Sketching Light by Joe McNally

An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash

I don’t know how many books there are on the market that will show you how to light your subjects with lighting diagrams “drawn” on napkins but I dare say there are hundreds that will give you more information than necessary to explain every detail of how a shot was taken. How many of those actually explain why?

Sketching Light is not the first book by Joe (Mr. McNally) that I have read. Maybe its the only one I finished. That’s not because the others weren’t worth the time, its because I get distracted easily. So this is not a “hot-off-the-press” review to encourage you to go and buy it ($50) but rather a frank and honest assessment of the book as I read it. For whatever its worth.

Me and Joe

I don’t know Joe, Joe doesn’t know me. I think we’ve been in the same room though. I am somewhat familiar with his work but wouldn’t class myself as a fan or follower so there is no hero bias here. I have heard Joe talk to a group and watched some videos he’s made. Thats actually quite important because his writing style is pretty much exactly the same. Imagining a “little Joe” in my head present the words made it a little easier to get throughout he book. I say get through, because at times it was a little like wading through waist high waters – upstream. Now, I’ll be ready to admit in part it was probably because of what I was expecting from the book. I am very much more of an analytical, show me the numbers, type of person and what I was expecting was more along the lines of heres the image, heres how I did it. Flipping through the pages you’ll see beautiful images, behind the scenes shots and those napkins I mentioned with lighting diagrams on – they ran out of napkins early on and switched to a spiral notebook – so naturally I anticipated something more akin to a set of instructions.

I got the instructions but along with it came Joe. His experience, his nature, his history. So once I implanted “Joe” in my head to present the words I was able to extract the story from the technical stuff which, lets face it, is only of interest to the assistants of the world. Thats me. Half the time I expect what Joe really wants to say that he just shot something, saw what went right or wrong and steered accordingly. It seems from the text, that is exactly what he did for a while. A base knowledge helps. A certain level of skill helps. But knowing people really helps. Whether it be the art directors, the editors or the subjects, Joe knows people.

Its all very well to say that he has a lot of experience but even if you never saw any of his images before reading this book you will come to realize that Joe has lived a life of Photography to a level most will never achieve. Heck, he’s lived a life most will never achieve. And thank goodness he has because he is amongst the best communicators of the story through images that you will ever come across. Consistently able to present a visual solution to a problem. And thank goodness he made some mistakes along the way, and is cool enough to admit and discuss them in the book. You see, he’s a good photographer, not a God.

Don’t skip the intro.

As with most books on photography its tempting to jump right in at Chapter 1 but I’ll warn you now, don’t. Joe clearly addresses the fact that he writes about the equipment he actually uses, because he uses it. If you want to know about the other manufacturers equipment, do what I do and read the manual. Most people know Joe as a small flash user, and in fact a Nikon small flash user. Get over it if you’re a Canon shooter or if you never use anything but Dyna Lites because its the principals that count. If you think he was able to get shot X because Nikon flashes have a Y feature then you’ll miss the point by a long way. He also explains why he uses certain manufacturers modifiers too but if a white sheet will do the same job he lets you know. Sure there are jobs you cannot tackle unless you have 7 strobes so don’t tackle them but don’t write off all the other instances where solving the problem at hand is more important than what equipment you do or do not own. Learn how to do it then rent the equipment.

I think Joe knows way more technical stuff than he lets on, he has to. But while he acknowledges its importance he will also state that the numbers alone do not make an image.

“Photography is so situational – each face, setting, and job will be different – that seeking the holy grail of the technique or math that always applies is fruitless. But what does remain , what always lives in the heart and mind of every shooter, is the need to always answer that persistent, absolutely important question of why.”

He certainly doesn’t hide the importance of the numbers, there are plenty of them in this book for even the geekiest of photographers but what Joe tries to get across is the importance of why a shot is being made. Whats the story? So mostly the narrative on the images is to discuss the entire scenario, the situation Joe was in and what he was either asked to do or was trying to accomplish.

