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Words of Experience, a Review of "Sketching Light" by Joe McNally

By Ellis Vener

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“Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash”
By Joe Mc Nally
Part of the series, “Voices That Matter,” published by New Riders Press

Read an excerpt from “Sketching Light"

Every well-known successful photographer you can think of knows how to use light to tell stories. By “well known” and “successful,” I don’t mean someone with thousands of friends and followers on social networking sites, I mean photographers who make their living and reputation by working for real-world clients. You likely have your favorites; mine are Dan Winters, Gregory Heisler, Matthew Jordan Smith, Nick Knight and Joe McNally. Perhaps no one on my list is as broadly influential as Joe McNally, mostly because he has successfully taken on the challenge of using social networks and teaching what he knows through seminars, workshops and books.

Fortune has favored McNally with resilience and a great sense of self-deprecating humor. He seems to approach assignments big and small with equally intense levels of preparation, energy and flexibility. Fortunately for us, he brings these traits to his fourth how-to book, “Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash” (New Riders Press).

In this lighting cookbook, McNally provides abundant recipes and results, complete with copious notes, diagrams and “war stories.” These are not the kind of lighting formulas that mandate placing Light A with Modifier X at a 32-degree angle to the left, slightly above and 6 feet from the subject, and placing Light B with Modifier Y here or there with specific key-to-fill-to-accent ratios—you get the point. Instead, McNally gets you to thinking about how to generate and use light to help the story you want the photograph to tell, and to make that story engage with the viewer’s imagination. Even if you think you already know a lot about lighting, I bet you’ll pick up more than a few good ideas from “Sketching Light.”

And really, the book really isn’t so much about how to make nice with light, but how to live. In the first lines in the introduction, he writes:

The key word on the cover of this book is not “flash,” or even “light.” It’s the word “possibilities.” Because that is, at its core, what this book is about. It isn’t about pictures that already exist. It’s about what might be possible to create, in terms of pictures, if you experiment with light.

That sets up a theme that characterizes McNally’s career: looking for possibilities. The “Things I Think I Know” chapters (which might more accurately have been titled “And Tonight We Improvise!”) are my favorites. There are seven of these, with titles like “Risking ‘No’” and “I Thought the Lights Would Be On.” Whether or not you know first-hand the highs, dives and gut-wrenching twists that are part of being a working photographer, you will especially appreciate the chapter, “How Do You Get Fired from LIFE?”

As the first staff photographer hired by Life magazine in 23 years, McNally gets to make some really great photos in some very interesting places. Then, three years later, at the very moment he’s picking up one of the most prestigious awards in journalism, the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Journalistic Impact (for his photo essay “The Panorama of War”), he and only a handful of others in the room knew a hard secret: He’d been fired the week before. On that he writes:  

Whatever good thing you have going as a shooter, understand this: It will evaporate, deteriorate, get worse, or just shrivel up and blow away. Fun, huh? The life of a shooter is driven by passion, not reason. This is not a reasonable thing to do … In this life of uncertainty, it is, however, absolutely certain that some bad stuff’s gonna happen to you.

What follows are some really good ideas on how to deal with the peaks and pits of life in general.

Although not a “Things I Think I Know” chapter, in the chapter “A Couple of Joes,” McNally gets to the heart of why his type of straightforward narrative photography matters:

It is interesting being a shooter. The pictures you make are like a connect-the-dots game that becomes the line of your life, as real and vibrant as the lines on your face and hands. We tell stories with our pictures. In turn, our pictures tell our story—what we did, and how well or poorly we did it, and, very significantly, if we stuck with it.

Can you think of anything more to ask of a life spent making photos? I can’t.

See “Here’s Sunshine Up Your Skirt,” an excerpt from Joe McNally’s “Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash,” and another excerpt, “Of Frosted Glass and Dirty Windows,” in the March 2012 issue of Professional Photographer.