be there. So do what I do: ignore the top recommended properties, sort by price, and then figure out where to book!

Pictures: Finally, when I look at booking sites, I also like to see what pictures people who have stayed there have posted. Of course having a professional photographer take a picture vs. someone taking a picture with their phone are two very different things, but I like to at least get a sense of what the room looks like in a real-world setting.****

In the end, none of these points make or break my planning. I take all of these factors into account. I look at everything and see what the complete picture looks like. I look for patterns and averages. That is something you can’t really fake. Trust the average.

This might sound like it takes a lot of work, but it’s really just a long, drawn-out written version of what I keep in mind as I research. In reality, it only takes a few minutes, but by looking at all these factors, I rarely end up at a place I don’t like, using a company that screws me, or getting inaccurate and unhelpful information!