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There are so many things that one could talk about in an open platform such as this, so I think the biggest question I had to ask myself in writing this is, what am I about as a photographer and what have I learned along the way? I would sum it into this: living your passion, making better images, creating a style, designing a brand that takes your business to the next level, and giving back to the community.

Then there’s living life with the 5 senses. I’ve always had a personality of doing things against the grain, and not following the rules. Rules were meant to be broken. I never went to school for photography so my technological skills have always been catching up to my artistic vision. I feel like I’ve learned a lot along the way, so I figured I’d use this post to share what I’ve learned along the way.

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Let’s start with “Living your passion.” I’ve always been a big advocate for this, and in my previous career as a graphic designer I loved what I did, but never to the point where I could grab a hold and run with an end vision in mind. When I discovered photography through shooting little abstract images for my graphic design work it was a slow evolution. A trip to Africa for a non-profit I was working with at the time to build an image library was the big kick into the reality that I could actually see the idea of photography becoming a career, and I began my journey.

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At this time, I instantly saw the end goal of being a professional photographer shooting ad campaigns, and amazing stories. It has been and still is a long journey, but being able to see the end goal and know deep down inside, it’s what I want that has given me the drive and motivation to work hard, and make the sacrifices to get there. The idea that I could create my own career and lifestyle was never more real than that. Being able to combine my love of travel with a craft that I love has been truly a blessing. This has lead to another amazing opportunity which I’ll cover down the page.

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I have many thoughts that I’ve learned along the way transcribed in my blog, but the first and foremost idea to ever get anywhere in this world of photography is making better images. To play on the level of shooting big advertising campaigns and projects, your work has to be at that bar, and it’s a hard bar to reach. My philosophy has always been to hone your craft, and make better images. Eventually when your work gets there, someone will trust you with a quarter million dollars to produce some images for them. The other component is to show what you want to shoot, or be hired to shoot. The trick is, if you don’t actually have any of those images, you need to go out and shoot them for yourself. First and foremost it’s about the quality of your work.

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Creating a style is also a key component to the evolution of the photographic journey. It’s the key reason clients will hire you. If you shoot enough, trying different things, you’ll eventually figure out what you like, and what you want. That takes time. It’s always an evolving and refining process. Then comes the task of curating your portfolio and website galleries. The curation process is what really forms your style.

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Designing a “Brand” is something that has been on the forefront of my mind lately and that’s probably due to the huge undertaking of the new website we just launched, and the 7 months of pulling it together with the designers. Having a background and education in design has always given me a fascination with building brands, and jumping into photography has given me a chance to design a brand around my own product which has been an almost equal passion as taking photos. When it comes down to it, a photography business is 80% business, and 20% photography, that is if you want to make a decent living with it. Designing your brand graphically, as well as the other customer service points of contact, is also a true art that must compliment your photography work in general. Perception is reality, and design is the avenue to create that perception.

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I’m super excited to have launched the new nickonken.com where I’ve really been able to incorporate my evolved brand and key features for my target market. Without taking up too much space here, I’ve written up an in-depth post on the reasons I incorporated specific features here. Folio Revolution has also posted an in-depth review of my site which might be helpful if you are in the market to develop your own site. I do believe in the website as a huge player in packaging your curation of work to the world. On set this week, I had a conversation with my client about how good or bad design can make or break a photographer. It’s the first impression someone will see of your work and how you present it. It says a lot about who you are as a photographer. Again, though in the end it’s all about the images that you produce. You can have the best website design in the world and if the work isn’t there, no one will hire you to make images for them.

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I’m also a big believer in sharing information. I’ve had some great photographers who have shared so much with me, and I like to try and do as much of the same and give back to the photographic community. My venue has been through my Shoptalk blog. With the new design I’ve incorporated an easier search and browse navigation to make it even more of a resource for photographers. Things I’ve learned along the way.

One of the things I love about life is experiencing it with all five senses. Experiencing moments and cultures with the five senses. That’s what I love about traveling, and traveling is one of the biggest reasons I got into photography as a career. To be able to combine the two passions makes for a great lifestyle. My travel work has also been a great way to give back to the world and team up with non-profits. I feel fortunate enough for Random House to have approached me a couple years ago to write an educational book on travel photography that stems from a compilation of my last 5 years of travel and photos. The book is called Photo Trekking and it releases March 16th.

