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March 1, 2009


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Written by: Lawrence

“My first big commercial job was for Nike, and it was a bit of right place at the right time, in the respect of an art director friend recommending me to his producer in when they were in a pinch.”


LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: In your early years of High School, were you involved in any photography clubs & or school newspaper? What sparked your interest for photography? How did you progress to where you are today?

NICK ONKEN: I was never involved in any photography clubs or newspaper. I took an intro to photography class in high school which was basic. I decided I wanted to be  graphic designer when I was in high school, and that’s what I went to college for. I took a required basic photography class in college, but that’s because it was part of the program. I never thought about it at all until 4 years into my graphic design career. I had picked up a glorified point and shoot digital when digital was just entering the scene. I bought it to shoot content for my own design work and that was it. A year later I ended up convicing a non-profit design client to split a trip to Africa to build a photo library. When I got back, it hit me that I could actually see doing photography as a career. Eight months later after wrestling with giving up my graphic design career, I started assisting Jim Garner in Seattle. I assisted Jim on some of his local seattle commercial work for the first year.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: Do you still have photos taken from the early years when it all started? What were your subjects? Are the pictures online to share with everyone to compare with your work today?

NICK ONKEN: It’s funny, my new rep  HYPERLINK “” actually has a few of my original images from Africa on my travel  portfolio section of their website. Other than that, there is nothing from my earlier days online. As for the lifestyle side of my work, I started out shooting my pretty friends, then moved into shooting models for modeling agencies. When I was shooting models for agencies, it was all about the models, so my work looked more catalogueish, and eventually diverted more into lifestyle concepts, which is where I’ve ended up today.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  What books did you read at the beginning of your photography career that helped you prepare for today? Title of book, author and price of book please…just messing around, the title of the books should be fine thanks to google search. Do you recall any other resources that you referred to heavily to help you prepare for the photography business? We want to know what the must have resources are to fully equip ourselves when and if we ever plan to take that leap of faith.

NICK ONKEN: Honestly, I don’t recall ever reading any books on photography. I read a couple books on business of photography, but nothing ever really technical. I always got lost in those books because I’m not that technical of a shooter. I am more visual, and always have been. My technical side has more so caught up with my visual direction and vision. There are some great resources out today by consultants like Leslie Burns on the business of photography. I also hired Amanda Sosa Stone as my business consultant who helped me craft my vision as a photographer and get on the right marketing track. Also assisting really helped give me real world experience and immersion. I never went to school for photography as I learn better in context.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  What was your very first professional photography job? Was this purely out of luck that you were at the right place at the right time? Would you penetrate the market from within? Once you had your first job under your belt was it difficult to get another gig? What did you do to acquire more clients besides providing awesome images? How is it being agency represented?

NICK ONKEN: My first big commercial job was for Nike, and it was a bit of right place at the right time, in the respect of an art director friend recommending me to his producer in when they were in a pinch. I thought things would roll from there because the client was happy with the product, but I didn’t see another big commercial job for another 2 years. It takes a lot of time on the journey and everything in your work shows where you are as an artist and what you can handle. Acquiring new clients besides providing awesome work comes down to your networking and relationships. A great networking book I read a while back is “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazi.

Being agency represented is fantastic, but it’s because I’m with the right agent. It’s raised my status as a photographer just by being with them. They also have a channel of contacts that would have taken me years to acquire.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: After your first job, What was the next photography gig you obtained and how did you go about your execution? Did you apply all that you’ve learned in all the books you’ve read ? Did you buy more books or accessed any more resources to help you jump to your next big step in the game of photography? What tools do you recommend that are a must have that helped you get to where you are present day?
NICK ONKEN: In all honesty, it was my own ambitions of shooting my own work all the time. That’s where I’ve learned the most. Every time you set up a shoot, and keep clicking is where you learn. I also assisted other photographers to watch how they shoot and approach it. I’ve found that the best way of preparing for the bigger projects is to produce your own bigger and bigger shoots. This will cost you money, but you will have more produced images, and in the end get you more produced work. I’ve always focused on the development of my work and honing my creative vision and that’s ultimately what has gotten me work. So the biggest tool of all would be shooting for yourself. You can always take workshops as there are some great photographers teaching workshops. Santa Fe Workshops has some great 1 week workshops that don’t require going to school full time.


LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: What else is there that keeps you rolling in the dough? Your brand is possibly a huge factor to your longevity? Am i right? You have definitely built your brand through your website, your blog and giving back to the photographic community like what you are doing here right now.. Do you have any recommendations on brand building for weekend photographers and/or Photographers in general.

NICK ONKEN: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s all been rolling in the dough, as it’s really been the last year it’s financially been comfortable, but there is a huge investment in your business that you must put in to make it successful. The last couple years I’ve dumped thousands of dollars into marketing, and equipment. (read my transitions, passions, and sacrifices blog post about this) Luckily, my previous career as a graphic designer I have been able save a lot of money in that department, but I am one of the few photographers that can actually design their own stuff because I studied it and did it for 5 years. For anyone who doesn’t have formal training I would not recommend doing that stuff yourself. Hire a designer.

