“Most people are either landscape or portrait,” Ryan McDonald says. Ryan, a sophomore at Corban University, is a Media Arts major, and he explains how most photographers fall into one of two categories: either they capture beautiful landscapes—mountains, plant life—or they capture people. But lately, Ryan has been drawn to product photography, which allows him to capture both.

“Both” is a significant word for Ryan when it comes to art and education. “I don’t want to learn one thing really well,” he says, as he describes what brought him to Corban. Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Ryan remembers looking for Christian colleges in the West. “I wanted to go to Grand Canyon, or something crazy like that, because I’d never been out West before.” He eventually found Corban and learned that the media arts program incorporated film, photography, and graphic design, rather than focusing on just one medium. The variety of skills covered by the major excited him. “I wanted to get the full package.”

The appeal of the full package is one reason Ryan enjoys product photography, or photography used to advertise products and brands. “People want to see the product in really cool places, so you need some landscape in there, but you also want personal interaction with the product.” Ironically, the product being advertised often isn’t pictured at all. Ryan gives the example of a Redbull ad: “If you watch any of their videos, they might have three seconds out of two minutes where there’s actually a Redbull drink in the video.” More important than actually seeing the product, he explains, is the emotion the audience associates with it. “When you think of Redbull, you think of danger, excitement.”

Lately, Ryan has been shooting product photography for Reflex, a wallet company started by the older brother of a fellow Corban student. Modern minimalist wallets designed just for you reads the slogan on the Reflex website.

While some of Ryan’s photos for Reflex are actually of wallets, many are not. Ryan explains that with a newer company, advertisements should feature the product quite a bit, at least until people begin to recognize the brand and associate it with a certain emotion or ideal—romance, flexibility, adventure, or—in the case of Reflex—the minimalist lifestyle. But once a brand is well known, you can begin to diminish the product itself and emphasize emotion and ideals. One of Ryan’s photos featured on the Reflex website does just that: a young man with a backpack, hiking boots, and earth-toned jacket occupies the bottom left of the frame. A magnificent waterfall and rock face covered with icicles dominates the rest of the image. A mossy boulder sits in the foreground amid a few sparse twigs, long past summer blooms. “Escape the chaos. Return to the bare essentials, and find that moment in nature designed just for you,” the photo seems to say. The wallet isn’t visible at all.

One of the things Ryan enjoys about product photography is the challenge. “It makes you think with an artistic mindset and with a marketing mindset. How are we going to make someone want to buy this?”

Image by Ryan McDonald

Ryan didn’t start out shooting product photography, but he’s always sought to capture people and objects with a purpose. “I started messing around with a camera my junior year of high school.” One of his first projects was promoting a student initiative to raise money for the End It Movement, an anti-trafficking organization based out of Atlanta. “It’s kind of childish,” Ryan smiles, “but we set up fifteen lemonade stands all over southwest Michigan to raise money.” He had realized that, while he might not possess the resources and skills to help victims of human trafficking directly, he could promote and support those who did—through lemonade and the lens of his camera. Ryan and several other high school students spent months planning the fundraiser, promoting it with a series of 30-second YouTube videos as well as photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. When the day of the fundraiser arrived, they had recruited over 100 volunteers.

The lemonade stands were far from childish, resembling elaborate sets more than flimsy card tables, as volunteers painted quotes and statistics about human trafficking on wooden pallets and sturdy posters. Ryan and his friends didn’t charge for the lemonade, but encouraged donations, with all proceeds going toward the End It Movement. All told, the fifteen lemonade stands raised over $4,000 in a single day.

Ryan’s interest in working with human rights organizations continued, and his next venture, this time with the fair trade clothing line Serengetee, led him toward product photography. He and a few friends had heard that Serengetee was looking for campus representatives—high school and college students who would help promote the brand on their campuses.

Serengetee, based in California, was founded by two young men who began buying fabric at free-market value in countries like India and Brazil and bringing it back to the States to make into pocket tees, backpacks, and other products. They’d sell the finished projects, and then send 10% of their profits back to the country where the fabric originated—not to the original artisans, but to a worthy cause in the community such as clean water projects or microloans.

By signing up to be a campus rep, Ryan received a 30% discount on merchandise, but he could also accrue points by sending in quality photos and videos featuring Serengetee products. Challenge accepted. On the weekends, he would head to the woods, the lake, or abandoned buildings with friends to shoot Serengetee products. They’d pose with the T-shirts and backpacks against backdrops of graffitied brick buildings or wooded landscapes. Sometimes they’d even take a boat out on Lake Michigan for photo opportunities. The goal was to capture Serengetee products in as many life-contexts as possible. Ultimately, Ryan sent in so many quality photos and videos that he earned enough points to travel with the owners of the company to Guatemala on one of their fabric-sourcing trips.

Image by Ryan McDonald

 

Ryan’s experience with Serengetee helped cultivate the love of product photography he now brings to Reflex. While Ryan’s not getting paid for his work yet, he sees it as an excellent opportunity to build his portfolio and brand. He’s already received encouragement from professionals in the field. David Sanford, communications consultant and marketing guru, visited Ryan’s journalism class and, after learning about Ryan’s experience and future goals, told him, ““If you work really hard, you could be a freelance photographer for Patagonia.”

But regardless of what Ryan aims his camera at, he photographs with a purpose, whether that means promoting a lemonade stand that will raise funds to fight human trafficking, or shooting for a Christian-owned company like Reflex. Serengetee, too, reflects Christ-like ideals, even if it’s not an overtly Christian company. “They’re doing good stuff, that Christians should want to be a part of,” Ryan reflects.

For Ryan, photography and videography don’t have to be either hobby or career, art or advertising, landscape or portrait: they can be both. They can capture beautiful landscapes and interesting people, reflect the artist’s eye while convincing the viewer to buy a product, all while “focusing on things that will make a difference in people’s lives.”