Joe and Mary Ann McDonald - And I Fell in Love with the Instructor

J – I’ll start first, because I started first.

M – He’s older. Haha

J – I started when I was in about eighth grade. By the time I was a junior in high school, luckily enough, National Wildlife Federation had a film library that they were going through at that time. That kind of supplemented my high school and early college photography career, because I was able to sell through them.

M – In second grade I got a Brownie Instamatic camera with a flash where you actually had to lick the flash bulbs before you put them onto the camera.

J – She still licks the back of hot-shoe flashes.

M – Yeah, I can’t break the old habit. Haha


J – I’ll try to tell the story without getting too emotional.

M – Haha

J – I was teaching photo workshops. Mary met me at a lecture that I was giving at a bird club, and she decided to take the course that winter in the Everglades and…

M – And basically, I fell in love with the instructor. I had to convince him that I was necessary for his business. And the rest is history. He opened me up to the world of photography, and it was like this creative bloom went off inside of me.

Affect on your lives

J – In a way, [photography] almost defines my existence. It’s almost like a religious experience. In taking the photographs, it’s like celebrating nature. I really think that is my operating premise.

M – If we don’t take an image that’s okay, because we have this whole library of images which we call neurochromes up in our brain of things that we’ve seen throughout the years. When we’re out there it reinvigorates us; it just fills us back up. You become one with it. And then to be able to document that to use it for educational purposes for kids or for adults. To share it with the rest of the world, and to try to save it in that aspect, it’s pretty special.

On seeing

J – I drew pictures before I ever took a photograph. Although, I dabbled with drawing ever since then. You know, just as kind of like a fun thing...

M – He does great acrylic painting, and we have stuff in our house from him, so don’t let him kid you.

J – But the point is that even looking at the world like a painter or an artist you see things that you absolutely don’t otherwise see. To give you an example, I’ve often been tempted to make just an outline of a zebra and take it on my safaris, and put it down at the table where we all have lunch and say, 'Okay, fill in the stripes on the zebra.' And I’m sure most people would have no idea which way the patterns would go. Because we look at things, we classify them, and then we dismiss them.

Backyard habitat - Hoot Hollow

J – I wanted to be able to step out the door, and not have to worry about paying for a gallon of gas, but be able to take photographs literally just outside the doorstep.

M – It’s our little piece of heaven here. We can walk right out the back door and photograph. We dug vernal ponds for the wood frogs to mate and everything and to have tons of tadpoles. Our birds and our animals eat better than we do. I'm going through probably 200 pounds a week of bird seed right now even. We've just been experiencing our first fox squirrel and a red squirrel. It's really cool to be able to get out there and say, 'Wow, we helped bring them here, because we developed this for them.' It’s fun to be able to give back so much by creating this habitat.


M – It happened at the end of November, one day before my birthday. We were in Rwanda on our 75th gorilla trek. As they started to go back up into the woods into the national park, another group, called the hero group came. And Ghunda, who is the head Silverback of Sabina was running past us. You know when something is going to happen, because he puffs his lips up like this. Pfff. And then what he was doing was something we had never seen before...

J – This is good.

M – The two main Silverback started going… (see video) It was just wild! The photography just added to being able to capture it and share it.

J – I had a camera laying down on the ground at the time, and a Silverback ran by like a freight train. His foot just missed the camera; he was that close. Had he moved, even another two feet over, his shoulder would have hit any of us, and just flipped us over the ledge. Because were were right on the edge of a…

M – terraced field.

J – But I mean, to really have the hairs of the gorilla brush your face as he ran by…

M – it was cool.

Favorite image

J – BBC and Nature’s Best both had it as the second place winner that year. So, it was a striking shot…

M – What he forgot to mention was that it was seven male lions. So, we’re talking about seven big male lions on this kill.

J – And as my story continues. Haha. It was like if you’re climbing and you get scared. My leg was just rubber. You know, it was just shaking! And I was aware of that shaking and thinking, 'This is really cool, because I am so juiced up that my body is responding to this.'

Please leave us a comment below. Experience more of Joe and Mary Ann on their website at Hoot Hollow.

Colby Brown - It's the Human Element that Makes Us Whole

My introduction into the industry was actually through my interest of travel, not necessarily photography itself. I tried to do a standard 9-5 job for just a few months, and just couldn’t do it. I asked myself, ‘Okay, what do I want to do?' My answer was, I wanted to travel. At the time it was a very naive notion. But I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I just become a photographer? Why not? How hard can it be?’

