Today’s interview comes from the great state of Tennessee and features the very talented photographer Jim Pottkotter. With careful consideration, Jim strives to find a perfect balance for creating his photography. Jim finds inspiration for his photography through his travels, a close relationship with nature, and the love of family and friends.
Jim, thank you so much for sharing all of your thoughtful responses with us. I enjoy viewing your photographs and I can’t wait to see more inspirational photography from you in the future.
Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself?
I grew up and lived in Tennessee except for an early stint in the Army, so I’m a Tennessee boy through and through. I had a great career in IT working in Health Care. It met my need for technical and analytical challenges, as well as service to the community. I retired a few years ago and now I’m enjoying that phase of my life.
After browsing through some of your work, I see that you’re truly immersed in the field of photography. What is it that led you towards photography and how long have you been working in it?
When we planned a trip to Yellowstone in 2012, I decided to buy a digital camera and got a Nikon D5100 kit on sale. The day we arrived in Yellowstone I photographed two Grizzly Bears and lots of other wildlife and flowers over several days. The instant feedback of digital photography sped the learning process. Digital photography was forgiving. Mistakes only cost a missed opportunity to get a particular shot. It had enough technical challenges to satisfy that part of me and opened up a new way to be creative. I was hooked.
Are you self-taught or formally-taught?
Self-taught through books, self-paced courses, and videos for the most part.
I will say I’m not sure self-taught is the quickest way to learn. It works for me because I learn well from videos and jumping around to subjects of interest instead of plowing through a prescribed course. I also learn from my mistakes. It is success founded on failure, lots of failures, and some folks get discouraged without early success. The self-taught approach requires a lot of determination and commitment.
Where have you found the majority of valuable information on your journey (online, in person, mentor, college, etc…)?
A friend at work turned out to be an excellent early mentor, his name is Shawn Bierman and you can find out more about his work on Twitter and Instagram. I would go out on weekends and shoot and show him the photos the next week. They were absolutely terrible. He had a very kind way of coaching me, by asking what I was trying to do and where I would like to improve. He would ask, “Have you considered using a tripod?”, or say “I see you’re still putting your subject in the center of the frame. Have you heard of the rule of thirds?” When he paused quietly on a photo, I knew I had done something right. I still think of those friendly sessions when I’m out shooting today.
YouTube is also an excellent source of information, and it appeals to my desire to jump around on different topics important to me at the time. Just search for “beginning photography,” “bird photography” or whatever you want to learn more about. I favor Tony and Chelsae Northrup on YouTube. They have excellent advice, hundreds of hours of free content on every photography topic, bargain prices on very helpful training materials, consistent integrity, and a sense of humor. These are all things I value.
From looking through the galleries on your site, I can see that you’ve been to a variety of locations. Of those you visited, which was your favorite and why?
As a group, it would include state, local and national parks, as well as the various refuges. Collectively they are a national treasure, and if you love nature, there is no better place to be. If I had to choose one place, it would probably be the Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding areas. The biodiversity is extraordinary, and I love to photograph the flowers, animals, insects, mushrooms, and everything else.
Regarding your styles of photography, which do you prefer the most (wildlife, landscape, travel, etc…)?
My heart is with the plants and animals, and I sometimes mix in landscape and travel for context. I also love to photograph friends, family, and pets when there is a special event or a request.
Regarding your wildlife photos, which truly are remarkable, what advice can you offer to those who would like to begin taking these types of photographs?
Start with whatever digital camera you have instead of waiting until you can get a “good camera.” You can learn a lot with whatever camera you have. Some people are creating amazing work with just a phone camera. I love nature and wildlife is an important part of that, but subjects that move can be a tough place to start. Practicing on subjects that are still for seconds at a time or move slowly can provide better practice and speed the learning process. Pets, squirrels, birds at a feeder, zoo animals, and similar subjects can be a good place to start.
Picnic tables can be a good place to practice on wildlife. You don’t have to feed wildlife as others probably have and birds or squirrels may approach you looking for a handout. Interleave taking photos with learning about photography, the basics first, then topics that appeal to you. As you progress, you will discover the limitations of your current camera and lens and begin to understand what would work better for the type of photography you like. Follow the work of those doing what you would like to do. You might not want to invest in the equipment they have, but there are usually less expensive cameras and lens that can help you grow. Getting coaching along the way will make an amazing difference in your progress and results, and there is no substitute for better equipment once you understand why you need it.
Is photography your full-time career?
No, retirement is my current full-time career. I’m OK with monetizing my photography in a few ways, but I don’t want to turn it into a job. By the way, many photographers don’t make a lot of money. It’s an extremely crowded field, and many photographers can’t master the marketing and business side, even if their photography is excellent.
What is your favorite part of being a photographer?
I enjoy capturing some tiny aspect of nature to share and help me remember my experience. For me, life is about experiences and memories of those experiences. When I look at a photo I can usually recall the location, weather, time of day, how I felt physically, emotionally, what else was going on in my life, what happened before that and after, etc. I’ve found that photos help me preserve those memories. Bad shots would do the same thing, but by learning and working to get good shots, I also come away with something I can personally enjoy and share with others.
