Tom Mackie Re-visits the American West
I've always enjoyed going back to my home country, though I feel more like a tourist now as I have lived in the UK for 24 years. Last month I went back to one of my favourite landscape locations, Death Valley in California, with fellow photographer and friend, Rod Edwards. I've made many trips to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierras, but this time I was really looking forward to putting my new Canon EOS 5D MkII through its paces.
We hit Las Vegas running with the first day scouting locations at the Valley of Fire just north of Vegas for an article that I was writing for a magazine. I was doing a step by step on how to shoot the perfect landscape though the conditions weren't the best (never expected to get overcast skies in Nevada), but the last remnants of the sun peered out for a minute to light the scene with some gorgeous warm light. What a great start to the trip!
The next day we headed for Death Valley. Now, when you first drive into Death Valley, the first thought that might cross your mind is that it's just a vast valley of nothing but rocks and the odd coyote lying in the road hoping for handouts. But on closer inspection, it is full of unique geological oddities.
We rose early the next morning to catch the first light on the Mesquite Dunes. Photographing this location with other photographers walking through my compositions in the past when I was using film was annoying to put it mildly, but now it's not a problem. In fact, Rod was set up just about a hundred yards in front of me so I had the best of both worlds. I used him as a figure to give a sense of scale on some shots then retouched him out on others where I didn't want anyone in the composition.
The magic light doesn't last very long, but shooting with the 5D MkII allowed me to change compositions very quickly to get the most from the light. Previously with large format I could only hope for maybe two compositions before the light became too harsh and flat.
We had fun trying to sleep (well, just resting my eyes) in the 4x4 Jeep at the remote location called the Racetrack. It was 27 miles in the middle of nowhere. The jeep was like an icebox but worth it as we photographed this incredible place at first light. The rocks on the playa mysteriously move across the desert floor leaving long trails behind. It is explained that this strange phenomena occurs during heavy rainstorms where the wind blows the rocks across the muddy surface.
After that we drove a further 50 miles on a gravel road to the Eureka Dunes, the highest in California and some say in the US. Of course I had to climb to the top. It was a real experience especially gliding down the side of a dune. My legs felt the after effects though. We spent the night in comfort this time at a motel in the Owens Valley. Dinner was also a big contrast to the night before of a ham and cheese sandwich. A steak and lobster dinner for only $15! Isn't America wonderful!
There was a very good pre-dawn sky with brilliant clouds over Mono Lake, but the sun quickly rose into thick cloud so the light was short-lived. Lee Vining at this time of year is practically a ghost town so food was few and far between. In fact, we had to drive a half an hour away for dinner, otherwise it was basic burritos!