In the Barrel with Tim Kothlow

In the Barrel with Tim Kothlow
Tim is a photo editor and photographer based in Orange County, California. He works with several internationally recognized athletes, agencies, publications, brands, and nonprofits such as Hurley, Roxy, Surfer Magazine, The Surfers Journal, Australian Surfing World Magazine and many more.

How did you initially get into photography?

Growing up in a family with 4 active kids, we were always busy going to sporting events for each sibling. My parents would bring a camera to games, but they would get caught watching more than shooting. So, one day they handed me the camera at my sister's softball game and it snowballed from there. My junior year of high school my parents gifted me my first camera. I was enrolled in a digital imaging class by my counselor and by my senior year I joined the photo club. A critical role model for me in high school was my Bio teacher, Mrs. Beck. With her experience as a professional photographer, she would encourage me in times of doubt and would help me with questions, and for that, I am forever grateful to her.

She sounds like an excellent role model. What were you looking to achieve when you first started photography?

I have always been interested in the imagery that I see in surf magazines. In high school especially I was blown away by the photos from crazy remote locations. I thought that it would be cool to be the person behind the camera on those trips. Going to faraway places with a group of friends and being able to tell their story through photos became the dream.

For you and me both! Bring us back to the moment you realized that you needed a higher quality camera?

It happened while I was shooting assignments for my photo and video classes in college. I grew out of my camera (Nikon D3000) by the end of my freshman year and realized I needed something that had more frames per second, could handle lower light and perform better. I also realized that if I was going to shoot surf, I needed to invest in a water housing. So I figured why not invest in a great camera and gear that will fit my needs in and out of the water. A camera that I won’t grow out of in a couple of years.

Smart move. How did you get your start on surf photography specifically?

When I realized that I wanted to shoot surfing, it was daunting attempting to ask these big brands to photograph their athletes and become involved. I didn’t have the skill level, confidence, or the know-how on how to make that happen. So, I figured I would start small and reach out to some upcoming pro surfers. Along the way of building up my portfolio in school, I also set a goal to intern for Surfer Magazine. Senior year, I landed the photo internship and my connections and confidence in photography started to grow. After graduating college, I decided to go for it and reached out to a couple of the women on the WSL CT and asked if I could document them at an upcoming contest in Southern California. They both said yes, and one of them ended up winning the contest… It was crazy how it all worked out.

It sounds like you laid a lot of groundwork while you were in school. Was there any sort of community or mentor that you had to keep you going?

During college, I had my friends that I worked on staff with for the university’s publications, it was a small group of us and we were pretty much inseparable. We would all be brutally honest with each other when it needed to happen, but we also encouraged each other to take on the world. The most important support I have had besides my friends is my mentor Jim Veneman. Jim is one of the photojournalism professors at the university and he would also lead meetings with the photo editors on the publications staff. Spending so much time with him helped me realize the importance of photography beyond just taking pretty pictures. Beyond his sound advice and constant encouragement, any question I throw his way is answered with a story. The stories involved anything from him leaning on Fidel Castro's desk, lying in a shallow ditch while a tractor/disc harrow rolls overhead, or a truck ride on one of the most dangerous roads in the middle east…it’s pretty great.

Tell us about your creative process? How are you deciding what you’re going to shoot?

The creative process is all over the place. If a friend needs content for their sponsors, we will plan out a day and figure out what kind of photos we want…or we’ll wing it (which tends to happen more often) and nail some pictures for sponsors. If I want to shoot a photo story, I look for something interesting to me and plan how I want to capture it. I’ll reach out to the necessary people to gain access and information and try to make the photo story happen. When I want to collaborate with other artists, I’ll do some research and reach out to them in hopes of working together. I’ll send over some past photos or photograph some new content that I think they can work with, and then we go from there. Recently, I’ve wanted to shoot more outdoor adventure activities like climbing, backpacking, expeditions and so on. I’ve been doing a lot of research and groundwork on athletes within those industries so I can start shooting more of that.

What is the first picture that you were proud of making?

The first picture I remember being proud of was a photo I made of Carissa Moore. Honestly, it wasn’t anything special. It’s a photo of her at the U.S. Open years ago kneeling on the sand before a heat. I walked up and asked if it was ok to take a few photos of her, shot and then wished her luck. It was pretty surreal at the time because it is when I wanted to start connecting with athletes in the surf industry.

Describe your ideal day of shooting.

My ideal day of shooting I think is just a day filled with friends having fun with a camera in hand to document the experience. Whether it be on a trip somewhere on the other side of the world or somewhere local, it's always the most fun to hang and shoot with friends. It doesn’t happen too often though which is a bummer.

What has photography taught you that you might not have learned elsewhere?

I’m sure you can learn this lesson anywhere. However, I learned with photography that even if you are the greatest in the world at it, if you aren’t a pleasant person to be around, you probably won’t get hired or taken anywhere. On a surf trip or any trip in general, it can be pretty tight living, and no one wants to be stuck with someone that would bring the whole mood down you know?

That makes sense. What motivates you to keep shooting?

What motivates me to keep shooting is the fact that there are stories everywhere that won’t be seen by so many people unless they get photographed. Whether it be a story about something substantial such as the border crisis down south or something simple like the life story of a random farmer in the middle of the country. Stories would go widely unseen if it weren’t for photographers.

Truth! How would you say your photography contributes to today’s culture?

I’m not sure how much my work contributes to today’s culture, but I hope there is some sort of impact. In the past, I focused a lot on photographing the women's surf industry where I tried to show that there is so much more to those athletes than just being picked up by sponsors to look good in swimwear. I’m currently working on a project with ocean lifeguards which is pretty fun. I’m trying to capture not only daily life and job duties but also how they positively affect the community through education and service.

I’m also involved as a photo editor/photographer with a growing non-profit called Surf Deployments. The group sends active service members and military veterans to unique surf destinations to thank them for their service and introduce them to a support network that provides upward mobility — including advice, inspiration, job opportunities, and lifelong friendships.

That's cool, thanks for doing that. What would you say if you went 100 years into the future with a time machine and saw your photos in a California history book?

I would be pretty speechless. If anything, seeing that would make me work harder knowing that my photos would have that much of an impact on California's culture.

Tell us about your goals with photography. Where do you hope to take it?

My goals with photography are to be a photo editor for a major brand or publication like Patagonia or National Geographic. Of course, those are two huge goals that seem very far away at the moment, but I’m doing all that I can to meet them or get close.

Keep up the fantastic work, and it can happen. Where can we find out more about you and your work?

You can learn more about me and see more work at or my Instagram @t_kothlow.

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