Three or four days later, I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. On the flight over, the woman sitting next to me was a rock climber from Jackson Hole, WY. She was actually going to get married. Long story short, her friend was a photographer who had to back out at the last second. And so my first paying gig ever was shooting a traditional Buddhist wedding in the middle of a rural village in Southern Thailand.

[Photography] forces you to look at the world differently. That’s kind of what drew me to travel in the first place. That contrasting sense of life, and how different people see things differently and how people live their lives differently culturally. I found myself wanting to experience more of the world not through a viewfinder. It’s an interesting statement to make as a photographer.

Affect on family

[Photography] helps me take away those things we take for granted. I have a two and a half year old son. He’s right at that amazing age where everything is new. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Marcel Proust, and that’s 'The true voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.'

Favorite places

One of my favorite countries in the world is definitely Nepal. They have amazing festivals, and they’re just so kind. My heart is definitely in the mountains so being the Himalayas as a backdrop is kind of icing on the cake.

Iceland, as far as landscape specifically, is definitely a hotspot for me—such varied terrain, beautiful pastel light, just a very active location. I love the challenge of the unpredictability of places like Iceland and Patagonia. With the weather—as you know—just always keeping you on your toes.

It’s a very humbling reality to think about what I’ve been fortunate to do, and at the same time to think of how much more is out there, and how much more we can learn from other people and see more cultures and more landscapes and mountains and sunrises… the world out there is awesome.

The Giving Lens

Travel was always very superficial. You never really got the chance to get to know a country, or to know it’s issues or to know its people. You’re kind of just skimming through, maybe you have a week off work or what-not. That just never sat well with me.

With The Giving Lens, we take teams of photographers of varied skill sets to mostly developing countries to partner with an NGO that has chosen to fight for a specific cause—whether that’s child education like we do in Nicaragua and Peru, whether it’s women’s rights like we do in Jordan, species preservation like we’re doing in Africa, and I’d be lying if I said this probably wasn’t the most meaningful and passionate piece of my photo career, in general.

Finding meaningful ways for photographers to give back is so powerful. It makes such a difference. I mean, people that have been on some of our TGL trips have become board members of the NGO’s we partner with. Definitely try to do it organically. By that I mean, don’t  sit there and go to an organization and say, ‘This is what I can do.’ My recommendation would be, ‘How can I help?’


We’re listening to their story of the challenges they face, as we’re sitting inside their small little hut in the middle of Tanzania. One of our participants asked, ‘Are the children affected? Do they have HIV?’

And for the wife to answer and say, ‘No’ and to have such a great smile that even though they have HIV, they came together as a family and these kids don’t have HIV. It was very moving. I don’t think anyone left that room not crying.

Beyond solitude

It was the solitude that drew me to nature and landscape. I love being in the middle of the night in front of Mt Fitz Roy in Argentina. No one is around, and you’re just having this really intimate experience with nature. I think that’s very cathartic for me; it’s very important for who I am. But at the same time, a lot of what I was doing in those initial years was chasing after moments like that.

I love nature. I love solitude. But it’s the human element that connects us; it’s the human element that makes us whole.

Photographing people is not easy. A lot of people don’t like it, it makes them feel uncomfortable, I totally understand and respect that. But for me to see so many travel photographers out there label themselves as travel photographers—and even if they have exceptional work, like landing covers on Nat Geo—and to go through their portfolio and see a complete lack of a human element kind of, it bugs me in a way.


I went to Tacloban just a few days after the typhoon. I was able to move some things around and just head there. People that have nothing, that lost so much, or everything—lost family members—to be willing to help their neighbors who are still struggling. That, to me, is motivational beyond anything else that I could ever experience.

Experience more at ColbyBrownPhotography and TheGivingLens.

Rob Sheppard - It's More than Superficial Capturing and Collecting

Two things were always really important to me growing up—things related to nature and things related to photography. I grew up in the era of LIFE magazine. But I also was inspired by Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter. When I was a teenager, I read the Elliot Porter book 'In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.' That had a really big influence on me.

When I went to college I flipped back and forth. For the first two years in college, I went through seven different majors. And they were all related to either something nature or biological or something communications. I eventually got a degree in plant and soil science. I actually have a masters degree in plant and soil science with a minor in ecology. But photography had still always been a part of my life. I was a newspaper photographer for the daily at school.

