Hot Shot: Nick Onken

EVERYONE KNOWS SOMEONE who’s the life of the party. For us, it’s Nick Onken, a Brooklyn-based photographer has made a name for himself by capturing the energy of a party that’s always in motion.

Describing his style as “people-focused,” Nick says he likes creating lifestyle images that are “fashion-forward, raw and organic.” His current campaign for Coca-Cola is all that—and more.

“I capture people’s energy and their moments,” he says. “I create a scenario, get them to interact with the location, and capture that realism by working off the energy of the talent.”

It’s a big change from his former career as a graphic artist, which he says informs the way he sees compositions and a final image. But when Nick picked up a camera and started traveling with it, he knew he’d found his place in the world—and that wasn’t a mood board in a studio.

Now, he creates moods for all his shoots by casting talent “with good smiles and energy” as in his recent shoot for Coca-Cola. Nick helped with the casting, and donned the DJ hat (the requisite fedora) to get the talent dancing—something he engages in himself when need be—and with great gusto.

“My dream shoot would be shooting a young surf brand in some exotic beach location. I love shooting young hip people having fun …” he says.

The challenge, he says, is always getting authentic moments in a tightly controlled situation—something he tries to transform as soon as he’s on set. His production team is as high-energy as he is, and Nick says, “Most of my real moments come from running around and getting them [and the talent] in the energy.”

The photographer has also succeeded by building an online brand for himself. His blog ( showcases everything from commercial shoots to personal work, and hosts his live Twitter feed where he discusses photo and pop culture with his nearly 5,200 followers. Last year, he took first place in PDN’s Self Promo Awards, and was named to the magazine’s “30 Emerging Photographers to Watch List.”

“I’ve always been a big believer in the importance of branding. I’ve always seen photography as a business, but now I’m surrounded by a higher level of creative people,” he says, adding the blog was a way to share with other photographers and create a bigger following, more buzz.”

Buzz-worthy right now? His Coney Island fashion shoot for Cosmopolitan International and his book, “PhotoTrekking,” a visual travelogue of some 35 countries, published by Random House. It was on the latter project, Nick says, where, inspired by the movie, “Slumdog Millionaire,” he found his calling.

“That’s where I really hit my stride … when I felt like I had grown as an artist. I learned to see better and better. I was seeing photos in the camera and knowing how to create those photos versus random shooting.

“I loved capturing the light, the perspectives, a real, authentic feeling. That realism inspires my commercial work. It’s the same elements whether I’m shooting travel or commercial.”

Nick returned this spring from Guatemala where he shot a campaign for the nonprofit organization, Pencils of Promise.


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