Tom Mackie has made his understanding of light, perspective and colour the hallmark of his reputation as one of the world’s leading landscape photographers.
For years, Tom used a 4x5in plate camera to shoot landscapes. In this interview, first published in N Photo Magazine, he tells Keith Wilson why he switched to digital, and how he combines large-format principles with digital advances.
Growing up in the American Midwest, Tom Mackie dreamt of being a photojournalist, but ended up working as a studio photographer. In Los Angeles, he mastered the intricacies of working with sheet film and the 4×5 format. Today, a Nikon D800 is his camera of choice, and his studio is outdoors with just the sun for lighting. There have been many lessons along the way in this remarkable transformation…
What type of photographer did you dream of becoming at school?
I always planned to be a photojournalist. I went to the journalism conventions and got a few awards for sports photography and photojournalism, and began thinking, ‘Yes, this is really what I want to do’. In the Midwest photojournalism is big, especially in Iowa. The University of Iowa sprouts a lot of great journalists and you have people like Bill Bryson coming from Iowa as well. Ironically, Bryson lives in Norfolk, England, like me. I don’t know who’s stalking who!
How old were you when you were first hooked by photography?
I was probably around 8 to 10 years old. My parents gave me a Box Brownie.
Where did you gain your degree in commercial photography?
It was a place called Hawkeye Institute of Technology-Iowa is known as the land of the Hawkeyes. The course was two years. I loved it so much I stayed over for a summer. I wanted to use the lab and keep building my portfolio.
” Large format makes you slow down and look closer at the landscape and what you’re doing… I have a routine I go through when I’m setting up”Tom Mackie Landscape photographer
Who gave you your first break?
I went to a convention of the Professional Photographers of America and the contacts I made there were indispensable. I met a woman who worked for Kodak and she asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to learn more about fashion photography and keep within the commercial and fashion field.’ She said, ‘Well I have a friend who has worked as a fashion photographer for years in Los Angeles, Gary Bernstein.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I know this guy’s work, he’s phenomenal, he photographs for Max Factor and big fashion brands.’ She got on the phone to him right then. So I worked for Gary for two or three years on and off.
What did you learn from him?
I learnt a lot about lighting. In school we were taught to light a set using three to four lights and when I first went to set some lights up for Gary he said, ‘No, just one light and a reflector.’ Just the way hi lit people, I learned so much about using softboxes.
How did he influence your career?
I think the best thing I learnt from working with Gary was that this wasn’t the area I wanted to work in! It wasn’t so much the photography aspect, it was dealing with egos and personalities that I didn’t enjoy.
So how did you change from commercial photographer to landscape photographer?
In LA, I was also working in a photo lab and a lot of our clients were landscape photographers. We were producing massive Cibachrome murals for them I loved looking at the sharpness and quality. They were using large-format cameras, so I started dong landscapes at weekends and holidays. I’d do trips out to Colorado, or along the west coast. There was one photographer, James Randklev, and I just rang him up and said, ‘I print a lot of your work, I was wondering if you had a few minutes for a chat.’ I went down to his apartment, got on really well and he’s still a good friend today.
What is the benefit of using large format?
Large format makes you slow down and look closer at the landscape and what you’re doing. You’ve got to be precise. You’re checking the edges of your ground glass for sharpness, the focus, making sure you’ve got the lens tilts and swings right. I have a routine I go through when I’m setting up: compose, focus, meter, then expose. I’ve carried this methodical procedure over into my DSLR usage.
Switching from 4×5 film to digital is a massive change, so why did you do it?
My friends were saying,”When are you going to change to digital?” I’m shooting large format and I can’t change until I get a 50Mb file and the quality it there.” I resisted until 2006. I was shooting with Fuji Velvia and I wanted to replicate the look that I was getting with Velvia. Now, I feel I can get more out of digital than I could with large format. The exposure latitude and high ISO ability allows me to capture images that I couldn’t with film.
Switching brands is a big decision for a pro-but an accident helped make Tom move to Nikon!
When Tom Mackie switched brands from Canon to Nikon last year, it wasn’t just the
impressive 36.3Mp CMOS sensor of the D800 that convinced him the time was right. While travelling in Canada he found himself taking the plunge in more ways than one…
What has been your most embarrassing photographic moment?
