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Book Review: The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes by Joe McNally

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Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose 30-year career has included assignments in over 50 countries. His images have graced the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and during the 1990s he was Life Magazine's sole staff photographer.

So just what is The Hot Shoe Diaries? It is a book about what Joe McNally has learned about lighting and the lighting of a wide range of situations during his photographic career, and it includes a wide variety of images he has created during that time. He begins with the basic gear and then works with one light, then two or three and then quickly accelerated to Mach1 which, to paraphrase Led Zepplin, is about a "Whole Lotta Light." The Hot Shoe Diaries is 320 pages and divided into four parts.

Part I, "Nuts 'n' Bolts," introduces us to what kind of equipment the author uses, how he shoots, how he meters, and all about the different settings that he frequently uses. He explains about the flashes, and the technology of today's flashes. He also goes into detail about the other gear that accompanies him on a shoot.

Keep in mind that McNally is a Nikon shooter so when he talks camera and especially the flash technology he comes from a Nikon angle. This should not dissuade users of other models as the book is about concepts and techniques and not technology.

He then goes in to his philosophy of light, shooting, and explains how one should go about learning to hone their abilities. Finally, he goes over how best to grip the camera and take your steadiest shot.

Part II, "One Light!" is, as the title implies, about using one small flash to light your scene. In these articles, there are quite a variety of lighting situations from an open room where the flash is used as fill light, to a night scene where he uses it to capture the eye and the silhouette of an alligator.

He explains about good light and bad light and how the flash can be used in a non-optimal scene, how it can be used in conjunction with light from a doorway, and even how to use the flash to make it appear that the sun is rising on a cloudy day.

Part III, "Two or More," now gets into shooting with multiple lights. The problem with shooting with a single light is that in situations where there is no other fill lights such as from an open window, the one light can leave shadows and harsh areas. This is especially true if that one light is the pop-up flash on your camera. According to the author, the pop-up flash should only be used in a pinch when you don’t care about the image, or for taking a picture of someone you don't like.

On the other hand, the pop-up can be used as a driver for a handheld or remote wireless flash. In these situations then you will have better luck. In this section you will explore how McNally uses a couple of flashes to light a situation.

"Lotsa Lights," the topic of Part IV, are what you need when lighting full scenes or large objects. In this section you will see what is needed to light more complex situations. Imagine you want to photograph a person in a garage scene. Well two or three lights will be fine for the person, but what about the background? You may need some for around the bench, some for the walls, etc.

The examples in this chapter includes low light scenes that need many lights to convey a mood, to outdoor projects that need to move quickly because of the heat and sun, to how to build a backyard studio, to lighting an Air Force plane using 47 Speedlights.

So in this part you will see how to get a scene to give up its nooks and crannies. To do that you have to plan what you are going to frame in your shoot so you can see what you need to light. You will also explore other areas to do complex lighting.

As with the author's first book, The Hot Shoe Diaries is a fun and entertaining read. But most of all it is classic Joe McNally. For those who follow his blog you will know what I mean, for those who don't you should check it out.

For the most part The Hot Shoe Diaries is written in an easy to understand, conversational style, but there are times when someone new to photography, or someone who may have experience with a camera, but not with photographers, might miss some things in translation. 

McNally speaks in photographer jargon at times. For example in one place he says "Zoomed the flash to the maximum at 105mm, gelled it with two cuts of CTO to keep it warm in tone, and dialed the power output way down." If you don't know that CTO stands for Color Temperature Orange, and that the gel is used on your flash correct the lighting, you may be intimidated by the language.

What I say is that if you want to become a better photographer, become better with using flash in lighting situations, then when you don't understand something, find out. It is easy to do. Some may say that this book is not for newbie's. I disagree; I think that The Hot Shoe Diaries is for anyone who wants to learn to use small flashes to create big light. I very highly recommend this book.

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About T. Michael Testi

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