Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash By Joe McNally

New Riders Press, $49.99 (432p), ISBN-10: 0321700902, ISBN-13: 978-0321700902 

A superstar in the editorial photography and photo-education worlds, bestselling author McNally (The Moment It Clicks and The Hotshoe Diaries) has written another accessible, entertaining book - this time about methods for creating and shaping light using all manner of strobes. In contrast to his collection The Moment It Clicks, which is rife with images and reminiscences of his storied editorial career, this newer volume is more technical, more geared for shooters at an intermediate level, and thus more of a studio or field companion. 

And while The Hotshoe Diaries focused on the use of small flashes, specifically Nikon Speedlights, Sketching Light adopts a broader gaze and describes lighting set-ups that range from one small flash to multiple larger units with diffusers and reflectors. Here, McNally opts for a loose structure in which he takes a general issue in lighting (use of windows, positioning a subject, high-speed flash) and then uses a successful shoot to illustrate how he identified and solved the various challenges at hand.

Readers who want a step-by-step manual to off-camera lighting should look elsewhere. To call McNally’s writing discursive - even scattershot - would be accurate, but to level that as a criticism rather than simply a description would be to miss his charm. His conversational, jokey, anecdotal, and informative style captures the flavor of what it might be like to spend an hour with him in person and soak up wisdom and good humor.

Take his chapter on use of a one-light set-up, for example, which gracefully leapfrogs across anecdotes to capture the various possibilities of a single source. McNally recounts how he used a single unmodified light to narrowly salvage a Gregory Hines portrait shoot, explains the benefits of wrapping soft, beautiful light around a model’s face with a Elinchrom Quadra in a Deep Octa unit, and describes how he illuminated a bikini-clad beauty on a boat amidst icebergs using a only a speedlight in a softbox attached to a paint pole.

While he does not include captions with EXIF data of each shot, he often provides sketches of where he stood, what lighting instruments were fired, and what shaping tools he used so the direction and intensity of the light are easy for readers to understand.

Although I feel like Sketching Light often showcases McNally’s expertise rather better than it instructs with clear-cut and repeatable formulas, it’s still reassuring (even inspiring) to see even a master like McNally engage in the familiar process of head-scratching and problem-solving. In fact, the book makes a persuasive argument that creating appropriate and interesting lighting can never be recipe-driven and always requires situational solutions. Especially for readers with some previous experience, Sketching Light is a valuable resource on creating dramatic and engaging light.

'Sketching Light' is available on Amazon.com 


Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co. Follow him on Twitter @FlyingCarpetNYC  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 17
Cleve Lightfoot
By Cleve Lightfoot (Aug 7, 2012)

I think Joe's advice is masterful. I have his first two books and regularly follow him. Photography is a journey and Joe has been a great advisor on my journey to date

0 upvotes
Camediadude
By Camediadude (Jul 31, 2012)

SO very tempting to just get all his books ... WHY do books and camera have to be so bloomin' addicting!

4 upvotes
MDwebpro
By MDwebpro (Jul 31, 2012)

Saw McNally and David Hobby on the Flash Bus Tour, in DC. Joe was a howl and told some amazing stories, but Hobby's talk and demo was more accessible to the average shooter.
Taken together, I learned more about location lighting that day than I have since college. If they do another tour, I would strongly recommend seeing them.

2 upvotes
cnewhall
By cnewhall (Aug 12, 2012)

I agree with everything you said. Seeing both of them together (and for so cheap) was amazing but Hobby had so much more to offer for the beginner. McNally was full of knowledge but really, how many people in the audience could actually afford to use 10 SB900's?

1 upvote
What do I know
By What do I know (Jul 30, 2012)

I have Neil van Niekerk's book’s on off camera flash, it was his simple explanations that I liked and these books by McNally looks to be written in the same easy and practical manner.
Good for a beginner and I will be getting it on Amazon Today.
Thanks DPreview

1 upvote
bgbs
By bgbs (Jul 30, 2012)

I think this book is complimentary to his other books. I like McNally's practical approach to lighting.