Last year, I was literally pushed into going to Nikon sooner than I expected. I was canoeing with my kids on Moraine Lake in Canada. I was sitting in the back of the canoe, and my daughter was sitting in the front. She got out onto a rock. I had my Canon EOS 5D Mk II on my shoulder, pushed myself out of the canoe, but went right over into the lake… as did the camera! It was a complete write off. They were
creased up laughing at me sitting in the lake. This was two days into the trip. I
was sitting in the hotel wondering, ‘What amI going to do?’ So I got into a Wi-Fi area and Googled camera stores in Calgary, found two locations that had the D800 and most of the lenses, and said to my daughter, “We’re going to have to drive two hours back to Calgary.” What did she say?
“How long are we going to be in this store?” Well, for me this is like being a kid in a candy shop. I said, “We’ll be ages, bring a book!” I got all the gear that I needed there. I’m glad I did because some of the images I shot on that trip I’ve already sold to those mural companies who need the higher pixel count, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t made the switch to the Nikon D800 then.
Like many pro photographers, you have moved to Nikon because of the launch of the D800. Was it the right decision?
Oh, definitely. When the D800 came out I knew it had the resolution that I needed, primarily for mural clients. I lost a lot of business when I first switched to digital as I didn’t have that pixel count-with large format you can go as large as you like. But when I switched to the D800 I got an email from one of my mural clients who said, “I’m glad you’ve gone over to the D800. We really want to see your work again.”
What’s your favourite country for photographing landscapes?
Italy, without a doubt. There’s so much diversity of landscape there, and it’s not only the landscape, it encompasses the whole thing: the food, wine and the people. If I could have one wish come true, it would be to live one year in various locations, one year in Italy, one year in Australia, one year in New Zealand, so you could shoot through the seasons in each place.
So why did you move to England?
My ex-wife was from Norwich. The location is great for a landscape photographer. If I had to travel to all of these locations from Los Angeles the distances would be horrendous. Making the decision to move here was one of the best decisions of my career.
What are the golden rules for shooting landscape pictures?
Keep it simple. Most landscape photographers put too much into the composition. It’s something I’ve learned from looking at other photographer’s work. Have a look at Pete Turner’s work; he was such a great inspiration for me. When you look at his work you ask yourself, ‘Why has he composed it like this?’ Then it clicks: he composes so simply because it has such impact, whereas with other photographers there’s too much to look at. Don’t include things that shouldn’t be there.
Do you have similar rules for buildings?
I think architecture has a more defined result because you are trying to portray what the architect’s objectives were, but in the most creative way possible, which means you’re dealing with lines, as you are with landscapes. I often tell workshop clients that if you strip away all the details in a landscape you end up with lines. That’s more evident in architecture.
Which other landscape photographers do you admire?
David Muench. He is one of America’s most influential photographer’s. David’s near/far style was ground breaking, because by including a big element in the foreground, whether it’s a rock or flowers, he gave you the sense that you could walk into the landscape giving the image so much depth. His father, Josef Muench was also a landscape photographer and was instrumental in getting Hollywood out to Monument Valley. He was commissioned by Harry Goulding, who owned property there, to photograph the Valley as he heard United Artists were looking to film a Western nearby. Goulding took the photos to Hollywood and insisted on camping out in United Artists’ reception area until he saw the location manager of the film. The manager was impressed with Muench’s photos and so was the director, John Ford. They decided to film Stagecoach starring John Wayne there and the rest is history.
There is so many photographers’ work now that I enjoy looking at. Digital has raised the bar so much since the days of film.
The Optimum F-Stop
After decades of using lenses for large-format cameras, Tom discovered that the optimum f-stop was different with the smaller lenses of DSLR’s
f/2.8 or f/8?
This is the strange thing about going from large format to digital. In my large format days I could tell you what f/stop I shot most images at-it was always f/22. In those days, we didn’t have to test lenses as there was a small number of lens elements on a fixed lens. Now with digital I test every lens as there are so many variables especially with zoom lenses.
Why do you test every lens?
