A review of The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes.

Review by Scott Bourne

Usually Conrad does all our book reviews. And that’s the way it should be. He’s the best in the business. Once in a while I will throw in a review from a book that particularly impressed me. And Joe McNally’s Hot Shoe Diaries is just such a book. I know some of you will say “Enough of McNally!” “He’s getting too much hype!” Well when you’re as good as Joe, there’s a reason you generate so much buzz – you deserve it.

This is the best book I’ve ever read on flash photography – period. And it’s not just because Joe knows flash or because he’s a great teacher. It’s because he’s all those things AND a great photographer.

I think Joe will be remembered as one of the great ones. He’s a special guy, with lots of talent, energy and ideas. And the man knows light. He can do more with a single Nikon Speedlight than most of us can do with an entire studio.

So let’s get to the big question: Can you get something out of this book if you’re NOT a Nikon shooter. Absolutely. Will you enjoy this book if you are a Canon fanboy? Probably not. If you’re the kind of person who thinks you have a “right” to get an exactly equal amount of information as a Canon shooter from a guy who shoots Nikon, you’ll be sorry. If you get crazy mad at the mere mention of Nikon, skip the book. But if you want to see a master at work, look at some amazing photographs, hear someone who knows more about light than you’ll ever hope to, the book is a great bargain. Remember that Canon flashes have rear-curtain shutter sync too.

I used to shoot Canon so when I read the book, I tried an experiment. Every time Joe mentioned the Nikon Creative Lighting System or the Nikon SB-900, I just substituted the words “Canon 580 EX.” It worked much of the time. While there are segments of the book that are very Nikon specific, the majority of the book will be of great benefit to anyone who needs to learn the concepts that Joe uses.

Now you may not agree with his choices. But you can learn from the concepts. Joe relies on the Nikon iTTL/CLS stuff quite a lot. (That’s E-TTL to you Canon folk.) Someone like Zack Arias, who teaches the One Light Workshop prefers manual flash. In fact, a great contrast is to study how Joe and Zack do this so differently.

I shouldn’t imply Joe relies exclusively on iTTL. He doesn’t. In fact, I’d bet the farm he can out “One Light” Zack (or almost anyone else) with manual flash too. But Joe, like most old war horses, wants to make things as easy as he can so he can spend his energy seeing the shot and being creative.

Joe starts the book with a tour of the gear he uses, and then breaks down for us how he approaches one light shots, two light shots and many light shots. I got at least 10 new ideas from him before I was at page 100.

Watching Joe photograph a subject by placing the flash OUTSIDE of the building and shooting it at the subject through the window was enough to blow my mind. I can’t wait to try some of these techniques.

Joe’s a New Yorker and in this book, he talks like one. He’s very blunt, direct and to the point. He occasionally uses some salty language. If that possibility offends you, skip the book. If you want to see how one of the most talented photo journalists of our time lights a portrait, this is the best money you’ll spend.

One more thing. Joe is a regular guy. He’s just like us. He’s just a photographer. I interviewed him early on for the TWIP podcast. We were new and nobody had heard of us yet. He still came on the show and was a great guest. He’s down-to-earth and helpful. I admire him and you will too if you take the time to study his work. The Hot Shoe Diaries is a great place to start.

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