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
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