TOM MACKIE - LANDSCAPE & TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 21st May 2018
Tom Mackie has made his understanding of light, perspective and colour the hallmark that has established his name as one of the world’s leading landscape photographers.
Tom Mackie has made his understanding of light, perspective and colour the hallmark that has established his name as one of the world's leading landscape photographers. He began his career with a five-year stint as an industrial and commercial photographer in Los Angeles, fresh from gaining a degree in commercial photography in his native Iowa. His LA base gave him the opportunity to travel extensively through the vast, cinemascope terrain of the Western States and this ignited a life-long passion for landscapes.
In 1985 he moved to the UK to pursue a full-time career as a landscape photographer, and rapidly made his name with calendars, books, prints, posters, cards and editorial work for a wide range of clients. Accolades followed from The British Institute of Professional Photographers, the Ilford Awards and the Business Calendar Awards, and inclusion in the book The World's Top Photographers: Landscape, published by RotoVision.
The author of several books, including Photos With Impact and Tom Mackie's Landscape Photography Secrets, and numerous articles for photography magazines in the UK and abroad, he splits his time between his home in Norwich and locations all over the world, for commissions, stock shoots and workshops. We caught up with him on a rare weekend in the country to find out how his latest Nikon acquisition, the D810, is living up to its reputation as TIPA's Best Professional DSLR.
Oddly enough, I never really 'switched' – I just came back. My very first camera was a Nikon F2 Photomic, when I was at college. I remember thinking, my God, I can't believe I'm buying a Nikon, because they always were the best 35mm cameras, even back then. I wish I'd hung on to it as it's worth quite a bit now…
I started my business in the UK with 4x5, and for ages while my photography friends were urging me to go digital, I'd look at their files and think, nope, the quality's really not that good yet. I eventually caved in 2006, but I still think I should have stayed with large format a bit longer, because going digital lost me a lot of business, especially from my mural clients – it was just that bit too soon, and the files still weren't really good enough for major enlargements. But, after backbreaking years of lugging around large format and panoramic kit, the lightness of digital cameras was a big advantage, along with the speed and ease of getting pictures out to clients straightaway. It was a huge learning curve, though – I had to get to grips with digital processing, and I'm still learning…
I came back to Nikon three years ago. I'd been thinking about moving away from my then system for some time as it wasn't giving me the results I wanted. Then the Nikon D800 came out, and I knew its high resolution would be brilliant for my lost mural clients. But the tipping point came – quite literally – on holiday in August 2012 with my son and daughter in the Canada Rockies, when I overbalanced getting out of a canoe on Moraine Lake and fell in, along with my DSLR. There's surely no more spectacular a place to lose a camera… but it was a write-off, and we were only two days into the trip. So I dragged the kids on a two-hour drive back to Calgary to the nearest camera store, where I bought the D800 and the 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. I was like a kid in a candy shop that day.
I needed a second body for a ten-day shoot I was doing in Jordan with Lonely Planet magazine last August, and the D810 was the obvious choice. The display is amazing, and given that I use Live View a lot for focusing, especially in low light, that is really important. Just like the D800, the build quality is superb and all the controls are in the right place. And the shutter is so quiet – I noticed that straightaway. But what I love about it most is the resolution. Going from 21MP on my old system to 36MP on the D800 and the D810 is a different world. When you start retouching the details on a mountain, for example, I can see every little crag, and that's even before sharpening. It's amazing. In fact, I compared the results from a medium-format 50MP camera with the D810, and there wasn't really any difference.
I was also blown away by the smoothness of the colour gradation on the D800, and that carries straight through to the D810. On my previous system there were lots of artefacts, and with a dusky night sky graduating into a deep blue the colours would start breaking up. You don't get any of that on the D800 or D810. Another major reason for getting the D810 was its higher ISO capability. I remember my first workshop in Iceland when I was still using my old 35mm system, watching a client shooting away happily and noise-free at ISO 3200 on his Nikon D3, while my camera was basically unusable at ISO 800. The problem was, the D3 was too big for my travelling, whereas when the D800 came out it was so light, it was a joy. The Nikons' high ISO capability meant I could finally shoot auroras with ease, and ISO 3200 on both the D800 and the D810 is amazing. And then there are the controls. I don't like menus, and I really I don't like having to go in to the menu to do things like lock up the mirror, as I had to on my old system. With Nikon DSLRs, everything is on the body where it should be. It's so much more intuitive.
Jordan was certainly a challenging introduction to the D810 – the dust and heat were big issues, but it coped with no problems – and it handled Iceland's worst winter for many years in February just fine. Probably the biggest extreme in conditions it's dealt with came early this spring, going from the Norwegian Lofoten Islands in the Arctic Circle, where it was -8° but felt like -15° with the wind chill, to 40° heat and unbearable, almost 100% humidity in Madagascar a week later. I found the switch really tough, but the D810 is so well sealed that the conditions weren't a problem for it.
Well, there's the D800, plus the landscape photography lens kit: the 14-24mm f/2.8 and the 24-70mm f/2.8, and the 70-200mm f/4, which I've just switched to from the f/2.8. There's really nothing in sharpness between them, but the f/4 is nearly 700g lighter than the f/2.8, which makes a big difference, both when you're handholding and when it's tripod-mounted. I needed a bracket to balance the f/2.8; the f/4 is so light, it's not necessary. My favourite lens has got to be the 24-70mm. It's just an all-round brilliant lens. I can't say enough good things about it. It gives you the ability to shoot wide and then zoom right in without suffering any drop in quality at either end of the range. It's amazingly sharp.
