Book Review: Joe McNally’s “Sketching Light”

Introduction

Whenever I read something Joe McNally has written, be it a book, an article, or a blog entry, I experience a combination of annoyance, frustration, and exasperation. I experience similar emotions whenever I look at any of his images, too.

Why? Because Joe writes and photographs the way I wish I could.

Those feelings are followed, obviously, by an intense admiration for his work. The man is clearly a master of photographic lighting, and his storied career reflects that mastery in spades.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Joe is also an excellent teacher, and that comes through in his books, workshops and other instructional material. His book, “Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash,” is the latest addition to that long line of first-rate learning resources, and is a must for anyone working with strobes of any kind.

The content

The book is full of behind-the-scenes images showing the setup and the end result.
The book is full of behind-the-scenes images showing the setup and the end result.

Joe’s first book, “The Moment It Clicks: Secrets from One of the World’s Top Shooters” was essentially a collection of stories. Each section contained an image and the story behind it, accompanied by Joe’s advice. It was not a technical book – or at least, not for the most part. His second, “The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Lights from Small Flashes” was far more technical, but was specific to small, shoe-mount flashes.

“Sketching Light” is also a more technical tome than “The Moment it Clicks,” but it seems to draw from that first book a bit. It’s as geeky as “Hot Shoe Diaries,” in that there is some in-depth explanation of the gear used, including specific brands, as well as lighting diagrams to better illustrate the setups. But it also feels like the successor to “Hot Shoe Diaries” as it goes beyond hot shoe flashes and highlights the evolutions in Joe’s style as well.

But lest you think that this is a purely technical volume, think again. To quote Joe:

That’s why the word “possibilities” is so important in describing this book. It’s not about one light, or two, or however many. It’s not about big flash or small flash. It’s about using light-speaking with it, adapting it, subduing it, shaping it-in short, telling stories with it. As it always has been, light remains the language of all photographers, everywhere. And as we all know, a good story has nothing to do with how many words are in it.

This is the benchmark that the author appears to have held this book to, because he truly does subordinate “how” an image was made to “why” it was made in that specific manner. This isn’t just a book of images with accompanying lighting diagrams and gear lists. Those things are there, sure, but more than anything, this is a book that expounds with great eloquence on the language of photography.

The delivery

Joe is a storyteller. Images, written words, speeches to crowds – it doesn’t matter. He’s a storyteller, first and foremost.

This book reads like a story. An honest, open, candid, unpretentious, sincere, brilliant story. There’s no complex math here, no highly scientific explanations of how, say, a ring flash behaves, or the technical details of how it wraps light around the subject and so forth. Instead, there’s this:

School’s out with the ring flash-so, all the care we usually take to hide our flashes and all evidence of their hits and reflections is out the window, too. Go for it! I find some of the best iterations of a ring can occur when it’s used bang on to something highly reflective. The wash of the ring around the subject almost creates a halo, or aura, of reflected light which, again, is not a feel they teach in the basic textbooks of lighting, but it can be fun and effective. Put somebody up against something that will bounce the light right back at you and try it. And make sure they’re wearing a hat.

Pay attention to the language in that paragraph. If you do, you’ll learn a few things.

  1. Don’t bother hiding the fact that you’re using a ring flash – or any other kind of flash – by arranging things so that the flash’s refections are hidden.
  2. Use reflective backgrounds for creative effects.
  3. When used properly, in combination with the right background, the ring flash can create a halo effect around your subject, which can also be used to spotlight them to some extent.
Hand-drawn lighting diagrams are sprinkled throughout the book.
Hand-drawn lighting diagrams are sprinkled throughout the book.

If you were to look at the image accompanying that paragraph, you’d likely pick up at least three or four other tips that relate strictly to lighting. If you pay attention to the book and its message as a whole, you’ll get a better understanding as to why you should use those tips.

That’s how this whole book is. The tone and delivery of Joe’s writing is casual, almost offhand, to the point where you sometimes read a passage and it sort of registers with you, but when you’re ten pages past it, the light comes on and you frantically flip back to it, going, “Hey, wait a minute!”

Speaking of that casual, offhand tone, those lighting diagrams I spoke of earlier all appear to be drawn by hand. By Joe. With stick figures.

The “one more thing” factor

Back in the foreword to Joe’s first book, “The Moment It Clicks,” Scott Kelby recalls something he experienced at his first Joe McNally workshop.

Every time Joe starts a sentence with “An editor at Time once told me…” or “My editor at National Geographic once said…” we all grab our pens because we know another nugget is coming our way.

When the class was over, Dave [Moser] and I were just blown away. It was all we could talk about. At one point, I looked at Dave and said, “Ya know, if all I took away from this workshop were Joe’s amazing one-liner nuggets, it would be absolutely worth the $795 I paid for this workshop…”

Sprinkled throughout this book are nuggets just like that. They’re called “Things I Think I Know:” and they’re instances from Joe’s experience. These little nuggets help to give you an idea of the realities of making images in situations where everything, perhaps, is not precisely the way you’d like it to be.

These short sections – usually about a page or three long – are filled with sage wisdom and are worth the $30 you’ll spend on this book, and then some.

Conclusion

If it isn’t obvious already, I really liked this book. It’s 400 pages of stellar instruction from one of the world’s top shooters, and any quibbles I have are over the formatting of the book, not over the content itself.

Sometimes, the image Joe’s talking about isn’t on the page it’s mentioned – or even on the next or previous page, but two pages away. It can detract from the flow of the book, making you flip pages back and forth to see the relationship between the narrative and the images. Given that Joe’s prose itself flows really well, the lapses in formatting are that much more egregious.

Still, flow and formatting issues aside, this should be required reading for anyone working with strobes, be they small or big. I heartily recommend “Sketching Light” for those among you who want to know the “whys” of lighting along with the “hows.”

For more information, visit Joe McNally’s blog, at joemcnally.com/blog.

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