Some Lighting Recommendations

Remember I mentioned instructors worth listening to in my continuing bad mood post the other day? No matter - here is an instructor definitely worth investing some time listening to or easier yet - reading. Joe McNally. Yea I know I make fun of all the small flash guys but there are some exceptions. Joe is definitely one of them. I have not had the opportunity to attend any of his workshops. It's not currently on my agenda for a bunch of reasons but I am sure that it is more than worthwhile.

What I have done is studied his photographs consistently over the years. He is definitely one of the photographers I have watched and admired for a very long time. I have also read every instructional book he has written. Most of them I could recommend without any qualification. I picked up his latest book, Sketching Light, the day it was available.

I just recently got around to actually reading it. In my opinion it is an improved and revised version of his prior book, The Hot Shoe Diaries. Not completely different. Maybe a little bit more focused but definitely not any kind of massive departure or even the next chapter.

Both these books are what could be considered comprehensive in the sense that they contain pretty much the whole story from beginning to end on location lighting with strobes so they are definitely appropriate for just about anyone that knows their way around a camera. In fact if I had to pick one criticism from my own perspective it would be that too much space and time is spent on the basic stuff and background material that you can get just about anywhere. What I wanted in the latest version is a little or no background fundamentals and more on the subtleties which in my mind is a bit more important and far harder to achieve.

It's not that anything is withheld - it's not. It's more along the lines that the a lot of specifics that are discussed with each image are the same topics discussed with previous images. Yes - all those things apply - the issue I have with certain images is that the interesting part to me is definitely not the same thing that we just learned 10 times in the previous 10 images. What is amazing and different is some very subtle placement things going on that absolutely are make or break for the image in question. Of course these are discussed but not with any degree of detail - which in my opinion is the only thing I care about. Yes, my thought process on this are biased based on my own vexing location lighting challenges that I have faced and failed at beating into submission.

On the whole this book is a must have for anyone that regularly uses flash. Even more so for the location shooter. Joe makes it abundantly clear that the secret is the ability to control foreground and background independently. This happens as soon as you introduce one light on your main foreground subject. He also discusses how imperative it is to use the existing ambient as well as techniques (mostly by way of example) to blend the two seamlessly.

What I like most about the book is how pragmatic it is with regard to any particular gear as well as TTL vs manual. It is abundantly clear that TTL is no magic answer to getting the aesthetic right - Joe doesn't even have to explicitly explain that as it is obvious by how much +/- combinations he dials in and how different they are for every scene. What he does explicitly state is how important and convenient it is to be able to control the output of each light remotely from the camera. I couldn't agree more.

For Joe's next book I hope he skips the re-hash of how light works, modifiers, TTL, etc, etc, etc. What I personally want is the excruciating detail on some of the things that I have just given up on that I can see clearly in some of his photographs. Things I know are life or death, make or break, that he has nailed. The reality is there is a bit more to the story than "I chucked an SB-900 right below eye height in front of the make up mirror…" Yea okay - that is true but I know there are nuances to that placement that I cannot see or understand from that description nor the quaint little napkin diagram you gave me here. Maybe I will have to break down and just go to one of his workshops.

Just buy the book.

I will leave you with a very crude example of what I am talking about in terms of placement issues that I would love to see Joe's next book focus on. Because I am far too lazy to actually go out and make a real picture with real subject matter for this post. I just rigged up something I am super familiar with and needed no models. Consider this a stand in for the kind of thing versus the actual topics I am referring to.

Exhibit A - a picture of a small SB-800 strobe on a small, highly reflective, gold background. Nothing special here. Reasonably well exposed, and reasonably attractive lighting via another SB-800 through a 36" diffuser. Is that like a coffee table book about coffee tables?

Now let's move that diffuser just an inch or two and maybe angle it differently by 10 or 20 degrees at the most.

Both images strait out of the camera with no tom-foolery. Big difference huh? It's easy to see here in this contrived photo. In fact I only needed 2 tries to get it "right" sans modeling lights due to my own wrestling with this type of thing like 900,271 times. Trust me when I say that the broad description of both shots lighting is exactly the same. Also trust that anything I draw on a napkin is not going to illustrate at all why the two images are so different.

Yes I used my D7000 for this - It still has a lot of things I am not pleased with at all but it can make a reasonable image when provoked.


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