I was away for 7½ months over the last 12, including North, South and Central America, Iceland, Norway, Italy, Spain, Germany, as well as the Outer Hebrides, and there are always more trips planned. When I was shooting in the heyday of 4x5, even when my children were young I'd be away probably five months a year, although then it would usually be in two-week chunks; now they're grown up, I can go for as long as I want.
Travel, and travel! I love to see new places; it's all about the experience, both of new locations and old favourites. The pictures are always going to be there, but it's all about the experience – I look for places where the experience is going to be unbelievable. But it can be tough being away from home so much. My house plants hate me!
These days, it's staying in business. Seriously, maintaining a professional photography business gets tougher every year. We're a dying breed. With digital, everyone's a photographer, but there aren't enough professionals any more. I've met a lot of people running workshops who don't really have a professional background, who lack the confidence and experience of a professional with a proven track record. I once overheard a workshop leader giving completely inaccurate information to their group. Without wanting to sound like a grumpy old man, it's a real issue, and it's damaging to the business as a whole. What I would say is if you're starting to sell stock, don't undervalue yourself, don't do stuff for free, don't give away your time and knowledge for next to nothing. It does you no good, and it certainly does the industry as a whole – and those of us who rely on this for our living – no good.
Italy is my favourite country without a doubt, and deserts are my favourite type of landscape because of the light. I don't really like shooting in cities; although I enjoy architectural work, I don't like that feeling of having to look over my shoulder all the time. With landscapes, I'm there on my own.
I've done so much Northern Hemisphere travelling in the last 30 years, I guess it's about time I went south. I made a start in January with a trip to South America, including northern Chile and Argentina, and for the future New Zealand is at the top of my list, along with Australia, Tasmania, Bali, Thailand…
In the meantime, in two days I'm off to Tuscany for my regular spring workshop, followed by Provence and the Isles of Harris and Lewis up in Scotland in June. Tuscany and Provence are amongst my two favourite places for workshops, not just because of the glorious landscapes but also because of the weather, the food and the wine – wine is a pretty key part of a good workshop! The only place it doesn't feature is the Lofoten Islands, as it's way too expensive – even a small beer costs around £10, so you daren't even look at the price of wine…
The difficulties come with the conditions; you have to adapt to what you have. Iceland is pretty full-on; it's one of those places where you have to be prepared for all sorts of hazards, including strong winds that are sometimes full of ash, sea spray, and extreme cold in the winter. You're walking on glaciers, you're in ice caves, and although I'm really careful, this year I managed to fall into a snow hole and damage my knee. But it's worth it for the images you can get.
Never. I got into photography when I was eight, when my parents gave me a Box Brownie, and at high school in Iowa I took all the photography and photojournalism classes I could, because they were a great way to skip lessons – 'Oh, sorry, got to go now to shoot the cheerleaders…'!
I initially thought I'd be a photojournalist, or a fashion and commercial photographer. I did a commercial photography degree at the Hawkeye Institute of Technology in Iowa, then – because no one wants to stay in Iowa – as soon as I graduated I drove clear across the country to LA, where I assisted Gary Bernstein, a very well established fashion and advertising professional, for a couple of years, as well as working in a photo lab. I soon realised I wasn't cut out for fashion – I didn't like dealing with all the egos. So I got a job as an industrial photographer, and then at weekends I'd go off exploring with my camera. There were so many amazing locations to visit; I fell in love with the landscape and realised that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Then I got the opportunity to move to the UK and start my own landscape-photography business. It was one of those life-changing, 'Sliding Doors' moments. I thought, OK, I'll give it six months and if it doesn't work I'll come back to LA. But when I asked my boss if he'd hold my job for six months, he said no, so I quit, much to his surprise. He'd been stationed in the UK during the war, and he told me I'd hate it, especially the weather. But I went anyway. I sold everything so I'd be able to live off my savings when I moved – all I had left was my old car, which a friend took pity on and bought off me a couple of hours before I caught my flight. I settled in Norwich and started showing my California work to different agencies and businesses, and they said, yes, great, but what about some British and European stuff? So I bought a campervan and started travelling round the UK and Europe taking pictures, and it started from there.
At college we studied the likes of Cartier-Bresson and Don McCullin, and the only landscape photographer who got a look-in was Ansel Adams. But at the time I was into commercial imaging, particularly the work of New York-based colour-photography pioneers Joel Meyerowitz and Pete Turner – I can thank Pete Turner in particular for my love of saturated colours!
When I was working for Gary Bernstein, his mantra was 'keep things simple' – simple lighting, simple sets – and I've stayed with that. I strive not to overcomplicate composition or lighting in my images. Another great piece of advice I was given was to be willing to walk away from a sale – if you don't go into negotiations hungry, it puts you in a stronger position against the buyer.
The best piece of advice I can give is to be clear about your motivation. I sometimes do talks for sixth-form students and if they ask me how much I earn as a professional landscape photographer, I tell them that if the money is their primary driving force, then it's not going to work. You can't do landscape photography for the money – you have to do it for the passion.