Since the onset of my journey to self-teach photography, one book title has repeatedly been mentioned by all manner of blog posts, online forums and workshops instructors: “The Hot Shoe Diaries” by Joe McNally.

After yet another mentor recommended it, I decided to bite the bullet and bought a secondhand copy online. After all, I’d promised myself that this was my year to learn about off-camera flash.

The author

If you’re not familiar with his name, Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed, award winning American photographer. He holds a lengthy photographic resume spanning from photojournalism, to high-end commercial work, to celebrity portraits. With this background, McNally has more than enough expertise to provide a credible and insightful resource.

Expecting another dry, manual-type book, I was surprised to find myself giggling in the first two paragraphs of McNally’s book. Equating reading the user’s manual of your flash to “putting razor blades in your eyes on the fun meter,” his stream-of-consciousness style of writing drew me in immediately. Fears of the book being another boring manual quickly dissipated.

Part one: Nuts and bolts

“The Hot Shoe Diaries” is broken into four parts. In part one, McNally breaks down basic flash concepts and the different types of techniques he likes to use.

The book, which was published in 2009, is dated, if only by reference to older models of equipment and gear. But the lessons and concepts taught remain hard and true. If anything, the references back to tethered flashes and lack of high-speed sync can help us to appreciate how far technology has come!

Part two: One light!

Part two is where the book really gets into the meat and potatoes of speedlight use. The whole section is dedicated to one-flash setups in the field. McNally provides an image that he’s created, and then gives the back story on exactly how he did it.

Each example is only a page or two long which makes for easy, self-paced reading. Personally, I read a few pages with my coffee every morning. I found it an awesome way to pick up a little knowledge, and get inspired to start my day. 

Part three: Two or more

In part three, McNally gets a little more in-depth, as each setup consists of two or more speedlights. He uses hand-drawn diagrams help to give a visual behind-the-scenes understanding of what’s he describing.

His witty style of writing keeps you coming back for more. In addition to his mastery of light, McNally also provides industry insights and lessons he’s learned in working with clients, often delivered in his trademark drollery: “On location, never go audible with your interior desperation” (page 96).

Part four: Lotsa lights

Part Four consists of — you guessed it — using lots of lights! Again, McNally sticks to speedlights as his main light sources. I found this section intersecting because he really demonstrates effective nature of using an extra flash or two to make subtle highlights in an image.

If there’s any downside to this book, it’s that I found myself occasionally wanting a bit more technical of explanations. But overall, the trade-off of having an entertaining flash bible of sorts is worth foregoing traditional EXIF data and numerical explanations. 

If you’re looking for a technical breakdown of exactly how to set up speedlites, this might not be the book for you. But after reading the book cover to cover, I highly recommend trying out McNally’s inner-monologue style of writing that documents his thought processes while on location. Or, as McNally himself sates: “This is not a book of certainties. It is not a manual. It is, as the title states, a diary. It is an ongoing account of adventures and misadventures, or accidents — happy and otherwise — and of successes and failures” (page xiv).