Joe and Mary Ann McDonald live in central Pennsylvania where the run their photography business. At NANPA’s 2021 Nature Photography Virtual Summit, they will be recognized with NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement in Nature Photography Award in recognition to their contributions to the profession. They will also be keynote speakers. With 50 years of photography experience, Joe was a founding member of NANPA and has served on the board of directors. He’s written seven books and hundreds of articles. Mary Ann brings 30 years of experience and is the author or many children’s books on wildlife as well as being a Visiting Author in several programs. Their images have place 15 times in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. They’ve led more than 100 photo tours to see mountain gorillas and were given the honor of giving a name to a baby gorilla in Rwanda’s “Kwitza Inza” ceremony, the highest honor one can achieve in mountain gorilla conservation. Previously, they have received NANPA Fellows Awards (Joe 2002, Mary Ann in 2010) and NANPA’s Outstanding Service Awards (2002).
Joe and Mary Ann started out with less than $1,000 to their name. “When we decided that I didn’t have to work anymore at Hershey Med Center,” Mary Ann says, “we started to look for a house. This was before we were married. I had no money. We had a finite amount of money that Joe had saved up. We worked with a realtor but what we were shown ranged from a double-wide trailer to an old farm house on an original William Penn land grant that looked like we would find Norman Bates’ mother in the attic. We finally found our current house at Hoot Hollow (we felt a rainbow led us to the house) two days before leaving for Australia. We didn’t even do a counter offer to the price and bought it outright. That left us with less than a $1,000 to start out our married and professional life. We figured that we could grow most of our food, buy meat off of our farmer neighbors and live modestly until we got started. And that’s how we started out.”
Over a multi-decade career, they’ve seen a lot of changes in photography. Like many, they were surprised by the rapidity of the change from film to digital and how much that changed everything about the profession. “Like many professional photographers, we thought that we would be able to retire on our stock sales but that thought sure didn’t last when we saw photo sales fall nearly 95% over 10 years.”
And, like many, they see the upside as well as the downside of this transition. “Digital made it easy for everyone to sell images. You didn’t have to be a ‘master of the craft.’ But it also upped the game with what digital allowed you to capture. For us we just started to do more photo workshops and tours, to the extent that we traveled 32 weeks of the year for several years in a row. We adjusted just fine but it’s still been challenging at times.”
The constant evolution and improvement of technology has also brought changes in the gear they use. “About three years ago, we switched to the Olympus 4/3 mirrorless camera system. We did it at first for the weight issue with traveling and for me carrying gear into the field,” says Mary Ann. “But we quickly fell in love with the many wonderful features that Olympus has to offer, such as Live Composite and ProCapture. That has made photography fun again as we have been able to capture action sequences that we never could before. We are looking at nature and wildlife as if we have just started again and we love it.”
The coronavirus pandemic and associated travel restrictions, lockdowns, and stay-at-home orders have disrupted their business and life. “I’m sure that others have experienced the overwhelming frustration of not being able to plan anything in the future,” Mary Ann observes. As with so many people, it has been difficult “to reinvent ourselves, to find ‘residual income’ so that we could survive this unparalleled time.” They’ve kept busy photographically and Mary Ann presented Joe with a challenge on January 1st: taking an image a day and posting it. “That’s been fun for both of us.”
Being unable to travel has opened time for other opportunities. “We are still looking forward to traveling again and sharing this amazing natural world with others, and are looking at some new locations to share. And we have been able to mentor several young photographers over the past few months,” says Mary Ann, “me with Girls Who Click and both of us with working with Gary Farber at Hunt’s Photo & Video and some of the students that he is mentoring. We’re definitely not ready to retire or ‘hang it up’ so we hope that as soon as travel opens up and people feel comfortable again to travel, that we see many of our friends again in the field.”
The value of summits and friendships
They’re also looking forward to the Nature Photography Virtual Summit and “seeing” some old and new friends. “Thanks to NANPA, and especially the Summits, we’ve been able to connect with many of our professional colleagues that we never would have had the chance to meet in the field. As with many pros who lead photo tours, we are usually so busy if we see or meet another pro in the field that we really can’t talk shop. At the Summits, we’ve been able to listen to others and what they are teaching, or what they are most proficient at. We’ve been able to share ‘war stories’ but also to talk about issues that we all have experienced. Being able to share, to talk, and to solve these issues with others has been incredibly invaluable. We’ve made lifelong friends with many of our colleagues and even if we only see each other every few years at Summit, or quickly in the field, it’s as if we haven’t been apart at all. It’s a wonderful camaraderie that exists, a sense of belonging to a bigger picture and you know that if you have a problem, you have someone who you can call, who will understand and who may be able to help. It’s a good feeling to have.”
About the Award
NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement in Nature Photography Award goes to an individual who has served nature photography for at least 20 years. The awardee should have made significant contributions over an extended period of time, demonstrating a mastery of the art and craft of nature photography and having an impact on the field of nature photography.