Ostensibly, The Hot Shoe Diaries, is a “how to” book that teaches us to get “big light from small flashes” — a primer on the use of all things “speedlight”. And, it is.
But, it is a lot more.
This book is a travel guide that takes us down the path of the creation and manipulation of light, a creative journey with one of my favorite photographer/teachers, Joe McNally.
The trip starts out as we might expect, with 45 pages of straight out practical talk — what Joe calls “Nuts ‘n Bolts” — explaining things like why Joe almost always shoots in the aperture priority and matrix metering modes. He explains lots of technical stuff in ways that make sense. Want to understand the difference between rear and front curtain flash, and when to use each? Read the book. Want to understand High Speed Sync or EV’s? Read the book. Want to understand what to take with you in the field? Read the book. In fact, this book is so practical that Joe teaches us how to hold a camera in a section called “Da Grip” (more on this later.)
If all we focused on were the practical/technical parts of the book — it would be well worth our time and money. But, this book is a lot more than tips and tutorials.
It is a story book, a series of well written, compelling vignettes that just happen to have very solid lessons tucked within them. And, it is a philosophical tome that gets us inside the head of a very creative man — one who has been called upon and challenged to get some very difficult shots, the things that many would not even attempt. A man who usually succeeds.
I say “usually succeeds” because one of the things I like most about Joe is his real world humility and self-effacing sense of humor. I first saw Joe in a dark classroom in San Antonio, at Imaging USA, a few years ago. In a barnyard full of strutting peacocks, Joe was every man sharing his successes and failures as he explained how he had gotten to where he was – and the stories behind some of his most famous images. Most of the truly successful people I know, be they photographers, teachers, film makers or lawyers, understand that we often learn more from our “failures” than we do from our successes. That day, Joe was generous in sharing his stumbles so that we might all learn his lessons without stumbling ourselves.
What triggered this memory was a passage in the book, on page 96, that speaks to the fears all creatives, be they writers, painters, or photographers, feel when faced with a blank page or a challenging assignment — and the joy we experience when we finally see a path to completion:
What a pleasant sensation. The little voice, the one that usually is whispering, ‘Don’t shoot it that way, numnuts! It sucks! They should have hired somebody good. You’ll be lucky to be shooting Santa portraits at the mall after you turn in this dreck’, is quieted and replaced by another. The tone of this voice is mildly astonished. “Wow, this isn’t going to be like putting my nuts in a vice-grip! I’m not going to be tortured and troubled on this particular photo jaunt. I won’t be besieged by all those doubts — most of which are certainties, proven repeatedly over time — that I don’t really know what I am doing. This is actually going to work!”
This book inspires me. It gives me the confidence to try different things — even if they don’t work, because some of them might. (I like Joe’s mantra “Let’s see what happens.”, which implores us to “break the rules”, and have written about it before.)
Joe teaches us by way of sharing a series of stories with us — the stories about how he captured the images in the book.
There are chapters in this portion of the book — organized in sections called One Light, Two or More, and Lotsa Lights. More than half the stories deal with one light set ups; this is not a book that reaches out to the equipment rich. Have one light? Joe will teach you how to do great things with it.
Each lesson starts with a “cover shot” — the story of which is the substance of the piece. The stories are told in an entertaining, distinct, fist person voice. Joe can write. Nothing boring in this book. Education and entertainment rolled into one? That’s my kind of text.
And, they are practical. Many are accompanied by lighting diagrams. And, Joe uses each to apply some of the theory he set forth in the first 45 pages. On a shore covered with bright shells, one lesson stands out in my mind. It led me to a “revelation moment” — in three pages Joe gave me a new way of looking at outdoor flash photography, an approach I’d never really appreciated.
The chapter is called Make the Available Light Unavailable, and it is the story of this image.
We start out toward the end of the day, the sun has gone down but there is enough available light to make this image:
Interesting subject and backdrop — but essentially a snap shot, the same shot anyone with a camera could have captured at that moment. The lighting is flat and without direction. There’s enough there to get the job done but the finished product simply records a moment in time. It lacks inspiration.
Most of us, who have been trained in the school of “additive flash” would go “Aha. I’ll throw in an off camera flash to clean up the light and add a bit of direction.” (I’ve written about additive flash, before, in my reviews of the Profoto 600BR in some old newsletters. In essence, we work with the ambient light which remains a prominent source in the image, but add light to supplement it.)
So, Joe did an “additive flash” shot:
He put an SB900, with a warming gel, camera left, to replicate the setting sun. If you double click on these images, you’ll get a bigger sample. It will be easier to see that with the light coming from his right, the cowboy’s face and body take on some dimension, and the backdrop on that side has more character. A better image, but still not dramatic.
Now what? Many of us would stop there. We added light and we got a little bounce — but not enough to make this a great image. Most of us would probably fall back and bemoan the fact that we missed the “golden light moment” (which, in my mind, is any moment in which I’m having trouble with outdoor/ambient light. “Lighting looks bad? What do you expect, it’s not the golden moment.”)
Joe didn’t stop. And, I’m glad he didn’t. Because, in this chapter I learned a very valuable lesson — and a new way to approach flat ambient light photography.
Joe’s philosophy — if you don’t like the ambient light, get rid of it. And, replace it with a light you like. So, he did.
No, he didn’t construct a giant gobo to block out all of the natural light sources.
Instead, he set his camera so that it would underexpose the image by 3 stops. This is the image he created. For most of us, this would be a disaster shot. For Joe it was the desired “starting point”. Almost none of the ambient light remained.
How did he do this?
First, he put the camera in manual mode. Remember that Joe normally shoots using the matrix metering system and aperture priority. Had he left the camera in that mode, it would have fought him so as to properly expose the image — and it would probably have won.
The first two images had been shot at 1/80 second at f2.8. To go about 3 stops under, Joe shot at 1/125 at f5.6. Make sense? On the aperture side the difference between 2.8 and 5.6 is two stops. On the shutter speed side, the difference between 1/80 and 1/125 is a bit less than one stop.
Whatever the math, Joe had created a “dark room” within which to work.
So, he lit the scene, just like he were in his studio. The primary source of light became one SB900 speedlight, camera left, aimed to create the dramatic effect Joe was seeking.
The top image is the result.
Why do I love this lesson so much?
Because I am far more confident in my ability to light within my studio than I am in my ability to master bad outdoor light. The essence of that comfort is “control”. In the studio I can control the environment. I can put light where I want it and control both the quantity and quality of the light I’m using.
With this technique, either used exactly in this way, or in derivative fashion, I can take control, outdoors.
What a great lesson. And, Joe was able to teach it in two pages.
I’ve found very few books that match The Hot Shoe Diaries’ ability to both entertain and educate. If you struggle staying awake reading other “how to” books, you might want to give his one a try.
Thanks, Joe, for opening up and sharing so much — your vulnerability, your creative visions, and your nuts and bolts. It is all deeply appreciated.
(Copyright: PrairieFire Productions/Stephen J. Herzberg — 2009)