Book Review: The Moment it Clicks by Joe McNally
The Moment it Clicks by Joe McNally isn't a tutorial, though it has plenty of hard-won lessons and information to help. It isn't a picture book, though it's filled with outstanding images from front to back.
There are tons of photography books about technical issues. Then there are those that are simply picture books where you flip the pages and look at some lovely art.
This book is different, though.
At it's core, The Moment it Clicks is about being a photographer.
We get to take a look inside the mind of a working photographer. Scary as that may sound, it's interesting and revealing to see what works and, occasionally, what doesn't. Joe doesn't brag about his successes, and he doesn't shy away from revealing some things that he wished went a bit better.
Why I Wanted to Read The Moment it Clicks
This book came out in 2008. While I previously had an interest in photography, I was basically just creating some snapshots. I didn't really know what I wanted to be, photographically, or how I was going to get there.
I started investing in training with a membership in KelbyTraining (which is now KelbyOne). Joe McNally is one of the instructors for that group, and they also had a hand in producing this book. I presume so, since they own the copyright in the credits.
As you may expect, there was a lot of promotion when the book came out. People were talking about how wonderful it was, so I decided to give it a shot.
Turns out that was fortunate for me. The Moment it Clicks was the first photography book I ever read that wasn't trying to teach me something technical. The book isn't specifically about exposures, lighting or post processing.
It's about thinking on your feet as a photographer.
When you read The Moment it Clicks, you get an inside look at how an experienced photographer tackles varying assignments, sizes them up, and comes away with a result.
Something I Learned to Enjoy About Joe's Writing Style
Joe has a very conversational style of writing. I remember everything I ever learned about writing, and most of it had nothing to do with the way people actually speak to one another. For some reason, we're supposed to believe that writing the way we speak is improper.
At the time I bought this book, I hadn't met Joe. Now that I have, I realize just how well his writing matches his style of conversation. You almost get the notion that he dictated everything into a microphone rather than tapping out his words on a typewriter.
Now, I cannot read Joe's writing without hearing his voice in my head. That's not a bad thing, and it actually makes his books easier for me to read.
Basically, Joe talks to you in his books, rather than talking at you.
Something I Didn't Expect in the Book
Joe shares a lot in the book. Thoughts, emotions, occasional self-doubt and more. There are parts of the book that are funny. Other pages have some analysis about approaching the photograph.
On page 218, he opens up about the personal cost of being a traveling photographer. He missed a lot of time with his kids growing up, and he shares a particularly poignant memory of a day when he left to embark on a four-week assignment in Africa.
That moment of hugging his three year old daughter as he's about to go put a change in the tone of the book, only for a moment. It's something that any parent can understand.
Joe shares such a private memory to share that there are decisions to make as a photographer, a provider, and a father. Sometimes, it seems, something's gotta give.
A Book That Transforms Your View of Photography
By sharing insights from the mind of a professional photographer going about his business, this book provides a transformative experience.
Instead of thinking about numbers, dials and apertures, you realize that photography is much more than a technical application. There are personalities involved that trust you to make them look good. There are pressures to perform and come back with a photograph that tells a story.
It also helps you realize the things you need to consider as a photographer, whether creative or technical. Consider this snippet from the book:
Steven Spielberg can get away with hot, smoky light coming from beneath the lost Ark of the Covenant, buried for 2,000 years in a crypt. We can't.
There is a logic to light. It's gotta come from somewhere and something has to be making it. That's why it doesn't really make sense to have somebody in a field staring at a hole in the ground with light coming from the hole. Unless you're shooting production stills for The X Files.
Sounds reasonable, right? Most people go through a day without really thinking about light sources. It's something they take for granted. Yet, we instinctively know when something isn't right.
If the light comes from the wrong direction, or the shadows don't match the light, the average person knows something just doesn't look right. Perhaps they don't know why, but part of their mind rejects the photo because it didn't get a basic detail right.
