Rob: I need to get into the history of Nick Onken, tell me how it all started. Where are you from? How old are you and when did you get into photography?
Nick: I’m 32 and from Seattle. I started getting interested in photography about six and a half years ago.
Yeah, I studied graphic design then worked as a designer for five years, then I got greedy.
Where did you go to school?
I went to a community college up in Seattle and there was a required intro to photography class as part of the design program.
Oh, dammit! They’re teaching that to graphic designers?
Yeah, but more just as a component. After graduation I designed book covers for a couple years, then went freelance. Then three years later, when digital started hitting the world, I picked up a digital camera. I had a bunch of small clients that I would shoot random, blurry, you know, textures and abstract stuff that I used in my design work for websites and brochures.
You didn’t feel like buying iStock pictures for a dollar? You just wanted to go shoot them yourself?
I knew what I needed. It was kind of more about me being able to get what I want. At that point I don’t think iStockPhoto was really that much into existence. Then I started shooting more and put some photos up on my website and somehow convinced a design client of mine to split the travel expenses to go to Africa and build them a photo library.
[laughs] Yeah, I had no idea what I was doing.
What were you shooting for them?
It was just people and places. no talent, product, or anything like that. The organization was a mission and the project was to capture the people and the places. So I had my Sony F707 – [laughs].
I suppose that’s a really bad camera, I have no idea?
It was like a glorified point-and-shoot. You control it manually, but you’d shoot through the screen on the back.
Yeah, and so how did it turn out?
It turned out great for the time. The client was super happy, I got back and I thought, “Wow, I didn’t know I could ever do that.”
Was a lot of that because you’re a designer and you know what’s going to make the design great or was it that you were actually a talented photographer?
The design part helped me see through the lens, imagining the final product and composing. I’ve always had more of a vision with my photography and had to catch up technically. There may have been some talent mixed in there somewhere.
Do you look back at that brochure and cringe?
Oh, yeah. I think I have maybe one picture or two from that whole trip that would still see the light of day today.
What happened after that?
It was another eight months before I really started looking into photography more. I was a graphic designer, it was not something I thought I could abandon. I hooked up with another photographer, Jim Garner, because I was doing website updates for him. He shot a lot of local Seattle projects, and weddings on the weekends. I started asking him questions and eventually he invited me out on set. He’s gotten pretty big in the wedding world now, but all the stuff I did with him was just the local commercial jobs such as products on the table, and then a few environmental portraits, and a little bit of architecture, etc.
He did everything because if you’re going to be a photographer in Seattle, you better shoot everything, right? So Jim took you under his wing and showed you some stuff, what happened next?
I was still on the fence about doing this photography thing, because I loved design. I was back and forth between the two for months. One day he leveled with me and said, look, you need to be a photographer and that’s it.
How did he come with that conclusion, did he think you had the skills?
I’d been hanging out with him and he’d seen some of the stuff that I was shooting personally and he believed in me and said you need to do this. That was a huge for me.
Was that six years ago?
Yeah that was 2004. I still assisted and helped him out on shoots and I was taking on a lot of design work to pay the bills during the transition, shooting a little bit of my own stuff here and there. Eventually I got a call from Nike to shoot all these athletes.
How did you get that job? Did you market your work to them?
No, I had a friend who was an art director at RGA, they were in a pinch and they needed somebody, so they called me a week before the shoot. It was the week before Christmas and I had three days to arrange everything. When I finished I thought, there it is I’m totally in, the ball’s rolling.
Little did I realize, I didn’t see another job like that for two years.
You thought “I made it, Nike, I’ve hit the big time,” then crickets for two years. What did you do during that time?
I took the money and moved to Paris for six months.
What? Are you serious?
I wanted to live in another country. I used that time to just take it in and learn, breathe, and explore. I shot a few personal projects here and there, shot some models from the agencies there. I traveled to different countries on the weekends and just kind of hung out. I think for me I wanted to do that as an artist, it’s kind of what we take in that comes out in our life and in our art. Living in another country was something I wanted to do.
Did you start freaking out thinking, OK, I need to get some jobs?
