Nick Onken: Photographer Spotlight

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This commercial spotlight features lifestyle and travel photographer Nick Onken. One of PDN’s 30 Emerging Photographers to Watch in 2010, Nick boasts a client list of top name brand companies including Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nike, Reebok, Time Warner and publications such as Seventeen, Cosmopolitan and the Improper Bostonian. He’s the author of a travel photography book, Photo Trekking, and speaks at different professional organization events across the country. Nick lives and works in New York City.

How long have you been working as a professional photographer? What did you do before then and how did you get started?

I went to school for and did graphic design for five years before thinking about going into the world of photography. I bought a digital camera and started shooting content for my design work, but really had no clue what I wanted. I convinced a non-profit design client to split the expenses on a trip to Africa to build a photo library for them. After that trip I realized I could do something I enjoyed, get paid, and I could travel. At that point I started talking to another photographer and getting acquainted with the world of photography. Eventually I assisted this photographer.

I was exploring my own work. I started shooting for modeling agencies while evolving my lifestyle concepts, and then eventually I started making my creative portfolio, website and marketing. It was a slow build process. I started doing a lot of e-promos or when I was traveling I set up a lot of meetings with art buyers. Making those connections and staying in touch with people eventually lead to work. Once they have a project that fits your work, you just hope they remember you.

Take us through an average day or week. What’s your routine, or non-routine?

There is no such routine in my life/week. Since I shoot mostly location work, when I’m not traveling and working on set, I work out of my home office. There is quite a bit of work that comes with the business of photography that isn’t actually taking pictures (more in this blogpost: http://nonk.it/redic_work). Some days when I’m home, I’ll wake up, and respond to emails, work on promo campaign stuff, creative research, planning personal shoots etc. Some days I will meet with clients in the city. Days when I have jobs, I’ll typically be working on preproduction, looking through locations, casting, conference calls with art directors etc. Some times, we spend time estimating jobs, and doing creative calls to land those jobs.

Where do you find inspiration? What’s your creative process?

I find creative inspiration in many places, but traveling is huge for me. I am inspired by different environments and cultures. I’m inspired by the work of other photographers that I admire. I like to pull elements that I see from their work as inspiration. As far as creative process, I like to brainstorm ideas of what I’d like to do, then write a creative brief around that. Then go and produce it.

I love locations, people, and things with character. You go to a new place and there is just a lot of story in different places. The people and place there have a lot to tell.

Travel photography is a big part of what you do. How has traveling the world changed your perspective and photography?

I’m a believer in experience, and when your experiences help shape your art and vision. Travel is inspiring, it opens your eyes to the way other cultures operate. To experience things that you are unfamiliar with broadens your perspective. That in turn spills into my lifestyle/commercial work. I think it breeds the organic feeling of my style.

As I mentioned I love cultures with character. One thing that stuck out to me was my first trip to Africa. It got me thinking in the direction of seeing a world apart from what I’m used to. That was really what set off the travel work for me. a couple years later, I felt that I started to hit my stride when I got to Asia. I was shooting for a few years then and I had the process a bit more refined so I was getting the best takeaways from the work.

You’ve recently published a travel photography book, Photo Trekking. What was it like putting this together and what do you hope readers will get out of it?

I was actually approached to write the book. I had put out some promo books that had been circulating around and done a few seminars and then there was an editor in one of the audiences that got in contact with me and asked, “Hey do you want to write a book?” It just happened like that. So then I had to go through the entire pitch process and put together a table of contents and what I would talk about and how it would be educational. Once that was done my editor sent the book out and we sold it to the decision makers at Random House. Upon signing the contract, I began to work on writing the content and curate the imagery. I wasn’t shooting specifically for it though, most of the photos were from previous travel work and then as we were in the process I kept shooting a few more travel things to add in. It came together well.

Then it was about a year from when we submitted to when it hit the shelves and we threw a big launch party in NYC (see the vid & photos here: http://nonk.it/PT_ReleaseParty). It was pretty exciting when it did. It’s geared for amateur and intermediate photographers and it talks about how I approach my photography and travel work. The biggest take away to me, is learning to see and shoot your own style.

Editor’s Note: We’ve got a review of Photo Trekking on our site. Definitely check it out: https://digital-photography-school.com/photo-trekking-a-traveling-photographers-guide-to-capturing-moments-around-the-world-book-review.

What do you enjoy most about being a commercial photographer? Is there a specific job that you’ve really enjoyed?

I enjoy working on big sets with resources at hand, and having a fun crew to work with. The longer shoots are like going to camp, and at the end if you have a great crew, you’ve bonded with them and have had a memorable experience. More resources mean more production value. My first Reebok job was a 10 day shoot, my crew was tight, and I had creative reign to do some fun things. We shot multiple locations around the LA area.

Where do you see yourself and the industry as a whole 10 years from now?

I see myself shooting more fashion in the lifestyle side. At that point I may get into directing commercials. I’m not quite sure where the industry will be, but way more digital, that’s for sure. Maybe all the magazines will be electronic paper. I still believe there will be photography work out there because people will always need their products shot, regardless of the end medium.

Magazines are always going to be visual and they’re always going to need fresh content. People still need imagery to look at. I think it’s going to slim down quite a bit as budgets keep going away, but I think people will also find new ways to find revenue from it and photography will still have a great home.

How important is a photographer’s website in today’s world? Are buyers still asking for a printed book?

