Shooting the Chiang Mai Nomad Summit

nomad summit chiang mai stickers

On Saturday 7th February, 2015, around a hundred and fifty people packed into a conference room in northern Thailand to listen to ten speakers give talks on a whole variety of topics at the 2015 Chiang Mai Nomad Summit.

I’ve put the year there out of hope and expectation of this becoming an annual event.

From selling piano lesson videos to having hammocks made in China, and optimising your health by eating right to making a living wholesaling tonnes of sugar, the presentations were as diverse as they were inspiring.

I didn’t give a talk.

That’s not to say I didn’t do anything though; personally speaking, it was kind of a milestone day for me.

In the week leading up to the event, I’d seen on the Facebook page the need for a couple of photographers to document the day and its speakers. I thought about it for a few seconds.

My photography has always been street or travel shots, and has always been me shooting for me. Things that catch my eye, things that I think are worth sharing; things that nobody else has asked me to shoot.

coffee cups at chiang mai nomad summit

I’d never really covered an event before, never been given instructions about what to shoot (“a couple of each speaker and some cool creative ones,” Johnny FD had told me), taking shots that people are expecting to see, and basically doing the kind of shoot where people are relying on me not to mess it up.

I took another sip of beer and volunteered.

This post now is my take on how the day went for me, and in more aspects than merely taking pictures.

I’d already achieved something by stepping out of my comfort zone and putting my name down, but what about the rest?

What did I learn – from the speakers, about this kind of photography, and about myself?

I think it’s best to start at the beginning, with a bit of background for those of you who aren’t aware of the digital nomad scene in Chiang Mai, and certain other places around the world.

From here on in, you may consider this my talk from the Chiang Mai Nomad Summit.

What is a digital nomad?

chiang mai digital nomad summit

Look at them all.

Pretty much everyone in that picture is either making money online or has aspirations of doing so, and will probably have attended the summit to learn more about making that a reality.

There are honestly so many ways to make a living working remotely in this way, and a lot of people (including a fair few of the speakers at the event) are making far more than they ever would with a 9-5 back home.

It might appear scammy to the uninitiated and I understand why.

There definitely are people making cash by selling nothing other than the dream. There are also plenty of people simply taking advantage of a relatively new way of doing legitimate business too, though.

You’ll unfortunately find good and bad eggs in any walk of life.

Of course, making money online means being able to do it from anywhere, within reason, and with the freedom to move around as much as the finances allow – hence the name, digital nomad.

laptop at chiang mai nomad summit

Before we go any further, I’m just going to put this out there: I really dislike the term digital nomad.

I love the idea and I like the lifestyle, but there’s something about the label that kind of grates. I’m not sure why, but most buzzwords and terms have the same effect on me, and this one is no different.

Either way, Chiang Mai is a hotspot for people who are making money online, as are Medellin, Ho Chi Minh City, Berlin, Bali, and a host of other places around the world.

When trying to build an online business, it makes sense to live in a place with a big community of like-minded people.

It means networking, help, advice, and friendship are all readily available, and events like this Nomad Summit merely reinforce the value of living in such a place.

Speakers at the Chiang Mai Nomad Summit

nomad summit chiang mai jeff zettel

Like any conference, the Chiang Mai Nomad Summit would live or die on the quality of the speakers. Fortunately, the ten people who had given up their time to prepare and present their talks made the event what it was – a big success.

The number and diversity of people in the audience was great enough that I really believe each of the talks would have been of value to somebody, even if not every talk would have been particularly relevant to everyone.

Some people would have taken more from hearing about building a team, while others would have been more interested in Jeff Zettel’s talk on optimising the hours in the workday.

That’s Jeff in the last picture by the way, looking stressed as he waits to give his talk in his cut off work shirt.

Personally, and from memory as I didn’t take any notes, these are the speakers that I took the most from:

leon jay chiang mai nomad summit

Leon Jay (above) gave a talk on building a business for passion rather than for profit, with a tonne of clear and simple slides that made the whole talk easy to follow and take something from.

It was full of useful small details but had a clear and inspiring bigger message too, suggesting you examing why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how figuring that out will lead to more success than just chasing the money.

I think the one small piece of advice that stuck with me most from Leon’s talk was to outsource the tasks that cause the bottlenecks in your business.

Yeah, I know.

It sounds so obvious, once a bloke on a stage has told a hundred and fifty people to do it.

Sean Lee was another speaker whose talk I enjoyed, and took good advice and inspiration from.

Sean sells video based piano lessons, and explained in detail about how to build traffic to such a venture.

Getting traffic is something that I’m of course interested in, but I was especially inspired by Sean’s freemium model for his piano videos.

I’d previously wondered how to successfully get people interested enough in what you’re doing to want to buy your premium content, but that was because I’d never seen such a clear example of it in action before.

