Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash (Voices That Matter)

Sketching Light is a collection of tips, tricks, and techniques for getting the most out of your flash photography. In it, renowned photographer Joe McNally takes you on a guided tour of the possibilities of flash photography, from the basics of lighting to more advanced concepts like using light to create mood and atmosphere.

With Sketching Light, you'll learn how to use flash to your advantage in any situation, whether you're shooting portraits or landscapes, indoors or out. McNally covers everything from choosing the right flash to using multiple flash units to create complex lighting setups.

He tells readers what works and what doesn't via his let's-see-what-happens approach; he shows how he sets up his shots with sketches and behind-the-scenes production shots. Joe does it all with the intelligence, clarity, and wisdom that can only come from shooting in the field for 30 years for the likes of National Geographic, Time, Life, and Sports Illustrated--not to mention the wit and humor of a clearly warped (if gifted) mind.

  • Joe's Diagrams
  • It's Transformational
  • Encourages Thinking
  • Helps You Solve Problems
  • Requires an Open Mind
  • Not for Beginners with Flash
  • Not a Lighting Recipe Book
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In Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash, Joe McNally continues what he started with The Hot Shoe Diaries. The emphasis here is showing what you can accomplish with light, if you understand how it speaks to the viewer.

This time, we’re not limited to small flash. Joe shares his experiences with various sources, including available light, small flash, and some larger strobes. We’re on a tour of the possibilities of light.

Yes, there is plenty of discussions here about specific Nikon gear. Don’t worry about it. Joe writes about Nikon gear because that’s what he’s used for roughly 40 years. He’s a Nikon ambassador, which means you won’t find a discussion of the finer points of Canon or other flashes.

TheĀ specific gear doesn’t matter. The gear mentionedĀ in Sketching Light is a bit outdated by this point, replaced with newer Nikon and 3rd party gear. What’s important here are the concepts of why he chose a specific piece of gear and the result it provides in the photo.

A flash is a flash. A diffuser is a diffuser. The differences may be in the details, but this book is about concepts and possibilities – not a reference manual.

Why I Wanted to Read Sketching Light

I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but Joe McNally reminds me of a Thermos.

There’s an old joke about a Thermos. It keeps the hot food hot and the cold food cold. Yes, but “How do it know?”

Joe seems to know how and when to use his tools to achieve a result that sometimes leaves me wondering just how the hell he did that. For instance, why does he sometimes choose a bunch of flashes instead of a strobe, or vice versa? Why is he using a large diffusion panel instead of a softbox?

I’m not alone with this question, as he addresses it early in the book. He admits he takes some heat for making one choice or another. So why does he make some of these choices?

Why not?

That’s the answer. Joe likes pushing the boundaries to see what his gear will do, and discover what creative alternatives that may provide him down the road. It’s experimentation not for today’s benefit, but for tomorrow.

The reason I wanted to read this book is to get some more insight to the way Joe solves problems. Outside of a studio environment, you never know exactly what conditions will greet you. It’s important to know how to size up your environment and then execute using the tools at your disposal.

That’s even more important when you don’t know what to bring. Do you roll up with a freight truck full of stuff for any situation? That’s a costly and impractical option. Sometimes you need to make due with the stuff you brought with you. In those situations, it’s good to know just what you can squeeze out of your tools.

Joe’s done the work to find out what you can do. I just bought the book to benefit from his experience and experiments.

The Problems I Need to Solve

Of course, all of this knowledge and experience doesn’t really help if you don’t have problems of your own. I got problems.

I have two projects in mind. One is a desire to have a new portfolio or work that I can one day show in a gallery. For that project, I want to photograph athletes doing what they love. More than that, I need the entire body of work to tell a story of an athlete’s journey.

There’s the commitment to the challenge in front of them. Training, in good weather and bad. There’s the promotion before an event, and the focus just before the challenge. When it’s game time, you know there are going to be ups and downs. At the end, there’s the elation of completion, and finally the collapse after it all ends.

