Today I would like to give a short review on a very educating book. “The Hot Shoe Diaries” by Joe McNally is a very entertaining and also informative volume on flash photography. The name of the book gives the clue: It is about strobe flashes, not big studio flashes. Joe McNally has 30+ years of experience as a photographer and worked for Life and National Geographic. Also, he is a Nikon CLS freak, shooting mainly with Speedlight flashes.
Joe selected photographic jewels he took in his career and explains on 3-4 pages how each image was taken and what lighting concept stands behind it. That is why the book is called a “diary”. There is no red line and the chapters do not necessarily build upon each other. But by explaining the creation process of the images and how particular flash concepts are applied, the reader is well educated on the use of fill flash, main flash, using gels to correct light, mixing available and flash light and and and.
The images he presents are portraits only. Most stories behind the images are very amusing, although some stories are also very moving. For example Joe did a project called “Faces of Ground Zero” in which he photographed people who witnessed 9/11 only six weeks after the attack (read the story to each portrait on the project website). Another story which moved me a lot is the one of three-year old Jody Miller. The little girl had a rare syndrom called “Rasmussen’s Encephalitis”, a critical brain disease. The only way to save her life was to remove the right half of her brain. Joe was doing a series on the human brain for National Geographic at that time and accompanied Jody with his camera, also during the procedure (at the end of the chapter Joe annotes that Jody is living a totally normal life today, becoming a teacher at the time the book was written).
What I like in particular about the book is the mixture of images. One does not have to read the book from beginning to the end, you can jump in between chapters and learn about the images which are presented. Also the chapters are quite short, each section is only 4-5 pages long, which is another thing I like a lot considering my short attention span.
At the beginning of the book some basics are presented (color, light formers, explanation for some flash gibberish like CLS, TTL and so on…). There is even a short section about how to hold the camera and an off-camera flash (which is not as simple as one might think). It pays off to really read that part and not shrug it off with a “I know that already” attitude. One might learn this or that from it… The only thing I find a little strennous is the way Joe writes sometimes. He uses a very vivid language and writes down his thoughts as he would articulate them in face-to-face conversation, which is a little strange sometimes.
Bottom line: It is a very unusual, entertaining and educative book on flash photography. Bite-sized chapters let you control your daily dose of photographic wisdom as you have the time / nerve to dive into it. I learned a lot (and I haven’t read it all yet) and hope to put the learned stuff into practice soon.