Movie directors get to play games with light because they have other things going for them. They can build tension with music, sound effects, and movement. Photographers who put a still photo in front of someone have none of those distractions, leaving the viewer free to pick apart your mistakes.
You'll find little nuggets like this one peppered throughout The Moment it Clicks. It's the kind of wisdom you gain from experience as a photographer, and the kind that you just don't learn from technical books.
This book transforms you from someone who knows how to create an exposure into someone who cab begin to craft a photograph.
Does It Seem Like Something is Missing from This Photography Book?
Remember when I said this is a book about being a photographer? It's true. That's why you don't find much in here about specific photography information.
There are some tips about using filters and gels. A section in the back shows you what's in Joe's camera bag. Another section talks briefly about lighting.
Yet none of it is really about the technical aspects of photography. This is a book meant to inspire your creative mind, share some practical experiences, and help you transform into a better photographer.
If you're looking for lighting recipes, f-stops and exposure settings, this isn't that kind of book. To be honest, that's one of the things I love about this book.
Without those specific details, the book becomes rather evergreen – it reads just as well in 2018 as it did when the book came out in 2008.
My Top 3 Lessons from The Moment it Clicks
I read this book with more than an open mind. Basically, it was an empty mind. There's a difference between understanding the mechanical or technical aspects of photography and learning how to be a photographer.
This book truly opened my eyes to the possibilities before me, but that awareness happened slowly. As we start photography, we can only absorb so much information. When you're mentally struggling to understand how to work your camera, it's sometimes hard to remember how to relate to the person in front of your camera, or how you're going to use the photo.
So with that in mind, I keep coming back to this book to find new pearls of wisdom that I missed on the previous visits.
1: Take Your Time and Become Comfortable
Many people who read this book aren't doing it because they want to be a general assignment photographer like Joe McNally. They just want to learn how to make beautiful photos, like those you see in the book.
The first step is to get comfortable with the camera. That takes time and practice. You're going to screw up some shots. That's OK. Figure out what went wrong and then how you can correct it. Become comfortable with the technical aspects of photography.
2: New Experiences Bring New Challenges
If you practice the same thing over and over again, you'll master it. Then what do you do when you have to do something different? It doesn't seem so easy when that happens.
You start learning what different photographic challenges have in common. When you boil it all down, your exposures have the same technical operations in common. You need to have some light. The shutter stays open for a given amount of time. The aperture can give you great depth of field or you can keep it shallow.
Those three simple pieces have enormous potential for creative combinations. As you start to learn about manipulating light, shutter speed and aperture, you begin to understand how to approach new circumstances based upon the experiences under your belt.
3: There Should Be a Story in Every Photo
Ultimately, we're taking photos to communicate something. We need to inform the viewer. What do they get out of seeing your photo? Maybe they understand something about a stranger or a celebrity. It could be an important moment in history and it's your job to share it with the world of people who couldn't be there.
Stories don't have to be long, which is a good thing for a photographer. One thing I've learned is that people are more likely to linger on a photo if they can relate to it, and stories are how we relate information.
Who Should Read This Book?
When I first read this book, I wasn't ready for all of the lessons inside. I was still trying to grasp my camera, how to use Photoshop and a plethora of other technical things.
Yet I knew there was something here that I needed. I read the book and was fascinated by the photos. It seemed like Joe shared some interesting little tidbits about each one and then moved to the next photo.
To be honest, I wasn't ready. My mind was full getting the fundamentals of photography from a technical perspective.
After I became comfortable with those details, I started to think there ought to be more to my photos than just documenting things around me. I wanted to improve, and I knew I was lacking something that wasn't a technical skill.
I needed to develop my talent and vision.
The Moment it Clicks is for the person who realizes that photography is about more than cameras and gear. It's not about exposure details that you can replicate.
When you're ready to move beyond documenting your environment and you want to start communicating something interesting, then that's the moment it clicks. You should read this book.
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.