Book Review: The Hot Shoe Diaries by Joe McNally

by Suzy Walker-Toye

The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes: Creative Applications of Small Flashes (Voices That Matter) by Joe McNally This one isn’t technically on the reading list but was recommended to me. You know it’s going to be an interesting read when you learn something new in the first 12 pages. The HSD, unlike the other flash books recommended in the course notes is not a manual on how to shoot flash – Joe even states that on the into page xiii – This Is Not The Manual. This is a book you can sit down with in the train or with a cup of coffee and read like a normal person. And just who is Joe McNally, well as a National Geographic, Time, & Life photographer and internationally acclaimed American Photographer he knows a heck of a lot more about different light situations than I ever will. 😉

“Light is quicksilver. Magic. It is here, then it is there. Then it is gone.”

Its basically a book filled with different lighting examples and the stories of how they were shot, this makes it sound pretty dull but I found it really interesting to read. I tried to make notes on it as I went along so I would be able to refer back to my book review when I needed to look stuff up for reference (hence the page numbers throughout the review).

The introduction is all about the nuts & bolts of what Joe uses and why. What was the thing I learnt in the first 12 pages? Well, on p11-12 he is explaining the importance of EV. Mostly when I’m using my camera for underwater work it’s in manual mode, since my flashes are all manual so was my camera (this however may change now with my new Olympus set up), I rarely use Aperture priority so didnt have to understand this EV thing. EV is exposure compensation. In Aperture mode you are selecting the aperture and letting the camera select your other settings but what if you wanted it slightly darker or lighter than the camera suggests? That’s where EV comes in. You can compensate for the extra brightness or darkness you want.

Bright backgrounds will silhouette your subjects, hence you know to program in some plus exposure in order to brighten things for them. (p11)

Flash has independent EV controls because the camera EV is scene wide, a global input, which is both available light and flashlight. So if you dialled in some over exposure to the camera you have dialled in the over exposure to the flash too which would need to be corrected or the whole scene would just be darker than you anted (assuming we’re using TTL, which is sort of automatic mode for flash).

Upfront he lays out the very basic settings he usually uses and the reasons why. The book is very Nikon-centric but I’m sure it’ll translate into Olympus (or anything else) once you understand the gist. After twenty or so pages you might start to tired if the witty americanisms but push on because the content is worth it. He writes in a conversational tone but somehow gets the facts over. I found the little section on rear curtain sync (and why not to use red eye pre-flashes) on p14 interesting because I did have mine set to rear curtain but was finding the recycle time too long for the tiny hotshoe flash which my strobes optically slave from, I now have it on 1/64s power – more experimentation needed I think.

There is a section at the start on flash concepts which clearly lays out the terms Joe uses throughout the book, eg TTL (through the lens metering), CLS (creative lighting system – this is Nikons name for it) etc. He talks a lot about zooming the flash (so that your flash coverage is edge to edge even when you zoom in your lenses). I must remember to check out this feature if I purchase a topside flash, it seems important throughout the book (introduced on p22). There is an interesting introduction section on gear, gels, light modifiers etc that had me reaching for google to check out extra info on them. Given the price on some of this stuff, I think careful consideration on exactly what you might need and what might be DIY’d will be in order. Given that he isnt saying you need any of this stuff, he’s just explaining what things are that he uses so when he talks about them later in the book you arn’t left scratching your head wondering what he’s on about.

Once you set one of these puppies off, light goes everywhere. It’s up to you to tell it where to go. (p27)

Joe goes into quite a bit about colour, specifically balancing the colour of the flash (which is usually neutral white daylight) with whatever the available light happens to be. This is going to come in handing during the end of Section 4 of the course. On pretty much every photo he examines he explains which colour gel he put over his flash & why which I found really useful.

Light can be hard, soft, wrapping, harsh, slashing, sumptuous, glowing, ethereal, muddy, muted, brash, poppy, brassy, contrasty, clean, open – it’s a little nuts. (p38)

I found the explanation of how Joe shot an image of a Tanzanian woman (below) on p56-57 really interesting – balancing the natural (harsh) window light with his flash. He makes the point that straight flash would destroy the mood and atmosphere of the scene, the lighting from the window reminds me of the “cathedral” lighting I often see in caves, shipwrecks and under jetties.
Joe McNally p56

On p61-67 Joe goes through a couple of the pitfalls of on camera flash and iTTL (intelligent through the lens), and gives a good explanation of EV, gels & colours, again explaining that he adds a CTO gel to warm up that flashlight and he moves the flash off to onside, right near the subject to produce a more flattering light. On p70 & 71 he talks about adding Magenta filters to the lens to offset the overall greenish tone to a city night scene but then having to green-up his flash with filters to offset the magenta filter and blend the light with the available light (in digital you can just use the fluorescent white-balance instead of the magenta lens filter). One great effect this has is the dusky sunset gets more magenta – which made it look even better. On p83-85 Joe goes over why you might use fill-in flash, what exactly it is, and how such small nuances may effect the mood and story of a photo.

You know why they call it “fill”? ‘Cause the glass is already just about full. All you have to do is pour a little more in. (p84)

And what, pray, is a Lastolite All-In-One umbrella? Being new to topside flash I’m amazed by the variety of accessories and lighting modifiers. On p96 Joe goes through why he was using this umbrella and its various features to shoot a girl in a hoodie at twilight. He goes further with teh accessories on p98 where he basically overpowers the natural light with flash to recreate the sunset!

The ballerina photo on p102 is a really nice example of using shadows of things that are between the light and the subject to tell a better story in the photo.

The smaller the light source relative to the subject, and the farther away it is, the sharper and harder the shadows will be. (p104)

He gets serious with lighting delicate hospital moments (and how to over come the banks of hospital overhead florescent with a Lumiquest 80-20 attachment) on p109 and p130.

The moment is more important than the light. (p110)

The next few sections cover topics such as light texture (lacey light to get that net curtain effect), working without strobes and introducing them slowing in an on-site scenario (although most of us wouldn’t get to document behind the scenes at NASA), various times when putting the lighting outside the windows creates great effects, lighting on water in just a plastic bag – eek, mixing neon, flash and tungsten light sources and some other interesting stuff.

Seedy motels mack of illicit liaisons, last stands, one-night stands, and desperate deeds done in the dark. Great photographic fodder. (p153)

On page 155 he goes into lighting without messing up the atmosphere of the scene as it stands. Increasing the punch and depth of the shadows by zooming the light through old dirty windows seems to be a favorite technique that he uses again and again.

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I want to get this posted up for my tutor to see what I have so far, so I’m leaving this unfinished to come back & edit to when I’ve finished reading… to be continued.

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