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All in all, this career and trade is about the journey. You really end up carving your own path and making it what you want to make it. I feel so privileged to have a job that I actually can pour 100% of my passion in and love it. Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life. I feel like I never work, yet I work more than I ever have.

Mad props to Scott and Brad for inviting me to share on the blog.

You can see more of Nick’s work on his brand new website, keep up with him at his blog and on Twitter, or be his friend on Facebook.  No, really, go be his friend. Life on the road is lonely. ;)

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25 Comments

  1. Scott,

    Inspiring work, give me more hope to keep shooting….

    Many thanks
    Ken in KY

  2. Very nice portofolio

  3. Very nice post. Great read this.
    Inspiring.
    Great photos on the website. Hope we get the book in India soon.

  4. Great post… inspiring.
    Remarkable website Nick, I love your blog… bookmarked it.

  5. Great post Nick and an even greater website dude… it rocks!

    I just browsed through it all and I´m really impressed with your work, the Iceland part especially struck a nerve with me since I come from Iceland. But it’s really hard to pick something out it’s all good.

  6. Thanks for the insight Nick, I added you RSS from Shoptalk.

  7. This post pushed me over the edge. I’ve decided to start that 365 project I’ve been thinking about for months.

    • In case anyone looks here again I’m now on day 28 of the project I said above I would start. I cannot now imagine not doing this project it has been and still is such a thoroughly worthwhile thing for me to be doing.

  8. Hi,

    Two things about your Web site:

    1. It throws an error when viewed in IE (the majority of users)

    2. That huge navigation arrow covering up your images is cutesie and artistic, but it also blocks your content and (to me) is extremely annoying. It detracts from the images rather than enhancing them (or even getting out of their way)

  9. Great post.
    Looking forward to your book when it comes out.

  10. Nice post, liked you website and the photos there.
    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Love the color in your images. The kid photos are my favorite…kids are all about the now :)

  12. It’s fun to see you here Nick. Now that you’ve been a guest blogger for Scott, your career can finally get going! ;-)

  13. Yo Nick! I love your style I love your website thanks for writing and sharing lol I read it twice and said holly sh*t haha now I am seriously about to go and do a shoot RIGHT NOW!

    Again thanks for writing and sharing what you wrote!

    Keep in touch!


    DT.

    Nassau, Bahamas | Miami, FL

  14. Great Work Nick

    I’ve been following you for some time now…

    Like the changes to your site.

    Nick

  15. I reviewed Nicks book here:
    http://www.lighting-essentials.com/nick-onkens-new-travel-photography-book-photo-trekking/

    It is truly a wonderful book for travel and any kind of people photographers.

  16. awesome! i’m definitely a fan of Nick’s work.

  17. Next guest blogger should be Mac Danzing.

  18. Hey Nick, I’ve been following your work for about 3 years now. I first heard of you through i think Fred Egan’s site. It’s great to see you here on Scott’s blog. I’ve always enjoyed your passion and insight and the way your share your knowledge. Its been a wonderful watching your work evolve over time. Even more so, its so wonderful and inspiring to see your career blossom and your vision crystallize. Your living your dream and sharing it with the world. Thank you for that.

  19. Thanks Nick. Been following your blog for a while. I relate to what you say so much because I’m just starting my photography career after being a graphic designer. Actually my little studio is set up in the basement of the advertising agency I used to work for. Things are good. You’re so on point about building a brand. Congrats and keep doing what your doing!

  20. Lol I am such a loser I re read this post again this morning thinking hmmmm I am so damn ready to have 1/4 of a mill from a client.

    You should see my book I am going outside right now again to add to the ideas for shoots. My goal is to knock out 1,000 shoots to lead me into my way as a commercial advertising lifestyle and sports photographer.

    To all Photographers reading this keep on shooting and everyone have an awesome day!!


    DT.

    Nassau, Bahamas | Miami, Florida

  21. I found your web page from bing and it is superb. Thankx for providing such an informative post!!!!

  22. We need men who can dream of things that never were.

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