But there was always this conflict, because I didn’t really have support for my photography. I didn’t really know anybody who photographed. First out of college, I worked as a naturalist, as an environmental educator. Then, I got a job with the Minnesota Department of Transportation as a photojournalist. They really liked my work, and that was the first time I started to say, ‘Hey, I’m a photographer.’

First camera

My first camera was a Brownie, when I was probably about 10. My first serious camera was an Argus C3 that my Dad had. He wasn’t using it, and I had gotten interested in photography and taking pictures. It gave some manual controls, and I actually could change lenses.

Affect on your life

Photography, for me, is a way of focusing on the world around me. I feel really strongly that photography is something more than just a superficial capturing and collecting of images or subjects. The best photography comes from my connection to the subject. I want to connect with that subject. Photography helps me focus; it helps me really look at what’s going on, because I really want to see what is happening in my image. I want to honor and respect that subject.

Thanks to digital, there are multiple times that I’m experiencing this subject matter—in the moment, on the back of the camera, and then again later on the computer.

I want people looking at my images to engage with the subject. I am less interested in people saying, ‘Oh, wow  what a great picture.’ I once had a woman come up to me after a presentation and she said, 'You know, I don’t like spiders and other kinds of bugs, but when I see your pictures I think they’re okay.' I mean that was cool! That meant a lot to me.


Truthfully, I have that ‘Alive’ feeling almost every time I’m out with my camera. That’s why I’m out there. It doesn’t have to be far away. I can sit in my native plants garden for hours and watch my San Diego sunflower. That thing, for whatever reason, attracts all kinds of insects. I can sit there for hours and photograph, and just watch.

We have a hummingbird that’s nesting outside our front window, and I’ve set up a camera. I’m in awe. The nest was empty, and I was waiting for him to come back. He came back with a whole bill of spider webs! It caught me off-guard. I didn’t get the picture, but I saw it. And to me it was so cool to actually see that. That was a privilege and uplifting even if I didn’t get the picture.

Interest in insects

I love getting in close to things with a wide-angle lens. It gives you a feeling of the setting. Maybe it’s partly because of my interest in ecology and in connection. In other forms of photography you don’t get that feeling of connection.

These little critters are a part of our world that is so important. Spiders, for example, are the most common predator in the world. Period. They have a huge influence on things. People wouldn’t think that spiders have personalities. But I’ve seen more than once, little jumping spiders have a lot of personality. They’re fascinating little critters.

Not too long ago I found one that had caught a fly. Well, that fly was as big as he was, and he was hanging on! That was like a lion tackling a wildebeest. It’s just incredible! There’s all of this all around us. That’s something that I love to explore, and I love to share.


People talk about nature as something separate from man. But we are a part of nature. I think it’s important to acknowledge that connection and to say, ‘Hey, we’re a part of this world.’

If we are feeling disconnected from nature, it’s a lot easier to screw around with it, to dump poisons it, and to drain swamps, and things like that, because we’re not connected; so, it’s not important. If we are connected—and I think photography is a way for all of us to become connected—there’s going to be less of this arbitrary dismissal and disrespect of nature.

Favorite places

My favorite place is the place where I am. For example, I’ve gone to meetings in New York city. Every time I’m there, I get out into Central Park. And I really love Central Park. I always want to find the special nature anywhere I go.

Photo over your mantle

I have pictures up, but I always want to put up a bunch of them. The collection tells more of a story about a place. Like for Death Valley, I don’t just have up one picture, I have a whole collection of about 20 pictures to give a feeling for the place.

I was talking to Art Wolfe, and we included this idea in our recent book on composition. What you have in your house is something that you feel comfortable with and what reflects you. It’s not just the pictures. I have stuff—paper wasp nests, fossils, a variety of insects, birds, fish. All these little things remind me of the world of nature. All of those things combine to affect my sense of composition.


One of the most important things that a photographer today can do is to certainly learn the craft of photography. Stay with your subject, and shoot lots and lots and lots of pictures.

For more of Rob’s philosophical look at nature visit his website Or visit Rob’s technical website at

Dave Black - Photography Takes Us to Places that Other People Don't Go

I took a photography class in college to fulfill a graphic design major. That sort of sparked my interest in photography. I think the cameras that were issued to the class were Mamiya Secors, like a TL-500 or something. But for my entire career I’ve used Nikon cameras.

