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Book Review: Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour Of The Possibilities Of Flash by Joe McNally

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For 35 years Joe McNally has been telling stories. He is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose career has included assignments in over 50 countries. His images have graced the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and during the 1990’s he was Life Magazine’s sole staff photographer.

His latest book, Sketching Light covers both small and big light and covers basic lighting techniques, modifiers, one-light solutions. He then ramps it up by discussing images, flash technology, and a whole lot of lighting styles and approaches to get just the right kind of lighting that you may need to accomplish just about any task. Sketching Light is 432 pages and divided into 41 chapters, or, really, vignettes.

The first couple of chapters McNally talks about are the basics of flash and lighting, how it works and some of the things you can do with various kinds of light. He starts off by blasting some light at a model that makes her look, well, not so good. He then goes on to show you progressively how to make her look better through the use of different techniques and lighting modifiers to control where you put the light.

Interspersed throughout are these little personal stories called “Things I Think I Know.” The first one – called “Risking ‘No'” — looks at how certain facets ended up changing the direction of his life. In this one he turned down a trip to shoot the Olympics in Seoul Korea for the largest sports magazine in the world, in order to meet the director of photography for National Geographic.

The main stories are about shooting with flash, with strobes, with natural light and about all the different kinds of conditions that one can encounter. It is about all the different possibilities that one can encounter when trying to light a subject, how you have to learn how to make things work. It is also about getting into the author’s head and exploring how he thinks about things when he is approaching a shot.

Contained within are the shots themselves, but more importantly, the information about the shots. Unlike many books, there is no simple technical information looming under the image to provide you with a cheat sheet. Sometimes there are diagrams, but for the most part in Sketching Light you have to work. You have to read the text to discern the information about the shot, but in the end, this will make you a better photographer.

I do like the fact that there are a lot of production shots that will show you how things were set up in which you can go back and see the final shot and put all the pieces together so that the whole thing makes sense. There are also sketched out diagrams that contain pictures and notes which is great because a McNally shot is quite often a quite complex thing to pick apart.

If you have followed McNally’s previous books, watched his videos, been to his seminars, or followed his blogging, there is probably a lot that is quite familiar to you, but don’t take this as a bad thing. Some of it is a refresher course, some is coming from a bit of a different direction, and quite a lot is just totally new.

In Sketching Light you will learn many things, like how to build a wall of light, how to create character portraits, how to work with high-speed flash, working with radio TTL, using light as an exclamation point, and much, much more.

Sketching Light is not a book for a beginner or novice. You do have to understand your camera, your flash, your aperture, and have a good understanding of the numbers that tie these things together. McNally does go over these, but if you are not familiar with them, it could make your eyes glaze. While the author is a Nikon shooter and the equipment is centered (especially with regard to flashes, TTL lighting, and cameras) on Nikon, all the information contained can be translated to other systems as well.

Sketching Light is a very easy read – it is kind of like hanging out with the author. It does bounce around a bit and can come across as very random, but for me that works well since you can open to just about anywhere in the book and take off on an adventure. If you are experienced in the use of off-camera lighting and you want to become a better photographer, become better with using and shaping all sorts of light, then I very highly recommend this book.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.