Today I would like to recommend that you read a book – not just any book, mind you, we’re talking about Joe McNally’s latest publication: ‘Sketching Light’. We’ll also have a look at how you can use way too many flashes to light a book.

First of all, if you don’t know who Joe McNally is or if you’ve never seen his photography, crawl out from that rock you’re living under, clean yourself up a bit and click the link to the right under my ‘Worth reading’ section. Once there, check out his photos and add his blog to your rss feed, because it’s, uh, worth reading. McNally is the king of speedlights, he knows how to light things and he makes it look easy. One thing I really like about his style is that it’s so natural, he gets it right in the camera and doesn’t add a ton of photoshop magic. Sometimes his shots are obviously lit and sometimes the flash is pretty much invisible, both approaches has their place.

What do you get when reading ‘Sketching Light’? For starters you get McNally’s usual humourus tone, it’s casual, it’s chatty, it’s definitely a bit wacky at times. He’s a natural storyteller and, seeing how he’s someone who’s been working in the field for over 30 years, he’s got plenty of stories to tell. You also get tag along behind the scenes on a whole bunch of photo shoots (the book is just over 400 pages, so plenty of material) where McNally takes you through the setup in detail and, more importantly, his reasoning behind why he choose to light a subject in a particular way. There’s definitely a lot of technical stuff, which is nice, but I still think that the ‘why’ is the best part of the book.

Speaking of technical, he’s a Nikon shooter and a bit of a gear-nut. Prepare to start wanting more stuff after you read this. That being said, the ideas and reasoning still applies with more limited (meaning more normal) gear availability. All the Nikon specific talk can also be translated to other brands or just completely ignored. I shoot Nikon but, as you should know, I stick to cheaper, manual flashes in order to afford more of them (you can never have too many flashes). So I just simply ignore all the TTL and high speed sync talk, it can all be done manually if you know what you’re doing and high speed sync can be replaced with a ND filter (which is on my to buy list, pesky thing keeps getting longer). So no worries if you don’t have all the fancy stuff, work with what you’ve got.

Who should read this book? Anyone who likes photography and wants to learn more about what can be done with flash, small and big. Actually, even someone who doesn’t own any flashes could probably learn a thing or two about light from this book. Who shouldn’t read it? Well, if you’re completely new to the world of photography or flash, then things can probably get a bit too technical. Make sure you’re comfortable with you equipment because there won’t be much hand holding, it’s more of a rollercoaster ride.

Personally I felt that I learned a lot and, above all, it inspired me and just made me want to go out and shoot. Unfortunately I don’t have models readily available, nor do I have many opportunities to visit interesting locations to shoot in. I guess that’s something I should work on during this new year. Bottom line, read this book.

Since McNally often likes to use more lights than is advisable for a healthy photographer, I decided to light his book with a bunch as well, let’s have a look at the setup.

Four flashes, we start off with a big softbox directly above; this lights the top side of the book and sets the overall level for the scene. Next up is the other side of the book and that’s taken care of with a snooted YN560. After that we get a bit fancy. A YN560 with a small softbox lights the front cover. However, I was getting some annoying glare on the shiny surface, I needed to soften the light more. Bed sheet to the rescue. With this very hightech piece of equipment the light is softened considerably and the highlights are much more controlled. When I took the actual shot I held the bed sheet stretched out with one hand. As a final touch I put a fourth flash behind the book and fired it straight into a white board. I later realized that I could have used a second little table to get the background the same colour as the base the book is standing on – that would probably have been even cooler.

Are you still here? Why aren’t you reading this book yet?


Sketching light