The instructor, who was also the department head, encouraged me to come in each week. He said, 'I’ll give you film and lab time. I just want you to stay interested, because I just think you have a lot of potential to be a really good photographer.' So the spark for me was probably the interest that a teacher showed to me. He extended himself on his own time. He was a great guy, and he kept my interest going.

In 1980 I took an offer to be the official photographer for the US Gymnastics teams. I decided to step away from coaching the sport and become a full-time photographer. There weren’t that many photographers who were making a living at it.

I started doing some things for Sports Illustrated, and Sports Illustrated was very big on lighting. The quality of film in the 1980’s was not that great. The highest ISO was 800 or maybe 1600 if we pushed it. It was awful, but that was the pinnacle of the industry. To raise the quality, I brought in lighting. It sort of raised the bar for a lot of other sports photographers. I raised the bar. They raised the bar. I raised the bar. They raised the bar. And I here I am today.

Affect on your life

My Olympic involvement took me overseas. That’s something that really helped develop my character, and personality in some ways. I would go away and do a world championships in track and field in preparation for the Olympic Games, and I’d be gone for two weeks. I’d come home for a week, and then I’d go to Melbourne, Australia for two weeks to cover the World Swimming Championships. I was constantly experiencing foreign cultures, different cities, different people.

I think going to Russia a couple times was really a giant eye-opener. I’m 61, so I grew up in the Cold War era. I would have never guessed I’d be in the basement of the Kremlin in a gift store buying my wife and my daughter a gift. Did it have something to do with photography? Yes, in the sense that it was the vehicle that got me places. That’s the cool thing about photography; it takes you and I to places that other people don’t go. And that, in and of itself, is such an extraordinary feeling that makes you feel alive.

On your family

My daughter is a photographer. Go figure. I actually always thought she would have ended up as a photo editor. She had this ability from a very young age—like 8 or 9 years old—where she would come in and survey all the slides out on the light table. I’d say, 'Well, Haley, why don’t you pick out the cover for me.’ She’d say, ‘I need the loop.’ Haha! She would bare down on the slide transparency. She’d say, ‘This one right here.’ She would pick the same one that I would pick—and very often—the same one the editors would pick.

Balanced Universe  100dpi.jpg


It became part of my daily thinking and business around 1998-99. Advertising photographers used it to do small things—wine glasses, bottles for a company. It was usually done with a fiber optic product called the Hosemaster. It had a dreadful color of light, so you had to filtrate the light. I owned one for a year, then I sold it. I wanted to be free and emancipated from plugging it into the wall.

I started searching for LED lights, and I began doing more portable light paintings. My graphics design—art—background lent itself well to combine with photography and light painting was the end result. It was this artistic expression of light far different than what strobes, speedlights, or arena lighting could produce.

I like creating things that others are not creating. That’s what lighting does for you; it sets you apart from the rest of the pack. 

Favorite image

The picture was centered around the US captain, a fellow named Kevin Barnett. It became the first digital 'leading off' for Sports Illustrated. It changed the minds of the photo editors at Sports Illustrated—Jimmy Colten and Steve Fine. It changed their thinking on what digital could do.

Early believer in digital

The screen on the back of the camera was a mere postage stamp size. And it was the marvel of the millennium.

At the 2000 Olympics I was just raked over the coals by all of my colleagues. Great names in the industry were openly criticizing me as a traitor. I walked into the women’s 100m finals, and there’s 300 photographers all ganged up for the finish line and I walked in to ‘Traitor!’ ‘Benedict Arnold!’

It was ruthless. I said, ‘I’m telling you guys, you’re all going to be singing from the same choir very very shortly here.’ Things were published, and I got some very nice apologies.

Woodland Wolves  100dpi.jpg


Study the great ones. Study the young ones.

Somebody asked me the other day what the pros and cons are of digital. I said, ‘Well, I think sometimes digital makes us walk away satisfied too quickly.’ Don’t be that satisfied too quickly. Work the situation.  

The pro is that today, great minds can pick up a camera—great creative minds—who maybe wouldn’t have picked up a camera 20-30 years ago because of manual focus, manual ISO, manual exposure, and manual lighting. Thus, we as the public never got to see what maybe was going on inside their mind. Now, we get to see what they are thinking. There are a lot of photographers my age who say, ‘Ah, well, when I got into photography, I had to walk 6 miles to get a decent exposure.' Haha! I applaud the whole digital revolution.

Be sure to visit Dave’s wonderfully insightful Workshop at the Ranch articles on his website