An Interview with Laurence Norah – Travel Photographer and Blogger

Laurence Norah started his first blog, Finding the Universe, in May 2010 after quitting the corporate life. We first interviewed him in 2013, so it was time to catch up to see what's new. In our interview today, we talk about travel blogging growth, photography, and those pesky Core Web Vitals. 

Tell us how you got into travel blogging originally and how it progressed to where you are now.

Laurence Norah travel blogger and photographerMore than 10 years ago, it was originally just a place to chronicle my travels and share my photos. At that point I'd been travelling full time for a year and sharing my experiences by e-mail and social media. A blog felt like a better place to share my travels.

When I started it I never thought that it would have the potential to make an income. However, as I kept travelling I kept writing, and when it hit 10,000 visitors a month I realized that it was reaching more than my circle of friends! In 2012 I attended my first travel blogging conference and realised that blogging was something you could make a living from.

Since then, the site has grown, and with my wife Jessica we now run two travel blogs and an online travel photography course. Our goal is to help people plan their own trips to destinations around the world, help them take better photos when they travel, and of course, travel as often as we can!

Do you remember what inspired you to start thinking you could make real money from this? Where did your first significant earnings come from?

Definitely going to that first conference in 2012 really opened my eyes to the potential of a travel blog. That said, it took a while for me to figure out the monetization.

In the beginning, the main income was from brand ambassadorships and partnerships. One of the first big partnerships was with a manufacturer of tripods, I helped launch their new range of travel tripods and accessories and took part in video and social media campaigns, as well as using my imagery on the product box.

Today we try to focus less on one-off campaigns, and more on regular streams of income like display advertising and affiliate programs, although if there is a good campaign that is a fit we will of course consider it.

You're especially known for your photography and you run a course for photographers trying to better their craft. What are the main elements you're teaching?

I've loved photography since my parents gifted me a film SLR camera for my 13th birthday. Since then I've given talks and led workshops and photo walks all around the world. I've always loved helping people learn how to take better photos, and an online photography course was the best way I could think to do that.

travel photography from Laurence Norah

My goal with the course was to put everything I knew about photography into one place. So it assumes no prior knowledge of photography, and starts right at the beginning, teaching people how to use a camera and what all the functions are for. I believe there are three things people need to master when it comes to photography: how to use their camera, what goes into making a great picture, and how to edit their photos.

So I cover all that in the course. I also go into more advanced topics so if people want to take their photography further they can - things like astrophotography, long exposure photography, and HDR photography. It even teaches them how to make a living as a photographer. Ultimately I wanted to put everything into one place at a fair price.

As well as all the content, the course comes with one-on-one feedback from me, and members are always welcome to e-mail me their questions. There's also a course Facebook group for sharing photos, asking questions, and connecting with the other course members. I'm really proud that to date I've helped over 2,000 people improve their photography!

travel photographer Finding the Universe

You also seem to be a technical wiz when it comes to tuning up a WordPress blog and speeding up the load time. What should bloggers concentrate on if they're trying to please the Big G on page speed and "core vitals?"

This is a great question. So before I was a blogger, I was a software developer writing web applications, which has definitely helped when it comes to the technical side of running a blog.

I think the main thing to focus on these days are the core web vitals. This is what Google is focusing on, and there are currently three main metrics that Google are using. These are LCP and FID, which basically relate to how fast the page loads and becomes responsive to the user, and CLS, which measures page stability. You can check if you are passing core web vitals for your site by looking at the core web vitals score in the Google Search Console. Ideally you want to be green for all three. If you are failing, you can can click through the report to see what needs improving.

There are a lot of reasons a site can fail core web vitals. For LCP and FID, this is down to site speed. The main culprits in my experience are slow hosting, poorly optimized images, or plugins that load lots of script and css files.

My advice is to install a good caching plugin like Flying Pages or WP Rocket, or to install the excellent Cloudflare APO product, which shifts your site's html to Cloudflare's edge network.

Then, ensure your images are optimized - I have a guide to WordPress image optimization for tips and plugins. Finally, go through and throughly audit your plugins to see what you might be able to get rid of. When it comes to hosting, there are a lot of options. I use Cloudways which I think is a great combination of price and speed, but there are lots of options out there. You can see my Cloudways review to see if it might be something for you.

CLS is harder to fix because understanding what is causing elements to shift can be really challenging. In my experience it's usually caused by late loading fonts or css files, which cause elements to change size and shape. Images without specified dimensions can also shift the content around a lot. I'd recommend switching away from any third party fonts, and just using system fonts. This will also speed up the site. Specifying image dimensions will also help a lot.

A lot of the above does require some technical knowledge, so if you aren't comfortable doing it yourself, definitely look to hiring a developer. However, don't just hire anyone. Lots of page speed "experts" focus on older scores like Google's top line PageSpeed insight score. Whilst this score is a handy starting point, you want someone who knows how to optimize for the core web vitals. I'd suggest asking anyone you hire for examples of sites they have optimized in the past, and check that the sites pass the core web vitals scores in the "field data" section (NOT the lab data section) of Google's PageSpeed Insight score.

Where did you spend the pandemic lockdown time and what pivots or adjustments did you make during the great travel slump?

Waterfall travel photography from an interview with Laurence NorahWe're based in the UK, just outside of the city of Bath, and have spent the majority of our time at home. The UK has gone through a number of lockdowns since March 2020, which have obviously limited our ability to travel. We have done some local travel in the UK when it was allowed, but we have honestly spent most of our time at home.

In terms of pivots, we didn't do anything drastic. I did focus on creating more photography content, as well as more local travel guides for the UK and USA to cater to domestic tourism. We also took on an external project for a few months that we probably wouldn't have done as it was quite a time sink. As it was we had lots of time, so it worked out quite well. Overall though, we just focused on ensuring our content was up to date and ready for travel to start resuming.

Someone just dumped $10,000 dollars in your lap and told you that it all has to be spent on travel. Where are you headed and why?

I would likely book a safari somewhere in Africa. Both Jess and I have taken safaris in a number of African countries, but they were before we got together. I have very fond memories of taking safaris with my family when I was younger (I grew up in the Seychelles so Kenya was very conveniently located for family holidays), and I would love to go back and do that trip together.

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Laurence Norah is a full-time travel blogger and photographer. With his wife Jessica he runs two blogs, Finding the Universe (launched 2010) and Independent Travel Cats (launched 2013), where he shares travel tips and photography advice. Laurence also runs an online photography course where he helps people improve their photography.

Interview conducted in August, 2021 by Tim Leffel.

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