Yeah a bit. When a year blows by and nothing of the Nike status comes through, when you think the ball should be rolling, you start to worry. Around the beginning of 2006, I hooked up with Amanda Sosa Stone and she helped me get my bearings straight about marketing and gave me the low down of like how this works, how the advertising world works. She pushed me to go out on meetings and create a marketing plan and I started to do that with the very limited budget that I had.
Talk to me about your style of photography, from day one have you always shot lifestyle?
Yeah, it kind of evolved to be quite honest. I started doing model testing at an agency and it was more catalogy at the very beginning and then just evolved and evolved. Eventually I was doing more lifestyle conceptual stuff. I was still paying the bills with graphic design projects and assisting here and there for Jim. Then in March 2006 I moved down to LA.
You decided you needed to be in LA to make it.
I decided that to play at the top level where I wanted to be, I needed to be in either LA or New York. LA fit my style a lot more and I had a lot of friends down there. It’s not as much of a sink or swim city as New York. So I packed up my little Honda Civic full of all my computers and cameras and moved down to L.A. I basically started from scratch. I started hitting up some modeling agencies and trying to get a little bit of paid patchwork here and there. I was still picking up a lot of design projects. Looking back now, LA was a great stepping stone to my eventual NY relocation.
So when did it finally click? When were you able to go full-time photography?
It was probably three and a half years ago.
So two years after you moved to L.A., you finally got enough clients. Was this just hitting the streets, marketing, producing personal work and building your brand?
Yeah. I’ve always shot my own work, shot my own tests, and stuff like that.
Yeah, but it wasn’t just a lucky break, like Bruce Weber said “Hey, kid, here, take one of my $100,000 shoots, I don’t need it.”
No, it’s all been a lot of hard work. In 2006 I did a two-month trip to Asia for that nonprofit and that’s when I think I really hit my stride with travel work. I got a lot of really great work out of that. And then I think May of 2007 I picked up another Nike job, still in-house and a smaller Nike job, then the rest of that year was a bunch of other small stuff. It’s always been a hustle, and it never stops.
When did you land with Greenhouse reps?
Q3 of 2008.
How did you end up with them?
I had a portfolio meeting over at an advertising agency and I was talking to one of the art buyers. She was really friendly so I asked her who are the good reps out there? She gave me her card and said “Shoot me an email and I’ll tell you all you need to know.” So I emailed her, and invited her to lunch. When we went to lunch, she started telling me what reps were great then said, “Hey, wait, I’ll tell you what. I’ll just email some for you, how about that?”
She emailed them and said “Hey, I know this guy who’s really good”?
Yeah. She actually ended up emailing four other reps, who all ended up being interested, so I went and interviewed them with a set of questions.
Wow. Your work must have been strong then, that those reps were interested and obviously having an art buyer vouching for you is pretty huge, but still the work needs to stand on its own.
Yeah, the work was there enough for a high level Art Buyer to recommend me.
But also clients too. I mean agents aren’t going to take somebody on who doesn’t already have some clients and isn’t generating some work. It doesn’t make financial sense.
Yeah, I had that and I had my brand. I’ve always been big on branding.
So they saw you had your shit together. That’s probably a big part of their job, getting the brand and getting it all cohesive. You had that all done. So after you landed with Greenhouse, obviously a big repping firm, you turned full-time to photography. Take me through the last three years. Obviously we got hit with a massive recession somewhere in there. You were starting your photography career full-time right in the middle of the economy hitting rock bottom, right?
Yeah, and it’s been a great few years. I started at Greenhouse in October of 2008 and I got my first real ad campaign in December 2008 so it took a few months. I had been doing meetings for a couple years prior showing my books at ad agencies. Making the rounds and doing meetings and luckily they remembered me and saw where my work was at that time.
And so you broke into that Leo Burnett level of ad world and you’re in the club aren’t you?
Yeah, I mean the ball’s rolling for sure and a big asset is having a rep like Greenhouse that puts you in that top tier of talent. But, even up until I got that big job, I bid on at least 12 big ad jobs until I finally got that first one. I got so used to not winning the bid that when I did get one I thought, “Oh my God. They actually gave me a job.” In the end, as cheesy as it sounds, you gotta be in it to win it. If you’re bidding then at least you’re being considered.
