With a background in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, Washington, DC-based Ryan Donnell specializes in lifestyle and portrait photography for editorial, advertising, and corporate clients.
During a recent assignment for North Dakota Tourism‘s travel guide, Ryan explored “The Legendary State” — highlighting its outdoor adventures, history, and culture that make it a must-see destination. Featuring beautiful imagery and easy-to-find information, the guide is designed to encourage travelers to add North Dakota to their bucket list.
While photographing an editorial crew traveling through North Dakota in early 2021, Ryan met Sara Otte Coleman, the state’s tourism director. From there, Sara suggested Ryan would be a good fit for their fall advertising campaign.
I’m a refugee from a photojournalism career in my past and I think the skills that I picked up during that time in my life, are what most clients like about working with me. That is, finding images quickly under difficult circumstances with limited production resources; adapting to changing circumstances or even showing up cold to a scenario (no scouting) and creating images; the ability to create a lot of variety within scenes in very short periods of time; and the ability to work with non-professional talent.
With so much natural beauty in the state, it’s no surprise that outdoor recreation is a major focal point of its tourist attractions. However, due to the fires and droughts last year, ND Tourism decided to emphasize cultural spots, such as restaurants, zoos, and city squares, to showcase the variety of family-friendly activities available to visitors.
Generally, conditions were good. We had one day of nasty downpours during a coffee shop shoot and my crew had to hurry up lights (and do some post-pro retouching) to get us “sun.” We were at different locations for different amounts of time. But, Odney, the agency (and producer of the shoot), tried to get us at least half a day at most locations, because we were often wrangling a lot of non-professional talent.
In a state as large as North Dakota, driving between cities can take several hours, thus Ryan had to take that into account when planning, especially when packing and unpacking grip and lighting. However, the crew worked quickly and efficiently — wrapping a location and getting on to the next place was so seamless that before Ryan put the camera down just about everything was put away.
I think the hardest challenge was for my first assistant, Ryan Collerd, who was tasked with rigging a camera and strobe to a go-kart just before sunset. We had to stop rigging/shooting every time someone wanted to race and the sun was setting quickly! He got it rigged and we got the frames we needed though.
One of the challenging aspects of the project was working around businesses that were still open. Since the subjects were non-professional (mostly volunteer) talent, Ryan did his best to make everyone feel comfortable. While many people are used to being photographed these days, most aren’t used to being directed while doing normal everyday things, like eating a meal with friends (or strangers), much less when surrounded by other people watching. Yet in spite of all the moving parts involved in this project, there was great energy among local talent who were excited to be participating.
I try to chat with people beforehand and let them know what to expect. And then during the shooting I try to make jokes, ask questions to get them into participating with their co-talent and then steer conversations as if I’m participating with them. I find this can make it feel like I’m part of the activity and just happen to be making pictures of the scene.
Called the “Legendary State” for a reason, North Dakota is a scenic destination with plenty to see and do, as well as beauty at every turn.
Go to North Dakota, it’s got so much to offer!
Client, North Dakota Tourism Director: Sara Otte Coleman
Agency: Odney Advertising
Executive Producer: Gwen Butler
Producer: Sarah Elder
Creative Director: Mike Bruner
Art Director: Austin Binstock
First Assistant/Second Shooter: Ryan Collerd
Digital Tech: Matt LeClair
Retoucher: Jeff Satterwhite
See more of Ryan’s images on Instagram.