The other project involves dancers in various stages of movement around Orlando. The idea in my mind is “Orlando in Motion”, and I’m inspired by the work Jordan Matter does with ballerinas. I thought, hey, I know a ballerina or two. Maybe I can get some of them interested, get their friends interested, and make something that shows off Orlando with interesting dancers.

As you can imagine, I’m setting myself up for all sorts of lighting and story problems here. Joe has a lot of experience with dancers, athletes, lighting and story telling.

You can see why I find value in understanding his work. In fact, it’s Joe’s work that inspired me to tackle these projects. It may also inspire you. We can do more than just point a flash at someone, say “Big Smile!” and get another well-exposed, if boring, portrait.

Sketching light is an expiration of those possibilities.

Something I Didn’t Expect in Sketching Light

The reason it’s called Sketching Light is because Joe tends to diagram the lighting scenario on napkins. They’re entertaining but also useful to see just how he positioned his subject, lights and environment.

The surprise, for me, is something that wasn’t a big part of Joe’s previous books. He goes out of his way to specify his equipment and settings for each shot. The reason that surprises me is that he says, rightly so, that his settings are not your settings. You can’t just plug in what aperture, ISO, and shutter speed Joe used in a specific camera and expect to get the same results.


Because location photography is never the same. Not even at the same location. Light changes, and clouds move. Things are never the same and the stars likely won’t align for you as they did for Joe on a particular shot. Every case is a new ball game. It’s informed by your experience, but you must treat it like its own baby.

I suspect that Joe provided this information because so many people requested it. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know that Joe shot a photo with a D3X using a 14-24mm lens zoomed to 19mm at ISO 100, 1/125th of a second shutter speed at f/13.

Of course, your mileage may (and likely will) vary.

A Book That Transforms Your Imagination

When I buy a book or attend training, I’m looking for a transformation. If I didn’t get it, then everything was just a waste of time and money.

Sketching Light continues the trend I discovered with his previous books by providing a transformation. In this case, the discussion of possibilities using different lighting techniques really changed how I think about location photography.

When you walk into a new location, you look for things that work for you and perhaps some that work against you. You think about the story you want to tell, and then see what gear in your bag can help make that story take form.

If you’re lucky, the available light will do all of the work for you. Maybe you need to block part of it or put a bedsheet in front of the light to make it softer. We don’t have any rules that say you have to use flash. The only rule is that you have to use light.

If you bring in your own light, one of the tricks is to make it look as if it isn’t really there – that you’re light belongs with the location and all you did was click a shutter.

That may take some patience. Sometimes you have a bit of trial and error. Other times you’re waiting on the available light to change into something favorable to the image you want to create.

Many of the local photographers I know just popup a flash in a light modifier and go to town clicking away. I’ve done that, too.

Thanks to this book, my approach is a bit different now. I don’t want to always see how many shots I can get. Instead, I want to see how well I can craft one scene. Yes, I may shoot a lot of variations on that scene with my subject, but the idea of setting a stage and directing the lights is very appealing to me now.

It provides better photos and a greater sense of accomplishment when I’m done. That’s the transformation I received from Sketching Light.

My Top 3 Lessons from Sketching Light

OK, so I’m transformed. I’m also a bit more informed for having read through Joe’s experiences. What did I actually learn that I can explain to someone else?

Mostly, it changed my point of view about light. I see the same things now but pay more attention to them. Why is the light there? What would happen if I changed the color of light? I’m starting to play some “what if” games with light in my mind.

1: TTL Gets a Bad Rap from People Who Misuse It

Joe seems to like working in Aperture Priority Mode and using TTL to control his flash. Quite simply, it’s a starting point. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he can make Exposure Value (EV) adjustments to his camera exposure or flash output. It’s a time-saving way of getting past the mundane mechanics of photography and thinking more about the art of photography.

Some people complain about TTL because it can change from shot to shot. That’s true to an extent. People don’t consider that the camera’s computer will deliver the same results under the same conditions every time.