So I want to talk a little about lifestyle photography just because I feel like, it’s a unique beast. There is a ton of cheesy lifestyle, but pulling off real genuine moments seems to be one of the toughest types of photography. And from my experience it takes a shitload of money to pull off.
Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean you have the casting involved. You have location scouting. I shoot mostly location work. Location is a huge part it. The productions are thousands and thousands of dollars, at least mid five figures. Depending on how many days and how much talent you have on set, all the wardrobe, and you have wardrobe per talent and hair and makeup. Yeah, it does get very, very expensive.
It’s just a ton of people working on it. I know, there’s probably advertising shoots where there’s just a ton of people hanging out, because they’re expensive shoots or something. I feel like in a lifestyle shoot there’s a ton of people working on the physical product, more so than anything else. What makes great lifestyle photography in your opinion?
In my opinion it’s that realism that you can create, real moments and authenticity. It comes from your taste in wardrobe, people, props, clothes, locations. Everything is about your taste, and how you see. Then that all goes into that picture and into that set. You’re creating an action, and a theme, and a story. And then you’re shooting it. And then you’re snapping that camera at the right moment, or a series of moments and then you’re coming back and editing, I think editing is a big part of it as well. I would say the key to my style of photography is me feeling that moment.
And we all know how photojournalists do that, but how do you manufacture that? That’s the thing, right?
Yeah, and that was actually a learning process for me. The transition from my personal work where I get talent running around doing random things at whatever time of the day to advertising photography, to where I’m given this specific creative direction, its very difficult to create a reality within that, because you’re so specifically directed. Luckily I’ve always pulled it off. It’s creating and putting the elements together and then getting the talent to do the action and create that story within those certain parameters, and then just snapping the right moment. And doing it over and over and over and over again until you get the right one. Now I’ve gotten it down pretty well.
How do you get them to act genuine. I mean, is it just casting?
Yeah, and I think casting is a huge part of that. For me, I like to cast people with great personalities that you can kind of see on video castings. Casting the right people with great personalities makes it easier to direct because the talent can move and have a good time on their own.
So, you have to be an expert at casting?
At least have a good eye and feel people’s vibes, what kind of energy they have. It can be hit and miss, but you get better the more you shoot.
Just based on meeting a lot of good lifestyle photographers, a lot of it comes down to the photographer’s personality. Somebody you’re comfortable around, who’s interesting to talk to, a good conversationalist.
Yeah, you have to be good with people. You have to make them feel comfortable.
I want to talk about your website (here) a little bit, because so many people dig your website. You designed this from scratch?
Yeah, I hired somebody called Knowawall to do it. It was a good six-month project.
Did you know exactly what you wanted, as far as functionality and different things you wanted it to do?
Yeah. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I have a couple friends that used them to do their websites. Coming from a design background, I can see all the functionality, the animations, the loading. So, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted going into it.
I had my brand somewhat developed, and I hired these guys, and was able to use my design background to art direct, a bit. I gave them a very solid brief. I was actually pretty impressed with what they came back with in the first round. I knew I would be, because, it’s like hiring a photographer. You look at their portfolio and you will have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get.
Right. You saw they had solid work in there, super-refined.
Exactly, I’ve gone through so many websites and, coming from a design background, an impatient design background, I had a pretty good idea of the elements that I wanted to fuse into the website that would make it easier for my clients, and my potential clients, to digest the site easily and not have to worry about wait times too much.
And so it wasn’t cheap, right? I mean, you did pay top dollar, but it’s like hiring a good photographer.
Yeah, I mean it cost me more than my car. That didn’t even include the blog which was another little bit on top of that.
Add in a car stereo and some rims.
I launched in February 2010 and my whole idea going into this was that books are being called in less and less and people referring straight to the website. I had two or three jobs last year where people booked me without even calling in my book.
Yeah. A laundry detergent campaign.
Oh, nice. So yeah, you have a lot of confidence in it. You can send it out to anybody, they’re going to be stoked on it, and stoked on the pictures.
Yeah, defiantly. It’s the whole experience, you can also keyword search on there. There’s at least 2,500 images in the database.
How is it you have 2500 images on your website in only six years of shooting? Do you shoot a lot of personal work?