1 upvote
Kim Letkeman
By Kim Letkeman (Jul 30, 2012)

Bought the book as soon as I read this. It's really great. Note: the kindle version is very reasonable and reads quite well in the Cloud Reader.

1 upvote
Julian
By Julian (Jul 30, 2012)

I bought this book after listening to Mcnally at the Nikon D4 launch in Stockholm. Mcnally was such a fascinating speaker - with some truly great stories sprinkled in with tips and advice - the book almost carries on in that vain too - I cant compare it to his other books though - as I haven't read them yet. What I like about the book is he explains in diagrams both the basic lighting setups - and the more complex ones - and you get the full picture for what he was trying to achieve and why he did what he did - I think theres plenty of material in their for most photogs to learn loads from - and its all presented in Mcnally's wonderfully engaging light humour.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 57 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
Rebecca978
By Rebecca978 (Jul 30, 2012)

Very interesting... I'm going to buy this book.

1 upvote
DrGerm
By DrGerm (Jul 29, 2012)

Haven't read this book, but own McNally's other two. Both very good reads, so I have high hopes for this one, too. If you don't expect a manual, his writing tends to be very entertaining, and you still learn a lot without even knowing it.

1 upvote
dash2k8
By dash2k8 (Jul 29, 2012)

I have this book, and I think you'll be disappointed. It IS a field manual, sprinkled with occasional stories in between. Much, much more technical than his other two books, which I also have. Just a word of warning.

0 upvotes
audijam
By audijam (Jul 30, 2012)

@dash2k8 - that is because you just wanna admire him like a God but many of us wanna be like him or beat him so we are interested in his techniques and definitely wanna learn from him. Of course we choose what we want to do with his books : ) I love field manuals...

0 upvotes
dash2k8
By dash2k8 (Jul 31, 2012)

@audijam - I'm not saying it's a bad book, nor do I worship him as you imply. I'm just saying it's not like the first two books. And no, sorry, you're not going to be like him or beat him. So you might as well worship him.

1 upvote
audijam
By audijam (Jul 31, 2012)

Maybe you were expecting to him write 50 shades of grey for ya : )

0 upvotes
StanRogers
By StanRogers (Jul 29, 2012)

It's the lack of "recipe" that I find makes McNally's work worth reading. Outside of the controlled environment of a studio large enough to have negligible room-boundary reflections, one is very unlikely to come across a situation where a rote recipe is going to work. (Although, when you can get a recipe down and done, as in Peter Hurley's headshot setup, you can concentrate entirely on the non-technical aspects of the picture--but as Hurley puts it, his job is only about 10% photographer and 90% therapist.) When you give me the "why" instead of the "what", there's a chance I'll actually learn something. Heck, I probably learned more about fashion and beauty photography from McNally's 24-page Elinchrom product brochure than from most of the books and videos I've seen on the subject because his little blurbs are all about the "why", even if the accompanying product shots and info are concentrating on the "what". I'll be buying this one.

2 upvotes
dash2k8
By dash2k8 (Jul 29, 2012)

This book actually has tons of those recipes you mentioned. Not saying this is a bad book, but it's definitely not a sequel to the others.

0 upvotes
StanRogers
By StanRogers (Jul 31, 2012)

Actually, I've bought it and read it. And you know what? The "recipes" are all about things like "the settings don't really matter; they worked for this image, under these conditions, and they'd probably be different tomorrow". It *is* about the "why" rather than the "what". For every Octa, there's a 6x6 silk or some such with a battery of flashguns doing pretty much the same thing. When he uses an aperture, he'll say something like "it happened to work out to f/14" and explain that he needed the DoF, not "set your phasers to f/14 for shots like this". It's all about "this tastes better with onions", not "2 medium white onions, diced into 1/4-inch cubes". Its informational, inspirational and adaptable, not rule-bound.

1 upvote
Total comments: 17