Making magic with Santa

Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Isaac, Natalia and Sonya Siver, of Monett, pose for a photo with Santa in one of LaDonna McVay’s unique digitally painted holiday photos. Santa himself makes an appearance each year thanks to help from his friend Scott Wahl of Monett. LaDonna McVay/Special to The Monett Times

Local photographer makes memories for youngsters

One local photographer is making Christmas dreams come true, giving local youngsters an opportunity to spend some time with Santa Claus and parents lasting memories they will cherish for years to come.

For the past six years LaDonna McVay has been inviting Santa into her photography studio on 13th Street for unique family photo shoots with local youngsters.

Purdy resident Jhett Terry checks out a Christmas book with Santa in one of LaDonna McVay’s unique photos offered each holiday season at LaDonna McVay Photography in Monett. LaDonna McVay/Special to The Monett Times

Over the years, her elaborate sets and props have drawn crowds, and she has developed a talent for digitally painting the photos, creating a unique and stylized keepsake for families.

McVay said word has gotten out about her special Christmas scenes, and each year, bigger and bigger crowds book their holiday photos with her.

“When I started, it was just photos, but then I learned how to digitally paint and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do this,’” McVay said. “Every year, I have 40-50 clients who come from all over the place. Last year I got a call from someone in San Antonio who had seen one and wanted to know if I could do one for him.”

LaDonna McVay pairs her talent with a camera with her digital painting skills to make unique Christmas portraits with local youngsters and Santa Claus each year. Mike Gervais/

McVay said an incredible amount of work goes into creating the unique images, from thousands of dollars worth of sets and props, to bringing in five helpers to organize and manage clients, to coordination with Santa himself, a busy man who can only work one day into his schedule for the special photo shoots.

“We have Santa with a custom naughty and nice list with the kids’ names on it,” McVay said. “He is so good with the kids. I can’t do what I do without him.”

For his part, Santa said he couldn’t make the annual photo shoot in Monett happen without the help and support of an old local friend, Scott Wahl, who just happens to sport a similar white beard and provides Santa with a home away from the North Pole each year.

McVay and Santa take great care to stage each photo to ensure a special, one-of-a-kind image.

“Every year I spend thousands of dollars on the props and we have these lights, so everything that should glow in the photo does, because you can’t fake that,” McVay said.

She said things like Santa’s magical bag full of toys and books he reads to the kids all have a magical glow about them in the photos.

Those images then go into processing, which is when McVay adds the digital paint to create the unique effects that have made her portraits so popular.

In addition to matted photos, she also offers the images in the form of holiday greeting cards and Christmas ornaments.

McVay also said she makes substantial investments each year to improve the set and ensure that each set of photos are unique year to year.

She said that dedication has paid off, and in 2022, she is planning to add a special “Christmas in July” date

to allow families to get their Christmas photos taken in advance

“It’s just gotten so popular,” she said. “We have lots of people from Branson, Springfield, Ozark and Nixa who want to come, and of course, the locals from Verona, Purdy, Cassville and Monett.”

While her digital paintings have made their mark on the community, McVay said she is always looking for new opportunities, and is exploring idea of enhancing the magic of her photos with a phone app. While those plans are still being worked out, she said she may be offering a new service in the coming year that will see her photos come alive via smart phones.

LaDonna McVay Photography is busy during the holiday season, and those who are interested in booking a photo with Santa are encouraged to sign up early and, if possible, take advantage of the new Christmas in July opportunity coming next year. People may reach McVay at

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