The subtitle of the book is the illustrated tour of the possibilities of flash. The focus here is the “possibilities”. Light is light, whether it comes from the natural source or a mechanical one is for the most part irrelevant. Its what you do with it that counts. Joe runs through more than enough examples of small strobe, big strobe, ambient mix setups to get anyone to a level where they feel that they could at least have a go.

Putting the book together.

I see this book in two ways. One is the content of the book, thats what Joe wrote, the other is the way its presented, by the publisher. Perhaps I missed the line that explains why all the section headings are called “Things I Think I Know” but looking at the chapter list is a tad confusing. If all the sections have the same name then why are they even sections?
Thats just one area where I found the book difficult to get through, perhaps a minor one, but something of real annoyance to me was the placement of the images relative to the text that was describing them. As I am reading I can deal with a flip back and forth of a single page if necessary and not consistent, but in this case there were too many times that the image being described was 3, 4, or as much as 6 pages away! I found that very annoying to the point I really didn’t want to continue well before half way. If the picture couldn’t be moved because, say, it was chapter opener requiring full or double page, then a smaller version in the margin would have been very welcome.
In addition, with the amount of technical data being offered I felt it was out of place to run it inline with the story, again, when the image was often nowhere to be seen. I would have preferred to read the details in a caption below the image or in a margin.

I suppose I cannot fault the author for this but it was in my opinion enough of a disruption to mention here. Anything that disrupts the story also disrupts the communication of the message.

What I remember

Some of my favorite stories from Joe seem to revolve around the mistakes – like almost losing the tripod in the Hudson river and failing to do the research to find out if the lights would be on or off in the Guggenheim. We all make mistakes and we all know we make mistakes but most often we keep the learning of those mistakes to ourselves. Joe just lays it out there. He’s human. My best mistake was going to a press call and failing to get a shot of the favorite to win the London Marathon. I was young and there were only two choices, one of which included being yelled at by the editor of the Press Association. No thanks. I rehearsed what I would say as I made my way to the hotel room of the athlete, but as his manager opened the door I barely got a word out before he said “You forgot to load film, didn’t you”. I was invited to walk the course with him which allowed me to get a shot that none of the other press photographers got. In my mind it was a small coup.

I also enjoyed the trip down memory lane in the chapter “Lessons from the Acetate Era“. The stories from photographers of that “era” resonate a little more because for a short time I experienced the rush of deadlines and the secrecy of shooting something before anyone else got it. And as exciting as that may sound I also experienced the tedium of the “grip and grins” that were necessary fodder for the papers. In a lot of respects things were simpler then because there were so many less choices to make. The motto: F8 and be there!
I stayed very much on the outskirts of this arena but reading the chapter its easy to see that Joe was stuck very much in the middle, and it shows. But what also shows is how much he really enjoyed the challenge of it.

“Also, remember, during this mayhem, you can’t check the LCD, so you don’t know at that moment how badly you’ve screwed up. You have to wait for them to tell you that back at the office.”

What you’ll get

The volume of story available in the book is evidence enough that it takes more than talent or even a good portfolio of images to be successful as a photographer. Joe, clearly has a passion for what he does and he has clearly struggled to get where he is. He’s learned a LOT along the way and consequently has a lot to teach. This book will teach you a lot if you can keep it open as a reference (or tear the pages out so you can see the images as they are being referenced).
It struck me as I was reading it that the format was wrong for this story. Sure the layout could have been better in order to help the flow but I think this, or any book on photography from experienced sources are classic cases for the audio book or eBook format. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have Joe narrate the entire book while you study the images on screen?
I think it would.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from this book which particularly sums up the attitude that Joe has demonstrated for so long.

“No matter who you work for, you are working for yourself. You cannot take a camera in your hands and hope somebody just pulls you along. You can never feel safe, or self-satisfied. If you predicate your sense of self-worth or self-esteem or fulfillment as a shooter on what somebody else does to and for you and your pictures, you will be miserable, ’cause no one – certainly no publication will treat your stuff the same way you would.”