The Brooklyn-based photographer has carved out his place in editorial and commercial shooting using a film-like editing edge and 360-degree storytelling. Now, the likes of Nike, ESPN, Victory Journal and Puma call on him for his approach.
Nils Ericson’s color card has been collecting dust for a while. In fact, the rules he’s written for himself in treating color values would probably make some of his peers gasp. Documenting events that are primarily athletic and not replicating the poppy sports imagery seen everywhere, Ericson represents the undoing of an established methodology, creating something else entirely that is recognizably his.
“I want my photos to feel like black and white, but in color,” he posits in an attempt to explain his aesthetic. “Weight” is the word he keeps coming back to, the palpable “toothy-ness” he feels when he looks at someone like Sally Mann’s photos. With her profundity, you can hardly blame him. The bold contrast and crisp hues that flood sports magazines and billboards have never spoken to him in the same way. “If anything,” he says, “I’ll suck the contrast right out of the image, or make it a hell of a lot darker than it should be.”
It’s won him notoriety among Nike, Victory Journal, Puma and other brands, and it feels right at home at events like New York Fashion Week and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Still, Ericson states frankly, “A lot of people aren’t going to hire me. It’s not so much that the style is out there, it’s just different, and different is hard for some people. I like the way it looks, but you know I lose jobs because of it.”
Those who do tap him for work are getting an amusingly dynamic array of images and easily overlooked moments. Ericson snaps a frame of the wincing, writhing soccer player clutching his knee, but he’s also got an eye on concerned fans waving flags in mighty fists and cliques of teens at the top of the bleachers; he captures the muscular horses careening around the track, but also the nervous jockeys about to buckle their helmets, the regal lady in a beret stealing a smoke or three, and the millennial standing just outside the arena to catch a phone call.
It’s not that Ericson is really “out there”—it’s that he plays the game from start to finish, and he does it his way.
A HUMBLE START
Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, Ericson took part in a gamut of sports—soccer, swimming, cross-country running, tennis, golf, baseball and basketball, “until everyone else grew and I didn’t,” he says, adding wryly, “I’m a towering 5 feet and 7 inches.” He fell into photography starting with a class in the 8th grade, and though he went to Dartmouth College to be an English and Biology major, he wound up switching his focus to photography.
Ericson moved to California for a couple of years after his undergrad and created some medium- and large-format collections. “I thought I was going to be an artist,” he says, “shooting these dark, dreamy, fantastical landscapes, almost all at night with long exposures.” After playing around with his dog and his camera—shooting them wrestling or running in the woods—he found he enjoyed shooting motion and things “under physical duress,” he says. “I was trying to make something that was very visceral and emotional.”
After going to the Rhode Island School of Design for grad school, he settled in New York in 2005 where he got work cleaning and painting white cyc walls at Fast Ashleys Studios in Brooklyn. “I moved there to do some assisting, and that’s hard to break into,” Ericson concedes, but he slowly climbed the ranks to photographer, soaking up everything around him.
“I learned about it from very unglamorous beginnings,” he says. “I always tell people, if you can find a good internship, it is worth its weight in gold—you will meet people and those people will help pave the way. It’s true.”
PINNING IT ALL DOWN
After leaving the studio, Ericson nabbed those assisting gigs he came for and was eventually hired to shoot still-lifes for an emerging e-commerce site at Fast Ashleys, but the real turning point came when he got the nerve to pitch a photo story to Victory Journal. “In Iowa, wrestling is a huge, huge deal,” he asserts. Up until that point, he had no idea that he wanted to shoot sports.
Ericson puts it like this: He isn’t the photographer you call to catch that peak of action moment that every other photographer is waiting for. “I’m trying to create a mood and an atmosphere and something that’s palpable, not a moment that lives in time as the seminal moment of the game,” he says. “I’m trying to build suspense.”
Pitching just that, the editors at Victory bit the bait and sent him down to shoot wrestling in Oklahoma for four days. Ericson’s coverage was a hit, and it made that issue’s cover. He got introduced to people at Nike and Puma, thus beginning the commercial part of his career, and soon Adidas, PowerAde and Spotify hopped on board. His work caught fire with clients who realized he was offering a new visual perspective. He was named one of PDN’s 30 last year and has since gotten to photograph athletes in their prime, including Patriots player Julian Edelman fresh off of a Super Bowl win and Kris Bryant from the Cubs after their World Series triumph.
THE BIG PICTURE
Learning how to shoot on film was a definite contributor in leading Ericson to his look. Now shooting digitally, he says, “There’s a glorious world of filters that you can apply to your RAW images. It’s a matter of playing around with them until you get something that feels right, and then you fine-tune it. That’s the beauty of it—you can take it and push it in all sorts of ways.”
The fun starts with the shooting, though, even if he is drenched in sweat and “running around with a couple of cameras like a crazy person.” Toting primarily Canon cameras, Ericson finds that DSLR photography is less defined by the gear and actual capture than what happens after that. “The decisive moment is all about the edit now,” he says.
Once the documenting is over, Ericson is usually so excited to get to post that he does it that night. “And if I’m somewhere away from home,” he says, “I’ll just do the whole room service thing and crank it out.” All photos get three or four passes to cull them down, with about 50 selects going to the client or editor. A day’s work takes four or five hours of editing from start to finish.
“I didn’t even know about batch processing for so long,” Ericson says with a laugh. “I’m an idiot, I used to go through all the RAW images and I would find the ones I liked, apply curves and contrasts. Now when I import to Lightroom, it’ll just give everything a pass of contrast bump, adjust curves, make it a little warmer.”
Then he dives in and tweaks only what is going to the client, “a ballpark of whatever feels good to me.” Part of that is flattening shadows—as Ericson puts it, “There’s no such thing as black.” Coupled with lift in warmth and the grain he adds when he’s shooting outside, or keeps when he’s indoors, his photos almost look like cinematic Kodachrome.
Ericson has a few different custom presets: one for images shot outside, another for inside and a separate one for strobes. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all curve adjustment. “All those light qualities are different,” he says, “and you want them to pop up looking palatable for you.”
ON THE ROSTER
Other than client work, Ericson’s been pursuing personal projects just for kicks. One is shooting the neighborhood hoop games in Brooklyn where he’s been tactfully infiltrating the packs of cool kids to shoot portraits. The other is personal in a different way, and that’s photographing his baby son, Emmett. “I consider it a project that goes on forever,” Ericson says, “at least until I’m dead.”
He’s been pitching stories constantly, and “for every 20 stories you pitch, you get to shoot one,” but Emmett’s been provoking some camera time in the interim, as his Instagram followers can corroborate. In fact, Ericson held him during the entirety of this conversation, and every once in a while would coo and giggle at his baby’s cuteness (this was later proven when Ericson, right after the call, shot and emailed a photo of Emmett, who was wearing a polar bear onesie). It’s a miracle he finds the will to focus on anything else at all, but that’s determination for you.
NILS ERICSON’S GEAR
Cameras: Canon 1DX Mark ll, Canon 5D Mark lV, Canon 7D Mark ll, Sony A7R2, Fuji X100 T
Lenses: Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, Canon 50mm f/1.2, Canon 85mm f/1.2, Canon 100mm f/2.8, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5, Canon 200mm f/2.0, Canon 300mm f/2.8, Sony 55mm f/1.8 (and Metabones adapter for Sony A7R2)
Related: Nils Ericson PDN's 30