What is the most challenging part of being a photographer?
Balance. Whatever we are really passionate about will eventually consume us if we’re not careful. Taking, culling, developing, researching, and sharing photos takes an enormous amount of time. Researching the subjects I photograph can take hours. Some people post a photo and caption it “Pretty yellow bird” or “Beautiful purple flower.” And while that may be accurate, I think everything deserves to be called by its name. Since I like to photograph birds, insects, flowers, mushrooms, reptiles, and everything else in nature, spending additional hours to learn more about them just adds to the investment in time. Sometimes I can’t do it because the fields of expertise needed to identify various species require too much research or skill to differentiate between similar species. It can be very frustrating and humbling.
What do you do to keep your photography fresh and how do you stay motivated?
Travel. That one-word answer encompasses so much, and is inspired by a quote by Jim Richardson, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
There are many ways to photograph the same thing creatively, but at some point, both photographers and viewers tend to tire of the same subject. I may have 50 magazine-worthy photos of the Carolina Wren, but if I post them all at the same time, I will bore myself and my followers. Travel exposes me to new plants, animals, landscapes, and weather. I find diverse experiences with nature leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation of it.
Who or what inspires you in your personal life and work?
Accountability is a core value, and so just as I believe I’m responsible for my own happiness, I believe I’m also responsible for my own inspiration. I can be fascinated by the work of others, but I don’t try to emulate it. I look at my own work and ask myself how I can do better. I believe if we can’t find inspiration in our work, we’re doing the wrong work.
Who is the most inspirational photographer in your life?
Here I’m like the mother of many children. I can’t pick just one, but enjoy different ones for different reasons. I’ve been humbled by the wonderful nature photographers on Twitter. There are several photographers I follow, but any list would inevitably leave off someone very special. A search for #nature, #naturephotography, #birds, or #birdphotography will turn up some amazing work. I’m very happy to be part of that community.
What industry sites and blogs do you read regularly? Would any stand out as particularly motivational or inspirational for someone who might be interested in learning about photography?
I don’t follow blogs for learning about photography, but I am inspired by professional blogs that focus on nature. For example, I’m really enjoying your site, glazart.com, especially the interviews with photographers. There are other photographers I admire and would love to have a conversation with, and your interviews let me do that vicariously. It’s really good stuff, and I’m happy to be part of that.
What type of camera(s) do you shoot with? What’s your favorite lens?
I use the Nikon D500 camera and Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 lens almost exclusively. All of my work is hand-held. The camera and lens combination is heavy for hand-held shooting but good for nature photography. The camera can shoot ten frames a second and has an excellent focusing system. The lens is sharp, and the zoom capability allows me to handle challenging distance issues and provides compositional options when the subject is closer. It is also a good macro lens for getting close-ups of small subjects like flowers and insects.
What is your favorite photography accessory?
The Nikon extended battery pack for my camera makes sure I never miss a shot due to a low battery, and it provides additional controls that make it easier to switch from landscape to portrait orientation when the situation calls for it. It adds additional weight to an already heavy camera and lens though, so it also qualifies as my least favorite accessory by the end of the day.
What piece of equipment would you most like to acquire that you don’t have yet?
The Nikon D850 camera is interesting because it creates larger files that provide more cropping flexibility and supports larger format prints among other things. The Nikon 600mm f4.0 lens would provide more distance and lower light shooting options. The Nikon 70-200m f2.8 would enable lower light shooting of subjects that are close. However, my current subjects and shooting style don’t require these, so I’m putting off getting those until I have a clear need for them. By that time, something better may even be available.
What software do you use for photo editing and management?
I use Lightroom for 99% of my editing and all of my photo management. I have current versions of other editors that are emerging in the market such as Luminar and On1 but have not found the need to switch to those. I also use Photoshop for about 1% of my editing. When you really need Photoshop, there is no substitute.
Was there a point in your photography journey when you started to feel really good about your work? If so, what did it feel like to get past that “tipping point?”
There was a clear tipping point for me. I learned the basics of nature photography on flowers. They were colorful, plentiful, and didn’t mind posing for me. However, I quickly moved on to birds and even birds in flight. In retrospect, while it was a passion, it was a mistake. I was a bit over-ambitious. Birds are difficult compared to flowers, mushrooms, landscapes, and people. I spent weeks in the field only to end up with disappointing results. Once I realized I had tried to jump too far ahead, I spent more time on easier subjects and expanded into people, pets, and wildlife. That was a pivotal point in my development because I was soon taking better photos of those subjects, and eventually birds as well.
Are there any areas of photography that you have yet to pick up on that you’d like to learn?
I’m still learning, but there is no particular area I want to learn at this time. I believe that travel is an amazing teacher and that is my current focus. My vision is that exposing myself to new subjects and environments will test me and teach me a lot more than I know now.
What do you think the future holds for you? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
A happy life is about balance. As I mentioned earlier, while our passions drive us, they also consume us. Taken to the extreme, photography would keep me from fully experiencing nature, the thing that originally inspired me. So, I see myself continually seeking balance and the peace that nature brings.