Q & A with Joe & Mary Ann McDonald


We decided to shake things up and make today's featured photographer post a little different. We got Joe and Mary Ann McDonald to answer a few questions for us. We asked them both questions not only about photography but also about how they enjoy working together as a team. They each answered individually not knowing what the other answered. Here are the results! 


Of all the places you have been, where is your favorite to photograph? Why?

JoeI probably have two favorite places to photograph. I’ve been going to East Africa, and Kenya particularly, for over 25 years and I never get tired of photographing here. I love the big cats and I love to photograph action, and I have a great chance of doing both in Kenya. All of the game there has the potential for magic images, from elephants to birds, so there is always something to shoot. Over the last six years, however, I’ve been doing annual trips to Brazil’s Pantanal for jaguars and other wildlife. That area must be my second favorite, for not only are there jaguars but ocelots, giant otters, anteaters, and the potential of literally hundreds of species of birds. What’s really great about the Pantanal is the freedom you have to walk in the jungle, at least at the tourist lodges. Not that it is without the potential for danger, because I’ve done camera trap photography on these trails where, day or night, I’ve recorded jaguars, but at least you don’t have the worry about being gored by a buffalo or crushed by an elephant!

Mary Ann:  My all-time favorite place to photograph is Africa and especially Kenya. Africa gets into your blood and you just can’t get enough of it. It is truly ‘survival of the fittest’ when you see life and death struggles every day. The office staff and all of my friends know that I am the happiest and most at rest with my soul when I am in a tent in Africa listening to a lion roaring or a hyena calling. And of course being there with Joe.

Describe a typical day on the job together.

Joe: Depends on the job. When we’re home we’re at our office desks from 8 or 9 until 10 or 11 each night, not very glamorous. In the field, however, when we’re leading a photo tour or safari our day starts around 5AM for a field departure that is at 6 or so, depending upon the location. We may return for a lunch if the shooting doesn’t keep us out, and we’ll return afield in mid-afternoon until sunset. Generally we don’t seek out a particular subject but instead we shoot, and we encourage our participants to shoot, anything good that comes along. For example, although we might hope to photograph jaguars our entire morning might be involved with giant otters or birds, unless we get word a jaguar was spotted and then we focus on our target species. But we really encourage everyone to simply ‘smell the roses’ and appreciate and photograph all that’s available. That makes for a well-rounded portfolio and is far more rewarding than just driving or boating around, wasting time and perhaps getting frustrated.

In the Pantanal, at least, my day doesn’t end at sunset. At some lodges I have the chance to set up a camera trap system for nocturnal animals like ocelots or tapirs, and at dusk and dawn I’m generally out either setting up the system or checking it. That type of shooting can be frustrating, but when you capture something, like an ocelot, all the effort is worthwhile.

Mary Ann: There are two typical days: on the road and at home.


Up 6:30am and walk or workout, feed the birds, water plants, whatever on the personal side 8:30am: into the office and work until 5:00pm taking at the most 20 minutes for lunch (either outside in nice weather, or reading a book at the table or at our desks)
5:00-6:00 – work out (if I have time otherwise I work until around 6:00)
6:00-8:00 – dinner and a swim in our Endless Pool
8:00 – at least 10:00 but usually until 11:00 or much later as we get near to trips (1:00am or even 3:00am is not unusual before a trip as I try to get stuff done)

On the road:

Up at 5:00 (if I am not too exhausted) and get a 35 minute workout in
6:00am – meet the group, load up and head out for the morning or the day (breakfast in the field)
12:00 – 3:00 or 4:00 – midday break in Africa, no break in Yellowstone and maybe no break in other places (lunch in the field on some tours)
6:30pm – back in to camp or the lodge after sunset
7:30pm – dinner and drinks – maybe night photography depending on the place
9:00pm – 10:00pm – collapse in to bed after trying to read a page or two

You have placed a combined 14 times (7 each) in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. From your experience, what does it take to shoot award winning photos? 

Joe: Patience! And the awareness that no matter what type of luck you’ve had, you can always improve upon any subject. I never feel as if I’ve made the ultimate shot of any subject, although sometimes, for some subjects, I might not revisit a theme. For example, I’ve done a lot of high speed flash work with running collared lizards and striking rattlesnakes, and I’ve made some great shots. If I don’t have another chance to shoot either I’d be okay with that.

We’ve occasionally found that our fellow photographers on our tours sometimes feel as if they’ve got the shot, that they don’t need to spend any more time with a given subject. Recently, in the Pantanal we had an incredibly cooperative jaguar named George that we had so many opportunities with that some people said ‘no more George!’ Yet on our last day, by stopping and waiting on George we had a wonderful male/male interaction with snarls and swats, and later, by following the second jaguar that arrived, we had a great chase sequence when the jaguar charged some capybaras.

Award-winning shots are earned, I think, in terms of patience and, of course, in recognizing a unique opportunity and capturing it creatively or dramatically.

Mary AnnIt takes three things to get a winning image: skill (you need to know the craft and how to use your equipment efficiently), knowledge (Joe and I always say that the best wildlife photographer is also the best naturalist – you need to know your subject in order to predict behavior) and luck (you just have to be in the right place at the right time). And when either Joe or I have shot a great image, you know it and we say ‘That is a BBC image’.

What is your favorite thing about working as a couple?

Joe: We are so lucky because we can work together and share the wonders of the world together. It is certainly a pleasure, too, when working with people to have a spouse that can take some of the load, or be a sounding board for ideas or problems.

Mary AnnBeing able to share this amazing world together.

Most difficult thing? 

Joe: I am so bitter! Mary always gets the better shots! Actually, there truly is no difficult thing, except ….. Whenever I lust after some piece of photo gear, I usually have to think about buying two! She is an expensive woman!

Mary Ann:  We are both very strong-willed people and sometimes we each think that we are right. We honestly don’t have many times where we clash and when we do, it’s a flair-up, we both express and then it is over in 5 minutes. Makes us stronger.

Do you have any upcoming safaris or workshops?

Our upcoming several months are just crazy. In the first weeks of 2014 we have Puerto Rico and Tanzania. Later in the year we’ll be in Arizona for bats and hummingbirds, Ecuador for hummingbirds, Svalbard for polar bears, and then to Brazil. We’ll have six weeks off this spring because I'm (Joe) is getting back surgery, the first extended time off we’ve had in years!


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-Mary Ann-