Your brand and how you package and show your work is hugely important. You should have a good website as it is your gateway to getting in the door. Everyone hiring prescreens by your website. If you’re a weekender, or don’t have much money a good place to start is getting a template site from If you’re wanting to build a brand, you have to hire a designer. has some more economical branding solutions for the weekenders and wedding photographers.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  If i recall on your interview with lightsource, you do not really use studio lights for your shoots and use purely the sun. Since you have a travel/lifestyle look executed with the extensive use of the sun as a backlight would you ever consider really integrating flash to your photo sessions? If so, what type of lights would you use?

NICK ONKEN: yeah, most of the work you see on my site is natural light. Recently I’ve been getting hired to shoot concepts that are all lit. I just shot a campaign that was shot at night, so I had to light everything. We used HMI’s to light everything. Then I just did a shoot for Cosmo this last week in the studio where we created fake window light with Profoto strobes. Every job is different and requires different lighting. It’s all problem solving to create the desired solution.
LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  I see you are also a Travel Photography How-To book author. Do you have any more books that you’ve released? Can you candidly let us know what it is like to write a book on photography?

NICK ONKEN:  I’ve just begun writing my book on travel photography, and it’s my first book, so I’ll have to let you know what it’s like.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: What personal projects are you presently working on? Do you recommend photographers to actively create personal projects to expand their photography arsenal?

NICK ONKEN: Travel photography has really always been my personal work, which I shoot when ever I travel to a new international location. I just shot a personal project in the City Of God, a favela in Rio De Janiero.

Yes, I am a huge advocate for photographers actively shooting their own work. It’s the only way to grow as a photographer. It’s essential.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: What types of commercial gigs are you currently involved in now and how did they surface? What are your recommendations on how we photographers diversify their product offering from Commercial and stock in today’s marketplace?

NICK ONKEN: My work has developed into Lifestyle advertising and that’s the types of jobs I’m getting. It really has come through networking and getting my work in front of the right people, then keeping them updated with new work.(another reason to always be shooting for yourself)

In regards to diversifying, it depends on what that means. In general, the whole idea is to focus and create a unique style as that is what you will get hired for. You want to show the work that you want to shoot. You can diversify within your style, but you have to develop that style first. You have to find your strengths and develop a strong portfolio within that genre.


LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: Already a major player in the lifestyle/commercial photography space, what is next? What are your immediate goals as a photographer and artist?  Are you planning on releasing any more how-to books?

NICK ONKEN: What’s next? Shooting the jobs I want. The dream clients, and refining my work to get hired for those jobs. I want to shoot bigger and better personal projects which involve a higher level of production.

As far as books, I’m going to work on writing and releasing this first one, then see where to go from there.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: I think it is safe to say you have a good following of photographers wanting to be just like you. Will you start offering workshops in the future? I know TIME is not your friend, but there are ways to get around that maybe offering internship opportunities to intern with you for a small fee during one of your paid shoots. Or maybe provide an opportunity to be a spectator for one of your weekend shoots? I would definitely be interested in that and sure there are others in the same boat.

NICK ONKEN:  I’ve actually been thinking about this lately, and I will probably offer them in the future, but not for a year or so. There are a few things that I’d want to get in order before offering them. I’ve also been thinking about offering internship opportunities and how to go about doing that. I think the education game in photography has changed, and real time education is more valuable than going to school. That will probably be on the same timeline as workshops.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  I am sure you’ve read many articles discussing how in the future videography and photography will be one? What are your thoughts on that and how will you evolve to the new morphed medium? I know you currently do some video work but how do you plan on taking that to the next level?

NICK ONKEN: Yeah the future of video and photography are becoming mixed. I’ve been getting asked for my “Director’s reel” a lot lately, which I don’t have. I’ve only done a few things, and those being mostly stop motion. I’m currently slowly working on a reel, but for the most part right now I’m focusing on still world.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: Ok so thinking about the future is very important in any endeavor especially the photography business. What do you suggest photographers do in the future to solidify their presence in the industry? What will you do to ensure that you remain on top, not taking into account your photography niche?

NICK ONKEN: It’s really all the above: continually shooting great work, packaging it right, keeping a strong brand, marketing consistently, and providing a great and smooth service to your clients.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: NICK thank you again for your time and giving back to your fans and followers. What would you like to leave for us photographers to think about when moving forward with photography for the future? If you have any words of wisdom will be appreciated.

NICK ONKEN: Again: shoot shoot shoot! The more you practice shooting the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll get. You have to be very self motivated to do this! It’s the only way to get there.


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About the Author

Lawrence Atienza is a Jack of all Trades and Master of ALL. Whether it be in the realm of Advertising/Advertising operations with over 10+ years of experience to dabbling in the creative realm of photography and founding/writing for, Lawrence Atienza gives his all. You can find him on Google+,Twitter and the major social media outlets.




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