The Impostor Behind The Lens
From feeling a fraud to getting published in two top travel and photography magazines
So many of us live with an impostor syndrome. The belief that we are not good enough. That we are trying to succeed in a world where everyone will see right through us and call us out as frauds.
My love of photography has been blighted by that, for most my adult life. For a time I stopped entirely. This year I took a deep breath and agreed to join a professional photographer led tour to Botswana. My insides were screaming “run away”. Yet I knew this was make or break for me. Time to step outside of that comfort zone, as they say.
My fascination with capturing pictures of family and the world around me, with a camera, came at a very early age. Granted that ‘world’ was not so large. A trip to the countryside was a rare thing. I grew up in a low income family where we often walked to save the bus fare. Yes, my world was very small.
I got my first camera at the age of maybe 11 or 12. I eagerly read borrowed magazines and tried to recreate images with my pocket camera and cartridge film. I think I might still have that camera in a memory box in the loft.
My mister is also a keen photographer. We married when I was in my twenties and, through him, I discovered a whole new world of cameras. Sophisticated SLR cameras with the capacity to produce great images. Our walls were adorned with framed pictures of stately homes and landscapes. I think that was probably the point where my own interest in holding a camera and taking images through my own eyes, waned. The technology scared me. I am not good at making sense of the physics behind how a camera works. I confuse my ISO with my shutter speed! And I thought mine would never be as good as his.
While that didn’t stop me still wanting to take photos, they were mostly memory shots. Occasionally I would capture a well framed image. A scene framed through an opening. A snowy mountain. A rolling sea. And my love of Africa has brought home some fantastic pictures of nature and her wildlife. But I felt they were still missing the edge needed to say “I am a photographer”.
When the opportunity arose to accompany professional photographers, I won’t lie, it did scare me. On the one hand Botswana has been on my bucket list for forever, or so it seems. On the other hand this was described as a photography tour. All levels welcome but you need to have a good understanding of how your camera works.
And that is exactly where my insecurities started. Right there. The math — or the physics. However you look at it, the technology was the thing that made me feel like a distinctly lesser individual among equals. Incredibly talented equals.
But we (my mister and I) decided to do it anyway.
It was our first night around the dinner table, surrounded by six confident camera enthusiasts and photographers, when I first realised just how far out of my depth I was.
“What do you do with your images?”
As I listened to everyone talk about the competitions they had won, the camera club judge and what makes a winner, the plan to be published in a book, I started to dread my turn.
“I write. Blogs, mainly”. Why do we say blog as if we are somehow excusing our writing as being less significant?
It’s true. I do write. You know that, or you wouldn’t be here reading this.
But in all truthfulness, the things I wrote about back then, were not often accompanied by pictures of elephants. And when they were, a memory snapshot would be good enough for my readers.
So I sat there and described my desire to write more articles. Pitch to magazines. Pitch to other online websites who might be interested in my first love. Writing. And if I had a good image to help sell it, then that was my ultimate goal achieved. I actually don’t really know where that came from. Perhaps I was just bigging myself up so I wouldn’t feel like an economy class passenger who had blagged her way into first and was drinking their champagne..
‘So you don’t use your images for anything? Do you do competitions?’
I swear I felt a tumbleweed moment. Or was that my impostor whispering in my ear ‘your cover is blown. They know you don’t belong here’.
We were away for ten days. Ten days learning how to capture stand out images. My first evening we had the opportunity to photograph a leopard. A very obliging leopard who showed us her best side for twenty minutes or more. I was thrilled to bits. Until I got back and realised I had my settings all wrong. I never checked. I just looked through the view finder and snapped what I saw. Except that wasn’t what the camera saw. Where everyone else proudly showed off theirs, I hid mine. They were grainy as hell. First lesson — check your images as you go.
I realised I was not going to get anything new from this experience unless I seriously sorted myself out. I felt like I was sitting my exams all over again. I was having total brain fog at the critical moments. I had to keep asking my mister ‘what settings will I need for this’. I felt stupid.
And then something changed.
First I started asking more questions.
Instead of hiding my mistakes I would ask for help. “Would you under expose this a little?”. I was starting to understand the lingo.
Then I got bolder.
When the invitation came to get down to the front of the boat, I nervously got out of my seat. And then quickly scurried back. By the end of the trip I didn’t need that invitation. Stand up, sit down. When everyone was shooting one way, I was looking for some new angle. The day everyone was watching the funny Chacma baboon babies, I was the one who got the spectacular moving shot of the baboon baby theft over the other side (featured in the article link at the foot).
And I stopped thinking about the settings.
I mean, I thought about them, obviously. But I didn’t let them steal my thoughts. I was beginning to understand what I needed for certain situations and then how to adjust them after checking the back of the camera. They were becoming a little more second nature. Practice, practice, practice.
I started to enjoy my images.
Every day I went back to the hotel, downloaded and processed some so I could use my successes and build on them. And take my failings back out at the next session and learn.
I also got inspired by the gallery images and many books on display at the hotel too. I had never really looked at a wildlife book in any way except to appreciate the beauty in the subject itself. A pretty picture, a page turned. Now I was looking at it like a photographer. Why was it stunning? Was it the composition? Was it the detail? Did the photographer use a different technique?
Back in the field I tried for different angles. I looked for those details. No more group shots for me. Instead I was homing right in on the things I might otherwise have missed. I looked for reflections. I waited for the subject to look at me. And then my proudest moment was when I quietly tried different techniques. Lens bursts and intentional camera movement. I quietly sat there and just had a play. When it didn’t work I knew what settings I needed to change. I told nobody. I prayed nobody was watching and wondering why I was wiggling my camera around. “Just let me do this alone”
All of this is simple stuff, if you are a photographer.
Seven thousand images later I came home. I came home and I wrote! I wrote for all I was worth.
Within four days I had pitched three stories to some top travel and photography magazines, confident in the knowledge that I had images they would be happy to include. Two were accepted.
That moment was pinnacle. I wanted to make writing a bigger part of my life, now I had the affirmation I needed. I also wanted to pick up my camera and feel as if we belong together too. We still have our moments.
Tomorrow my mister and I, and our cameras, are heading out on a trip to try and photograph red deer in the winter in Scotland. I won’t lie, the nerves are back. The same anxieties are already rising. But writing this has helped me to remember — I have been here before.
“You’ve got this, Marie, you’ve got this.”
Meet the author: Marie T Smith writes for a number of Medium publications. She has already been credited as a top writer in Food, Travel, Cooking and Satire. She is also a published writer in Travel Magazines and a keen photographer of wildlife. She Wordsmiths is where it all began and is where she manages her newsletter updates.
If you would like to read either of the published photography articles mentioned: