The Hot Shoe Diaries Review

In The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes, Joe McNally shows you how you can transform a pocket full of light into beautiful portrait photographs.

If The Moment it Clicks was a book about being a photographer, then The Hot Shoe Diaries grabs you by the hair and says, “This is how you do it.” It’s not a recipe book or a reference manual. Instead, The Hot Shoe Diaries starts off by giving you some practical advice about how a working photographer uses his tools and goes about the business of creating beautiful environmental portraits.

In other words, it’s a how-to guide for telling your subject’s story.

The only problem is that the rules change for every subject, so you still have to think on your feet. The world of taming light is fluent and ever-changing. This is a book that’s more about guidelines than absolute rules.

BEST for Small Flash Users
The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes

The Hot Shoe Diaries by Joe McNally introduces you to the possibility and potential of those small flashes in your camera bag.

This isn’t necessarily a tutorial but a guided tour of your potential using small flashes to tell engaging stories about your subject.

If The Moment it Clicks was a book about being a photographer, then The Hot Shoe Diaries grabs you by the hair and says, “This is how you do it.” It’s not a recipe book or a reference manual.

Instead, The Hot Shoe Diaries starts by giving you some practical advice about how a working photographer uses his tools and goes about the business of creating beautiful environmental portraits.

  • Shows the great potential with small flash
  • Shares experience to help you reduce your learning curve
  • Beautiful Photography Concepts apply across different brands of flash
  • The gear mentioned inside is somewhat dated now
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Why I Wanted to Read The Hot Shoe Diaries

For many of us, a hot shoe flash is something we know that we need but don’t necessarily know how to use. By itself, a hot shoe flash creates some pretty awful light. It’s a small, harsh source of light. Plant it on top of your camera, and it’s good for a mug shot. In that configuration, its purpose is to provide enough light to document your subject – no flattery allowed.

Were that all I needed to do, I’d have no need for this book.

Yet I know there were greater possibilities because I see the results from Joe McNally and other photographers. I wanted to know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and most importantly – why they’re doing it.

The Hot Shoe Diaries provide a lot of that information. In the opening, Joe talks about how he was blessed to have mentors who shared their knowledge with him, even if they were working for the competition. They were gracious and open with their knowledge.

Now it’s Joe’s turn, and he’s doing the same thing. He lays it all out there from the start, introducing the vocabulary you need to understand and telling you what the technology does. He shares some of the equipment he uses, how he configures it, and why he does it.

By now, some of the specific gear he mentions is a bit dated. Don’t let that bother you. Gear gets updated, but the concepts remain the same – even if you shoot another brand of camera.

Learning the Language of Light

The part I enjoyed the most was learning the Language of Light. As it says at the beginning of the book, this isn’t a manual to operate your flash. If so, all you would learn is how to adjust the dials and buttons of your flash, but that’s now what we’re after.

The Hot Shoe Diaries is really about the potential of light and how you can use it to communicate. You do that through light, by wrangling it into the correct form to serve your subject.

That’s made clear in the book:

You don’t light a down-home country barn like you would light the Merrill Lynch trading floor.

Your possibilities with light can grant a cinematic result if you understand the language of light.

Light has to come from somewhere. It can be hard or soft. Light picks up the color of things that it hits. When you start manipulating these characteristics, your little flash can become much more than it seems. You have the potential to create something mysterious, mythical, or gorgeous.

As you examine the photos in the book, pay attention to these aspects of light. Notice that they aren’t all the same blaring white light that you typically see from a small flash on top of your camera. You’ll find production shots that show when Joe uses a diffusion panel or window to light a scene.

The important thing isn’t just the light but what he uses to modify it and create something appropriate for the scene.

Flash Isn’t Just for Faces

When I think of Joe’s photographs, I think of portraits. I expect that he’s going to choose light appropriate for the person. However, there’s more to flash than just faces.

Sometimes you need to enhance the scene a little bit. That may mean using flash with a gel to add more interest to the background or opening up something hidden in the shadows.

One part of the book that really surprised me showed me how Joe used flash in the foreground of some landscape or travel photos. This is the guy known for saying something to the effect of never having seen a landscape that wouldn’t look better with a person in front of it.

Yet, sometimes the story isn’t about a person. Your photos typically need something in the foreground, middle, and background. You could bracket and combine images in Photoshop or, heaven forbid, use HDR.

