Book Review: Sketching Light by Joe McNally

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Joe McNally is a name you may have never heard, but you’ve most likely seen and been touched by his work. I guess the best compliment you could give to a photographer like Joe is this; that his work has touched you. McNally’s internationally celebrated career has spanned 30 years and over 50 countries; you’ve likely seen his work on the covers of TIME, Newsweek, and others, or been awed by his many photographs in National Geographic without even knowing it. Joe also created the well known 9/11 “Faces of Ground Zero” project, which went on tour a year after 9/11, and generated around $2 million for relief efforts. You’d think such an accomplished photographer would want to keep his 30-years of knowledge close to the vest, but to the contrary, Joe openly and generously shares some of his best techniques in Sketching Light, and also spreads a lot of inspiration.

Joe has a number of books about photography, but Sketching Light (2011) is one that has dramatically changed my own photography, not just because of the instruction found in this book, but also because of the meaning and depth Joe’s career has inspired me through. Sketching Light, at face value, is a book about both studio and on-location lighting techniques for portraits. If those words sound cold and uninteresting, it seemed that way to me as well when I initially picked up the book. I was previously only interested in landscape and commercial photography, and had no interest in portraits. In my mind, I wasn’t interested at all in snapping some snobby bride’s photos or doing mall portraits for the family dog. What McNally offered me, though, in addition to some great instruction, was also inspiration – something I had completely lacked in this area of photography. This book walks you through parts of Joe’s professional life in portraits, the stories behind them, the meaning many of them have to both him and his subjects, and only consequently also explains – in full detail – how he masterly lit them. You learn that there are portraits that have meaning, value, and depth. You get instruction and, almost contagiously, the inspiration to go and seek out this kind of storytelling in your own work. Since reading his book, I now seek out meaningful photography projects, particularly of the environmental portrait variety. Better than lighting, Sketching Light has instilled a sense of storytelling in me; that magic drive that you commonly see so prevalent in the work of legends. And he does all of this without even trying.

The very beginning of this book is brilliant in that it is simple; something that many other photography books I’ve read ignore. For someone like me, who had no prior knowledge of flash lighting, it is like the difference between getting an introduction to math and being thrown into advanced calculus. Joe starts his book with the absolute minimum: a camera and one bare flash, nothing else. He then immediately gets you thinking about things that you don’t just normally think about: How do the shadows fall? How hard is the falloff? Where does the light illuminate and how soft or hard is it? Within a few pages, McNally then adds a few $30 modifiers, such as cheap soft boxes and beauty dishes that fit over your flash, most you can get from a local camera store for cheap. Now what’s it look like? He shows you side-by-side examples of the different techniques and how they affect the lighting of your subject. A few more pages, and you’re playing around with umbrellas and a flash on a stick. Practically everything he shows you at first will cost you less than about $50, and get good enough results to call it a day.

Joe keeps this theme solid throughout most of the book, but also shows you what you can do with more expensive equipment. In one chapter, you’re shooting an Icelandic goddess with a $4,000 portable lighting setup. In the next chapter, you’re back to shooting a beautiful ballerina in a French bistro using some bed sheets from Wal-Mart and a few flashes on a stick. I was half surprised he didn’t decide to show off and just use duct tape to put the whole shot together. You also get the production shots that show you exactly how the equipment was positioned, diagrams, and a sit down with Joe, explaining what was important about the photograph, and what the exposure turned out to be. By the time you make it to the middle of the book, you’re ready to put down Sketching Light and confidently go out and start shooting studio quality portraits with some flashes and a bed sheet, and the great thing is that you could. If you put the book down, however, you’ll miss out on the big finale in the last sections of the book, which show you how he pulled off ridiculously complex lighting situations using significant quantities of equipment, gels, continuous lights, strobes, and a mix of other gear. I find myself going back and re-reading chapters at a time to try and memorize both his techniques and his inspiration.

Some of Joe’s books have had their share of critics claiming that you have to go out and buy $10,000 of equipment to make the book useful. Quite the contrary, Sketching Light shows you the possibilities of what you can do with just one single light source in a majority of examples. That light source could be a cheap flash or a more expensive strobe, but nothing is etched in stone, and Joe makes sure to tell the reader that, too. In fact, he emphasizes that the book is only about possibilities, and that nothing is etched in stone. If you’re good enough, that your phone rings and asks you to pull off the most ridiculously complex shots like those at the end of this book, then you’re good enough to demand an advance to buy the hardware you’d need to pull it off. There’s enough meat in this book to cater to a complete novice, but also to go back and reference even if you’re living the dream and doing incredible, noted work in the photography world.

As I said earlier, however, the beauty of this book is not in the instruction alone, but in the inspiration that McNally imparts to you. Walking through some of his favorite shots, you read of some of the stories about his subjects, such as some of the firefighters from 9/11, and why the environment he shot them in mattered so much, what their back story is, and the personality that he wanted to come through. This book was not written to be a philosophical book by any stretch, but if you’re at all a human being, you can’t help but feel inspired by the people featured in this book. They’re not annoying brides or other mundane projects; they’re pretty awesome people, some with very colorful personalities, that you wish you could meet.

Sketching Light is one of the most well written books on photography I’ve ever read, and I’ve read quite a few. It’s inspiring, masterfully written, and easy to understand. As an author of several published books myself, I also have an incredible amount of respect for the thought and reverence that went into this book. Writing about something you have a passion for can be an incredibly difficult thing, and then you put it out there for everyone to read and weigh. Joe avoids the temptation of telling his readers exactly what they should do, and shares his passion in a way that seems to feel more like you’re shooting next to him, and listening to his ideas. Because the work to back it up is so incredible, though, most of his ideas are quite contagious.

It doesn’t matter who you are. If you have a camera and a flash, you should pick this book up. If you are an accomplished portrait photographer, you should pick this book up. If you never plan on ever shooting portraits, then you should definitely pick this book up. If you need something to inspire you and make you say, “wow, I need to learn how to do THAT”, this book delivers.