If you give away the lesson showing how to play the first part of a song, as Sean does, of course some of the people interested in that will be interested enough to pay for the rest of the song. As ever, the question now is what else can this be applied to?

nomad summit mark brenwall

Mark Brenwall‘s (above) talk also resonated with me, in both the personal aspect of it and the business.

Mark’s presentation was impressively open and honest, and he did mention a thing or two from his past that he’d had to overcome to get to where he is now.

Inspiring, personally.

Business-wise, again it was all about gaining traffic, followers, fans, and of course potential customers.

Mark’s project has a lot of these, and learning a little of how to get people engaging with what you’re trying to do was great for me, and got some cogs going in my head.

Jeff Zettel, a life coach and poet, gave the penultimate talk of the day, by which time the energy levels of most of the audience were understandably dropping.

Jeff came on and got everyone fired up again with his vitality and humour, and of course gave a talk that most people I’m sure could take a lot from.

His system of managing the hours available in the working day and setting daily and weekly goals on Trello gave me some ideas of how to adopt a similar system, although the nature of my work means that I never know how much unexpected stuff might land in my inbox overnight.

Still, I know that the system he talked about does work, and I guess aiming for the sort of lifestyle where I own my time enough for me to plan each and every day is something to aim for.

Photographing the Chiang Mai Nomad Summit

camera at chiang mai nomad summit

As I said at the top of this post, I’d never shot anything like this before; I’d never documented a public event, and never really been under any instruction or had any expectations of me when doing my photography.

I was breaking new ground personally, which is always beneficial, but I wasn’t really sure how the hours I’ve put into improving my street and travel photography would translate to this.

So how do I reckon it went photography wise?

If you’ve read this far then, all being well, you should have seen a fair amount of my pictures from the day.

I have no idea what you’ve made of them so far, but what I generally try to do with this site is never talk about a picture until the reader has had the chance to view it and judge for themselves.

I’m going to talk a bit about the overall body of work now though, including those already posted, and what I think went well and what I could have done better on the day.

man taking notes at chiang mai nomad summit

When I’m out shooting in the street with my vintage lenses, I’m more often than not trying to find more creative angles for my shots, and trying to bring something other than just a picture of the subject in hand. I did the same here.

The most important shots of the day were those of the speakers, and getting them wrong would have been a bit of a disaster.

Even so, after taking a few shots of the first couple of speakers, I felt that taking the exact same shot of them all from the exact same place would have just been awful too.

I reckon the event deserved better than that and I like to think that, as a photographer, I’m better than that. As every new speaker came and gave their talk, I was trying to find a different angle to shoot them from.

nomad summit chiang mai natalie jay

ben finnigan chiang mai nomad summit

chiang mai nomad summit mark brenwall

camera filming at chiang mai nomad summit

It wasn’t easy, and there’s only so much you can do with from the left, from the right, or from in front. As you can see, I played around with shooting from lower down and trying to get other scenery in the shots too.

In truth, I think I could have done better. If I were to give you a shot of every speaker (with apologies by the way to the ones who aren’t getting shown), you’d see the variety throughout the whole ten could have been greater.

The ones I am showing you, I am actually really pleased with – but I didn’t manage to get truly different images of all ten speakers.

Aside from those shots, I was also taking pictures from around the event, trying to add some flavour to the set.

If you think about an article in a travel magazine, the main shot will probably be a wide landscape, while the smaller pictures in the corners of the pages are more likely to be of smaller details. Handicrafts for sale at the market, some street food, a portrait of a local person.

The main landscape shot is the meat but, when done well, it’s these more intimate shots that add flavour to a set of pictures.

Already on this page we’ve had the stickers, the coffee cups, the video camera, the guy taking notes; they’re all pictures designed to give those who weren’t at the event a taste of what it was really like for those who were.

audience at chiang mai nomad summit

Again, I’m pleased with the shots I got, although I know I could have spent more time looking for further ones.

The event was a big learning experience for me with regards my photography, and one thing I found was how self-conscious I was being there with my camera.

Constantly on my mind was not wanting to annoy people who were trying to concentrate on the speakers, and so I tried to move around as quietly as possible and not block anyone’s view just to get a shot.

There was another style of shot that I think would have complemented the set too – portraits of the attendees during the coffee breaks.

I’m not one to go up to groups of people and introduce myself, while a lot of my photography is based on being anonymous out in the street. I guess these combined (probably more of the first point) to mean I was always photographing the people here kind of from the outside, and not getting involved with them interpersonally.

Again though, every experience is there to be learnt from, and I know next time I will have to push myself to get these kind of shots too.

people at chiang mai nomad summit

The final thing I learnt, or re-learnt, about photography at the Chiang Mai Nomad Summit was that zoom lenses, auto focus, and even shooting on fully automatic mode are actually really useful.