If your foreground is in shadow, why not just save a lot of time and light it? No bracketing, no complex post-processing. Just use your flash to light up the offending darkness and go on about your day.

This is a Book That Transforms Your View of Small Flash

These little flashes have a lot more potential than many people expect. They’re small, portable, and wireless. Given the right light modifiers, you can dramatically change the environment to tell a story that catches your viewer’s eye.

Ultimately, The Hot Shoe Diaries isn’t a book about how to use small flash. It’s a book about how to unleash your imagination and creativity using flash as a tool. The book provides your imagination with fodder to create your own possibilities and tell new stories.

It’s also a book filled with experience that can save you some headaches.

Take the advice on page 234 as an example. You slap a gel on your flash to get color. Want more color from your light? Dial it down.

As you add more power to your flash, you get more white light. That turns your red gel into pink light. If you want to turn the background red, then back off the power.

You may need to adjust your aperture and ISO to let that lower power flash cover your background, which is part of the compromise of photography. On the other hand, maybe you need more than one flash with a red gel if you don’t want to compromise your exposure settings.

There’s always another way. You have choices.

My Top Three Lessons From The Hot Shoe Diaries

I see The Hot Shoe Diaries as a lesson in possibilities. Those small flashes can do much more than we were led to believe by reading the manual. It takes some imagination and creativity, but you can really bend and distort that light to do things the designers never considered.

1: Get Your Flash Off Camera

Joe makes it very clear that the worst place for your flash is on top of your camera. It isn’t flattering or interesting. That’s the place you put your flash when you’ve run out of imagination and just have to document something for the record. It’s a brute force insult to anything before your lens.

2: Experiment Often

It’s a great thing to know what you want and how to get it. It’s also good to have some alternatives, just in case your master plan doesn’t quite work out. I’ve been there before.

That’s why it’s a good idea to experiment with light when you have the chance. Get comfortable with light. Get to know what it will do when you change your exposure, power settings, or put different light modifiers in front of it. In many cases, moving light just a few inches can have great potential to improve your photo or turn it into a disaster.

Pay attention to shadows, both on the subject and behind. Do those shadows add to the story or distract from it? There’s a time for soft light and hard light. Best not to confuse them with your subject.

3: There’s a Time and Place for Everything

Particulate matter – smoke, dust, etc. – can really add something to your photos. It provides visual texture and interest. Yet, that doesn’t mean you ought to smoke up everything you shoot.

You could say the same thing for gels or use a gobo to make an interesting pattern on the background. They work well in some circumstances, but not all.

It’s nice that we have cool options at our disposal. One of the things that makes them cool is that they’re part of a story, not used as a photographic trick in every shot. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Have a variety of techniques and tools at your disposal, and then use the one that fits your story.

Who Should Read The Hot Shoe Diaries

Think of The Hot Shoe Diaries as a mind-expanding drug. The colors, the light! It’s everywhere, man!

To get the most from this book, it helps to have the fundamentals of flash exposure under your belt. While Joe starts off the book with some discussion of terms and concepts, he doesn’t guide you through the basics of making an exposure using flash. So take some time and practice.

You need to understand that flash exposure introduces two more variables to the exposure triangle you use with available light. Instead of juggling three balls, now you have to understand all of these elements:

  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO
  • Flash Power
  • Flash to Subject Distance

What do those last two mean? Those variables add light to your exposure so you can do some interesting things. For example, you can underexpose your ambient light to get a dramatic sky or background and then add flash to bring out your subject.

The power you add to your flash, combined with the distance from your flash to the subject, controls whether you light them properly or make them look like a nuclear ghost.

When you know how to control those exposures, then you’re ready for the mind-altering drugs presented here to tell your stories.

Many of the examples in this book use one flash. Slightly more than half of this book goes by before Joe introduces a section with two or more flashes. In part IV, you get a few examples using lots of flashes.

At the extreme, there is a photo of an airplane that uses 47 flashes. Not to show off but to demonstrate the difficulties of creating the right light on a major assignment and show you the kind of things you need to consider when you add a touch of light here or there while keeping it out of sight.

I bring this up because Joe has a reputation for using a lot of lights, and that shouldn’t put you off from reading this book. The majority of the information here is with one light, and then most of the rest with two or three lights. That’s not out of reach for most of us, and it’s good to know why you use those lights.

Should you buy this book? Yes, if you’re ready to move from a fundamental stage and progress toward some creative, story-telling techniques for your photography.

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 on my recommendation.

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