So if you’re getting different results, then something changed. That change could be metering on something different or as simple as changing your focal length. If you, the mortal photographer, make a change, the computer results from TTL will change.

In the IT world, we have a phrase known as PEBCAK. It means “Problem exists between chair and keyboard.”

When you get different results from TTL, the problem isn’t with TTL. It’s you. Think about what changed and adapt. TTL can be very useful if you take the time to understand how and why it calculates its results.

2: I Spend More Time Thinking About Light and How to Use It

Sketching Light gives me a lot to think about when it comes to shaping and directing light. I always thought about it specifically in terms of photography, though. How can I manipulate the output of this flash or strobe.

Otherwise, light was just something in the air. Other than turning it on or off, I didn’t think about it.

Then I had a new challenge to figure out. I’m working on some videos from my desk. Mostly screen-casting demonstrations, but I wanted to show my face. Turns out that’s more challenging than I expected.

After gazing at my face on screen, I couldn’t help but notice that the light sucked. How am I supposed to look like I know what I’m talking about if I can’t even light my own face?

My desk is up against the wall and I was trying to figure out how to mount some small continuous lights there aimed at my beak. They’re too small and harsh, though.

An umbrella or diffuser would help, but that requires space that I didn’t have available in the home office.

So I’m reading the section of the book titled “Building a Wall of Light.” The concept is one I’ve used many times before. All you need is a white wall, or some white seamless paper, or some white foam core. Am your light into that and it bounces back as a larger light source providing soft light.

I was sitting on the couch in the living room and suddenly said “Son of a bitch” and immediately got up to level the room. My wife didn’t know what was wrong with me.

The wall by my desk is white. I held the small video light against it and looked at the results from my computer camera. It’s perfect.

I got my Manfrotto Magic Arm with a Manfrotto Super Clamp attached to my desk, and mounted the video light on a cold shoe just over my computer monitor. Aimed at the wall, I have lovely and delightful light falling on my face for my screencasting videos now.

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3: People Make Light Seem Harder Than it Is

For all its possibilities, light is rather logical. It travels in a straight line. If it hits something, light does two things.

First, it picks up the color of whatever it hits. I just got to see this in my wife’s recent race photos. Lee runs marathons and recently completed one in New Orleans. Some genius had the brilliant idea of putting down a red carpet for the runners at the finish. The result is that everyone’s finish photos have a red color cast from the sunlight hitting the carpet.

Second, light bounces. If light hits a flat source at a 45-degree angle, it will reflect at a 45-degree angle. People talk about the spread of light and how it goes everywhere.

That’s often because different photons bounce off different surfaces. Take a close look at the inside of your softbox or your diffusion material. Theres a fine pebbled surface designed to reflect photons in different directions based upon where it hit the surface.

You can spread the light or fire it in a straight line.

Likewise, you can change the color of your light with a gel or bounce it from a color surface. You can also give the appearance of changes in color by using filters and white balance settings in your camera.

Take some time to experiment with different settings, light modifiers and see what happens. Practice. Sharpen the axe before you need to cut wood.

Who Should Read Sketching Light?

If you like looking at pretty pictures, this will be a rather fast read. There are plenty of photos here to use as examples, but the person who can make the best use of Sketching Light is the curious person who wants to improve.

It isn’t a beginner book, a manual or even a recipe book for lighting scenarios. It’s an expiration of the possibilities of light and how you can use it to tell a story, to inform the viewer about your subject.

You need to have familiarity with using your flashes and strobes. Be comfortable using light modifiers. Have some curiosity about what you can do with these tools that you never considered.

The possibilities are here, and many are quite simple to implement. The hard part is thinking of ways to use your tools, which you get from Sketching Light.

I’m very fond of this book and recommend it for those who want to progress with their photography to create better images. The link below is an Amazon affiliate link. That means there’s no extra cost to you, but I’ll receive a small commission if you purchase this book based upon my recommendation.