I guess. I have this ABS theory, “Always Be Shooting.” And I laugh because I get emails from people who say “I’m abiding by your ABS theory.” I think, oh man, I was slightly joking about that, but I guess those are good words to follow for the journey.
Do you have a pair of brass balls you bring out and say coffee is for closers?
Exactly. So I guess I’m always shooting. I try to bust out as many personal projects as possible.
Do you think that’s part of your success?
I think so, I would say the more work you’re doing the better you’re getting, the more your eyes see every time you shoot. It’s all those thousands of decisions you’re making before you click the camera. All your taste, the location, the wardrobe, the styling, the hair and makeup, the model, the direction. Every time you make those decisions you learn for the next time. And so the more you shoot, the more you learn. Did you do a post on the 10,000 hour rule?
I think. So you’re bought into that? That you need to be shooting all the time, because you need to log the hours, the reps.
Yeah, log the hours to improve. On top of that, the reps always love it when they have new work to show, so they can keep putting in front of people.
Talk to me about the blog. How does blogging fit into your marketing and business plan. What’s the purpose of it? Why did you start a blog? You seem to have one of the more active blogs for someone who’s not doing workshops or selling books?
Well I do have a book, but…
Oh, ok but you’re not sponsored by Canon or Nikon and doing workshops?
No. Have you ever read the book, Never Eat Alone?
It’s a great book on building relationships and networking and, you know, the biggest part of that is sharing knowledge with people, and giving something to people. I started it when I was back in my design days before blogs became popular, before anybody actually knew what they were (including me). I started this thing called “Shop Talk” and it was a static HTML page that I manually updated myself, then eventually when blogging became a norm, I rolled it into a TypePad blog engine.
Wow. Old school. It was based on that idea behind the book?
Yeah, kind of. There’s nothing there in the book that really talks about it, but it was based on the idea of sharing and giving back, and what goes around comes around. I believe that if you give people things, it’ll come back to you in some way. So that was the start of the blog. Just share things that I’d learned along the way. And as I keep learning, it can help other people. I don’t know if it’s really gotten me any direct work, per se, but I think it definitely sheds another light into who you are as a photographer, and a person, if a client views your work.
Do you think it’s part of the package that clients are using for hiring now?
Yeah, in a non-direct way.
You don’t have any direct evidence of landing jobs because of something related to the blog, or Twitter do you?
I did this email blast a few weeks ago and I got this kickback email from an art director, saying “I’m not really taking emails but you can Twitter me at this and I’ll be doing portfolio reviews via Twitter.”
No way, really?
Yeah, so I hit this guy up, “I got your email, here’s my website, check it out.” And he hit me back on Twitter with “Nice work, I have a campaign coming up, maybe we can collaborate on that” and so then we continued to have this dialogue via Twitter. But, that’s it. I have more photographers that follow me on Twitter than, art directors.
Sure. But you’re going to keep it up still?
I think part of the idea is creating buzz around your brand.
And could you ever see, relying on blogging and Twittering and Facebooking for marketing?
Its become a couple different channels, you know. You’ve got a photographer channel and you’ve got an art-buying, photo editor channel. It’s a whole different channel. I feel like the blog and the Twitter (@nickonken) and the Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/nickonkenphoto) stuff is more an audience of other photographers. So, for my book it’s been a good channel to distribute and promote that.
What’s the book?
It’s called “Photo Trekking,” and it’s through Random House. We launched it last year.
Oh yeah, you had that big party.
Yeah, we threw a big party for that and I used it as an excuse to have a special happy hour for art buyers and art directors in New York.
Oh, all right, so it’s a marketing piece for you?
Yeah, doing the book really was, it was having a PR piece but also, you know having a book under my belt with a major publisher is a pretty good deal. And just to be able to promote that to art buyers.
And are you selling a lot of books to photographers as well?
Yeah, I think we’ve sold a few thousand.
So things are looking up for you, you’re shooting campaigns for major clients now.
Last year I did a lot of major clients from car manufacturers to alcoholic beverages to sneaker companies to beverage companies.
Was that your best year ever?
Yeah, it was.
I think my readers will like hearing that. You built your business in the middle of a recession and when the economy hit rock bottom you were off like a rocket. Good for you. Well deserved.
Thanks. I appreciate it.