This site is all about vintage manual focus prime lenses, and I find street shooting with autofocus zoom lenses far less rewarding than using the old ones.

For this kind of assignment though, the versatility and convenience of having everything taken care of by the camera was absolutely the way to go.

I did take my Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8 in the expectation of getting some portrait shots with it, but gave up the idea after a few tests shots.

I also spent the second half of the event shooting in a mode I didn’t think I would ever touch again: fully automatic.

nomad summit chiang mai johnny fd thejen

I’d been shooting in Aperture mode in the morning but was finding it a pain to keep the shutter speeds high enough on a not-too-high ISO, especially with the aperture changing too as I zoomed in and out.

As I began to get tired in the afternoon, both physically and mentally, I switched to Automatic mode and never looked back.

Nobody ever asks you what mode you had the camera on when shooting – they either like the pictures or they don’t.

I use vintage lenses and Aperture mode for my own street photography, but if you’re shooting for someone else, Automatic modes aren’t the cop-out that some photography snobs will have you believe.

Getting the shots is far more important.

It’s also worth pointing out that if people like your pictures, they probably won’t care what camera you used. I don’t own anything too expensive, and am lucky enough not to suffer from the dreaded Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

DSLR cameras are great, but the images here were all shot on the mirrorless Sony NEX that I’ve had for years. Even the model I have has been superseded a few times over, but I see no reason to upgrade.

It’s far better to spend the money on improving my skills with classes, books or simply photographic trips than needlessly updating my camera.

Final thoughts on the Nomad Summit

nomad summit chiang mai crowd

I really don’t imagine there was anyone who attended and didn’t take anything useful away from the day, which is testament not only to the great speakers but also to the organisers, Kathrin Folkendt, Pejman Afrakhteh, and Johnny FD.

As you can learn from Kathrin’s or Johnny’s blog, the whole event was put together in just ten days, which I think was wholly fitting given the nature of the speakers, audience, and lifestyle that most of the people involved with it lead.

If you have what you think is a good idea, you really should just run with it.

Johnny also gave the final talk, wrapping up the event and summarising nicely the main ideas of the day.

The vibe was really to have belief and trust in yourself that you can achieve your goals, and that hard work and persistence will see you get there.

nomad summit chiang mai johnny fd

I think it’s possible for anyone to achieve their realistic dreams.

Note, possible.

Even the hard work and persistence you need to put in to get there can’t guarantee them, but not trying will ensure they don’t happen. Even a half-hearted effort is likely to fail.

As you may have gathered, I took a lot from the event, both personally and professionally. What I learnt about me and my photography was the personal part, while the business tips and motivation I picked up the professional.

The day looked to me to have been a complete success, and if everyone was able to take at least one thing away and use it to better themselves or their business, then I’m not sure how much more anyone could have asked from it.

I’ve no idea if there’ll be another one, and I don’t suppose even the organisers would know for sure at this stage (a week after the event, at the time of writing), but I really hope there is.

Perhaps it might inspire people to replicate it in other places that have a high concentration of digital nomads too.

I doubt I’ll still be in Chiang Mai by the time another might be held here, but who knows about anywhere else. Never say never.

Until then, to the organisers for putting the event together, the speakers for giving such inspiring talks, and you for reading this far…

speakers at chiang mai nomad summit

coffee at chiang mai nomad summit


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Shooting the Chiang Mai Digital Nomad Summit was a great experience for me, and photographs weren't the only thing I took from the day. Come discover what else in this photoblog.

4 thoughts on “Shooting the Chiang Mai Nomad Summit”

  1. Very well-written article, Lee. I’ve listened to a number of the sessions. @disqus_aXgsFBCBLy:disqus FD has such a passion for helping others become digital nomads and living the life they’ve always dreamed of living. Also… it’s posts like this that gives more exposure to what thousands are doing, and shows that it is, in fact possible. Nice work!


    • Really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, Robb. Thank you.

      Yeah, I only met Johnny once or twice during my time in Chiang Mai but it’s clear from his blog and the things he does like organising this summit that he loves to pass on his knowledge and experience to others. As do most of the nomads in Chiang Mai to be honest, whether speaking at events or just helping others out in the co-working spaces. It’s a big part of what makes Chiang Mai such a great place to be pursuing these dreams, as I’m sure you know. 🙂


  2. LOVED that write up. You took beautiful photos and I’m so happy to have had you attend and volunteer. You really captured another site of the event that most people wouldn’t see without your photos. Thanks again!

    • Thanks, Johnny. I really appreciate that. I was glad to have the opportunity to help out, and to try something new personally too. Hope the next event is as good as this one was, if not better!


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