To find out the optimal aperture for a particular lens. I was doing a workshop last month and I noticed everyone was shooting a landscape with no foreground at f/16 or f/22. I said, ‘why are you shooting at those apertures? You’re only making the image softer.’ They’re looking at me, ‘What? We were always taught to shoot at the smallest aperture.’ So I did a shot of the lighthouse at every aperture and showed them the results at 100% and you could see a massive difference from f/5.6 to f/22. Shoot at between f/5.6 and f/8, they are going to be your optimum apertures. If you don’t need depth of field you’re making your images softer by shooting at f/16 and f/22. There is a big difference between sharp focus and image sharpness.
What is your desert island lens?
I’m so impressed with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It’s one of Nikon’s best lenses. The edge-to-edge sharpness is incredible. However, the 24-70 f/2.8 is a good all-rounder because I can shoot wide to a medium telephoto, which covers a majority of my subjects.
What is the weight of your kitbag?
Too much! I should know now from going through all the airports, it’s 14kg with a laptop, but I can’t get everything in it so I take just what I think I will use.
What’s in it? (Updated 2020)
I have a 14-24mm, 16-35mm, 24mm f/1.8, 24-70mm, 70-200mm f/4-that’s a brilliant lens too- a 1.7x teleconverter, 300mm f/4, a D850 body with a D810 as backup, lots of Lee filters and accessories.
What is the most unusual thing in your camera bag?
Avon Skin So Soft. It’s been proven to be the best insect repellent. It beats all these things that contain Deet. There are no harmful chemicals in it and it smells great. I heard that fishermen use it to keep the midges and mosquitoes away.
How many Gb of pictures do you shoot in a week?
I’m really selective with what I shoot. I use 32GB cards and on my most recent two-week shoot I shot two cards, so around 30Gb a week.
Do you delete many images?
If I shoot extras there’s no point keeping them if I have the one image that works-unless, of course, I am preparing a series. There’s no point saving them to take up space on my hard drives. After an edit, I’ll delete any technically bad shots then just keep a few extras from a shoot.
How do you stay on top of workflow?
I primarily use Lightroom for organising, searching, making collections and RAW processing, then Photoshop for any major retouching, finishing off in Luminar and Nik primarily for Pro Contrast adjustments. I have a system where I can work up an image in a very short time, as I normally don’t have much time between trips.
Where do you find your inspiration?
In being outdoors. When I get out into the wilderness it inspires me to make new images. For example, we went to a place in Pennsylvania called Ricketts Glen, which is famed for its waterfalls. At one waterfall there were a lot of tourists splashing in the water and there was this guy with a big beard sitting against this log with a look on his face of complete calm. He was just drinking in the landscape and blocking everything else out. I thought, ‘He’s got the right idea’. While all these people came and went, he just sat there. For me, it’s nice to be able to sit there and observe what’s going on. I learn a lot about nature that way. I get so much inspiration by doing that.
Where in the world that you haven’t been would you most like to photograph?
Australia. I know I need to spend at least one month at the very minimum. I want to do New Zealand as well. Again, it’s one of those places I have to go for a year and live there to really capture it at its best throughout the seasons. (Update 2020) I spent 6 weeks in Australia in 2016 and only scratched the surface; I need to go back again. On that same trip I spent 3 weeks in New Zealand and found it to be such an incredible landscape to photograph. I will be going back soon.
Where are you off to next?
I’m leaving tomorrow for Jersey, doing a masterclass for a magazine. After that I have a workshop on the Isle of Skye, then I’m flying over to the Lofoten Islands in Norway. It’s like Iceland used to be. I started going to Iceland years ago when it was relatively quiet but everyone goes there now, to the point that you’re running into other workshops all the time. (Update 2020) Lofoten has now become overrun with photographers and tourists now so on to the next place.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give to someone who wants to start out as a professional landscape photographer?
Create a style of your own. Don’t copy other people. Be persistent. In this business you have to be persistent. As much as I enjoy photography I have to treat it as a business. I try to shoot what I enjoy but always keep in mind what the client would like as well. So if you’re going to make a business out of it, know what you’re going to shoot in order to provide images for the clients to use.
Originally published for N Photo Magazine
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