I’m a portrait, wedding, commercial, and fine art photographer from Clare, Michigan. I currently own and operate Ryan Watkins Photography which caters to Clare, Midland, Mt Pleasant, and beyond.
I grew up in the middle of the woods ten miles from either Clare or Coleman, Michigan. I was close enough to Coleman to be on their electrical grid and close enough to Clare to go to their middle and high school. I went to elementary school at St. Cecilia, which is also in Clare, and was raised by loving parents Tim and Carol Watkins. My grandparents, technically grandmother and step-grandfather but I always knew him as “grandpa”, took me to a bluegrass country gospel revival thing in-between 5th and 6th grade. Between the fiddlen’ there was a gospel presentation and I believe this is where I got saved. After a few months I mustered up the courage to ask my mom if she would take me to church where grandma and grandpa went: a non-denominational protestant church near Beaverton, Michigan. She was willing. Once my mother and I started going to church my dad started coming as well. Over time they were both saved. During a men’s breakfast at church an older friend, who was an amateur photographer, started talking about Photoshop contests on the, now defunct, website worth1000.com. I came across a cheap version of Photoshop elements and started doing Photoshop contests on worth1000. My composites were horrible and placed accordingly in the contests. I saw that worth1000 also had photography contests so I decided to give those a try. I shot an image of one of my parent’s pole barns with my mom’s Kodak easy share camera and submitted it. It did far better than the Photoshop entries so I decided to continue trying photography.
As a kid I really liked video games. Classic Nintendo like Mario, Zelda, Kirby, and Pokemon being my favorites. Exploring Hyrule and Kanto later lead to my love of travel and exploring new locations in real life. Late middle school and early high school is when my passion for photography really started to kindle. I was constantly saving up money from mowing lawns, and later on from photoshoots, to invest into new photographic equipment. I bought a Samsung point and shoot camera and shot with it everywhere. I later broke it on a trampoline at a friend’s house. My other hobbies, video games, Karate, etc, started to get put on the back burner as I started dedicating more time to learning photography.
It was after a trip to the Fred Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan that I decided I really wanted to be a photographer for a living. I was walking around with a monster metal tripod, a relic of my dad’s from the 80s which helped me briefly develop some nice biceps in ninth grade that I’ve since lost. Attached was a used and refurbished manual focus only Nikon 70-300mm lens on a Nikon D40. A fellow visitor waved at me to come over near him. A baby raccoon popped his head out of the leaves just long enough for me to focus and dial in a proper exposure. This was the first image I had taken that I was really happy with. After seeing this image I decided this is what I wanted to do for a living.
As high school went along I started to photograph any creatures that would meander into my parent’s yard: deer, birds, turtles, frogs, stray cats, Amish kids, whatever. I was reading photography magazines and books constantly. I skipped my senior homecoming to go to Scott Kelby’s Light It Shoot It Retouch It conference in Lansing.
In high school Kim Kliendhart, or Mrs. K, as she will always be to me, was incredibly inspiring to me. When I was in 11th and 12th grade she taught a class called art gallery management which helped teach both the business skills of running an art gallery as well as about art and art history. This really helped teach me work ethic. It probably taught me more than any of my other classes in high school.
The first thing I did after turning eighteen was going to Harrison to get my DBA. On November 21st 2011 Ryan Watkins Photography officially started. At this point I’d been published in several magazines, including Audubon, Nature’s Best Photography, and the cover of Shutterbug, and had had many paying senior and wedding clients in 2010 and 2011 prior to officially starting my business. I was later published in several other magazines while still in high school including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo, and PDNedu.
My parents and I when to Arnie’s Arts and Crafts in Houghton Lake once to get some photos framed. When we were checking out my dad mentioned that I shot the images to the cashier. The cashier happened to be a recent graduate from Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. She told me about the school, the classes, the medium format Mamiya cameras, and Profoto lights. It was an intense ten month program which taught you how to become a professional photographer. It was pretty much a trade school for photographers. In September 2011 I went for an interview and was accepted to be a student at Hallmark Institute of Photography for the 2012/2013 school year.