Website is huge this day in age. It’s a first stop filter, and gateway into your work and brand. The portfolios are still around, and a necessity but they’re being called in less and less. . No one is going to call your book without first seeing your web, so you need to make a good first impression there. Easy navigation and image pre-loading are important things to have on your website; it’s a nightmare for art directors to have to wait for images to load. I realized that and put a lot of money into my current website. I wanted a great user experience since it’s the first point of contact clients usually have for your work. A lot of the younger art directors just book straight off your website.

Is it important to shoot just for yourself?

It’s the most important thing you can ever do in this career. Shooting your own work develops your personal vision, let alone keeps you fresh. The more you develop your own work the better the jobs you’ll get hired for. Having new work to always show clients is key. Plus you never know what it could turn into. Travel work has always been my personal work, and it ended up turning into my book, Photo Trekking.

In the end you’re building a vision for what you want to shoot, the more you shoot the better you get at decisions behind the camera and learning what to see. The second thing is you create more work for clients to see. Clients always want to see new work, so it’s just another reason for you to contact them and show them fresh work.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to people looking to turn their photographic hobby into a career?

You gotta want it (http://nonk.it/GottaWannit). As glamorous as you think it is, it’s a hell of a lot of work. If you aren’t truly passionate about it, you won’t make it. Learn everything you can, hustle, and Always Be Shooting.

Learn everything you can about developing your vision and your business. It’s almost 80% business and 20% photography, so you have to know both.

Where can we hear more from you or see more of your work?

You can go to my website: http://www.nickonken.com Check out my blog to learn about the industry and some fun tech stuff: http://www.nickonken.com/blog Buy my book Photo Trekking to see my travel work and learn how I shoot it: http://www.phototrekkingthebook.com Follow me on twitter for current updates: http://www.twitter.com/nickonken and friend me on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/nickonken Check out more educational posts on my blog here: http://nonk.it/edu_posts

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

  • This is a fantastic and insightful interview to read. I definitely agree with the advice towards the end about a person “wanting” to be a photographer. I think it is the same for people who wish to become lawyers, doctors, or any profession. You have to want it, and want everything that comes with it — good and bad. However, with photography, it is mainly the business behind it that needs to be mastered, in addition to consistently developing one’s own skills in the ever-changing realm of photography, be it digital or film. I’m very inspired by this interview. Best wishes of continued success, Nick and Matt.

  • Wow

    Wonderful article and clearly shows how demanding such a profession can be. I like the concluding lines that it is 80% Business and 20% shooting. I think I am doing the exact opposite. Perhaps it’s time to change gears! I just love it right now that I can do a Daily photo update on my Blog

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/

    Perhaps this is enough right now until I can step up my game.

    Regards, Erik

  • Adam Smolkowicz

    thanks for this very informative article

  • Great read. Especially giving insight to the 80/20% ratio of time spent dealing with the business of photography and actually shooting. Also in the importance having your own website online and available. You need to be well versed in the trifecta of doing the daily business logistics, marketing, and developing your minds eye. Inspiration received. Defianatly picking up Photo Trekking 1st chance I get. Onken/Dutile, all the best and keep up the good work.

    A

  • Great read. Especially giving insight to the 80/20% ratio of time spent dealing with the business of photography and actually shooting. Also in the importance having your own website online and available. You need to be well versed in the trifecta of doing the daily business logistics, marketing, and developing your minds eye. Inspiration received. Defianatly picking up Photo Trekking 1st chance I get. Onken/Dutile, all the best and keep up the good work.

    A

  • Some very sound advice here………. the 80/20 split thing is about right too!

Some Older Comments

  • Paul April 22, 2011 10:25 pm

    Some very sound advice here.......... the 80/20 split thing is about right too!

  • Avelino April 19, 2011 12:32 am

    Great read. Especially giving insight to the 80/20% ratio of time spent dealing with the business of photography and actually shooting. Also in the importance having your own website online and available. You need to be well versed in the trifecta of doing the daily business logistics, marketing, and developing your minds eye. Inspiration received. Defianatly picking up Photo Trekking 1st chance I get. Onken/Dutile, all the best and keep up the good work.

    A

  • Avelino April 19, 2011 12:28 am

    Great read. Especially giving insight to the 80/20% ratio of time spent dealing with the business of photography and actually shooting. Also in the importance having your own website online and available. You need to be well versed in the trifecta of doing the daily business logistics, marketing, and developing your minds eye. Inspiration received. Defianatly picking up Photo Trekking 1st chance I get. Onken/Dutile, all the best and keep up the good work.

    A

  • Adam Smolkowicz April 18, 2011 04:29 pm

    thanks for this very informative article

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 18, 2011 01:45 am

    Wow

    Wonderful article and clearly shows how demanding such a profession can be. I like the concluding lines that it is 80% Business and 20% shooting. I think I am doing the exact opposite. Perhaps it's time to change gears! I just love it right now that I can do a Daily photo update on my Blog

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/

    Perhaps this is enough right now until I can step up my game.

    Regards, Erik

  • TIA INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY April 17, 2011 02:18 pm

    This is a fantastic and insightful interview to read. I definitely agree with the advice towards the end about a person “wanting” to be a photographer. I think it is the same for people who wish to become lawyers, doctors, or any profession. You have to want it, and want everything that comes with it -- good and bad. However, with photography, it is mainly the business behind it that needs to be mastered, in addition to consistently developing one’s own skills in the ever-changing realm of photography, be it digital or film. I’m very inspired by this interview. Best wishes of continued success, Nick and Matt.

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