In August 2013 I moved to the small crunchy town of Greenfield, Massachusetts. I lived by myself in a studio apartment in Turners Falls. The first month or so took some time getting used to. Every Saturday I would go for long drives throughout Western Massachusetts and sometimes even into Vermont. Every Sunday I would visit and new church. Despite being saved at a young age I was very theologically illiterate at the time. I also started attending the Faith Baptist Church while I was out there which was the first time I had been under expository preaching. This church really helped get me on the right track theologically and I am incredibly thankful that I providentially ended up there during my ten months at Hallmark. By about a month I felt settled in. I was in a church and had started to make some friends from school.
One of the major draws to going to Hallmark was being able to study under renowned portrait photographer Gregory Heisler. Heisler has photographed several presidents including George Bush, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton as well as celebrities like Bono, Bill Gates, Bruce Springsteen, Liv Tyler, Densel Washington, and Julia Roberts. I learned so many amazing things from him and the other instructors like David Turner, Rich Barnes, Tony Downer, and Braiden Chapman. Hallmark also had a ton of guest speakers come as well. I got to meet in person many of the people I had read about in magazines and books like fashion photographer Lindsey Adler, National Geographic photographer Sam Abell, Olympic photographer Rob Wyatt, celebrity photographers Gary Land, Monte Isom, and Clay Patrick McBride.
When I started to take interest in photography I shot primarily nature mostly due to my location. Sadly nature and landscape photography is thought of very lowly by many in the professional photography industry; because of this I shifted my main emphasis to portraiture while at Hallmark.
Most people assume that art school, especially one where you just press a button all day, would be a cake walk. It certainly was not. While looking for apartments many of the potential land lords warmed me about how grueling Hallmark is. The ten month program was short but very intense. You have classes from 8am-5pm Monday-Friday and have to shoot much of your portfolio on your own time. Many who started the program don’t finish because of the high requirements. Renting equipment is also on a first come first serve basis. Because of this I once showed up at Hallmark at 3am to get in line to check out equipment to make sure I could get the necessary gear for the weekend.
To graduate from Hallmark you must have your final portfolio of twenty four images accepted by a panel of guest judges. The twenty four images had to meet very specific criteria. The judges who judged my portfolio where Gregory Heisler, Gregor Halenda, Bambi Cantrell, and Lois Greenfield. Halenda is a Hasselblad Master who’s clients include Ducati, Coca-Cola, BMW, and Mercedes. Cantrell is a Nikon ambassador and former president of Hasselblad America who has photographed several celebrities. Greenfield is a dance photographer who’s clients include The New York Times, Pepsi, NFL, Rolex, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. Each student was called to the front of the auditorium where their portfolio was projected in front of the rest of the students and teachers while the judges mercilessly critiqued them. I was the very last student from my class to have their portfolio judged. A week after the portfolio we had our graduation ceremony where I was awarded the highest academic honor award. This award was for having the highest over all grades throughout the year.
One of the best things about going to Hallmark was the relationships I developed while I was there. The community of Hallmark alumni is very close knit. I recently found a fellow alumni in Michigan who offered to let me use his studio any time I want. To this day I still regularly bounce business and photo shoot ideas off of friends made at Hallmark. I’ve went on long road trips just to spend a few hours in person again with Hallmark friends.
After graduating from Hallmark I moved back to Clare, Michigan and started running Ryan Watkins Photography full time. I continue to to this day. I have also done freelance retouching for various companies like Sugarjets Studios in Maine since graduating.
I have a lot of exciting things in store for Ryan Watkins Photography in 2017. I’ve now expanded out to doing not only portraits but also wedding, commercial, and fine art photography. I’ve gotten back to my roots and have started photographing nature photography again and sell prints online at ryanwatkinsphotography.com/fine-art. I hire fellow freelance photographer Nikki Robinson to second shoot weddings with me as well as assisting me on portrait and commercial shoots requiring a bigger production. Lastly I’m reaching out to others to start a local community of photographers in Michigan. This communities official Facebook group is titled Michigan Photography Network.
In the little spare time I have I enjoy reading books on theology, politics, business, and anything else that seems to interest me at the time. I usually prefer non fiction to fiction. It seems like every conversation with someone at the amazing confessional reformed church I joined in 2016, Christ Covenant Church (OPC) in Midland, Michigan, leads to a recommendation for a another book. I also greatly enjoy podcasts. A few of my favorites being The PetaPixel Photography Podcast with Sharky James and The Reformed Pubcast. I also love traveling whether it be for work or to visit friends from Hallmark while listening to audiobooks, podcasts, or prog rock along the way.