Joe McNally: The Moment it Clicks (Verdict: Awesome)

Joe McNally's new book, "The Moment it Clicks," is 256 pages of wall-to-wall photos, lighting and photography tips, techniques and war stories from a world-class shooter. And that's not even what makes it so special.

Hit the jump for a full review, and an extra-special surprise after that.

Sitting here at my laptop trying to wrap my head around what I like so much about this book, I keep drawing blanks. It's not that I cannot find anything to like about it -- it is that I like everything about it.

Joe McNally's 30-year career has seen him shooting for Life (as their only staff photographer at one point), National Geographic, self-generated projects out the wazoo, corporate clients -- you name it. And of course, a guy like this is gonna have a book full of photos and stories that'll knock your socks off.

But given all of that, the thing that jumps out at me from this book is instead how personal it is, and how generous he is with his thought process and know-how. It doesn't feel like he is your teacher, handing out pearls of wisdom from some inaccessible (for you) place. It feels like you are just hanging out after a long day's shooting, and he is talking shop with you over beers in the hotel bar in the evening.

The book is edited by Scott Kelby, who is either a very good editor or knew when to leave good stuff the heck alone. Or maybe some of both. In a seemingly endless stream of photography and photo how-to books, I have never seen one like this.

It is broken into little mini-chapters. Double-trucks, mostly, that hit on one main subject, with a big photo used as an example. There are snippets on lighting, camera position and angles, photographer/subject interaction, seeing light, putting yourself in a position to make a great photo, learning to hit the inevitable curve balls that come at you -- just about everything, really.

The funny thing is, there is no one big secret or silver bullet that makes a shooter like McNally so different from us. It's a million little things. And these things are so simple, and make such sense -- if you have someone to tell you about them.

Little things like how to turn any house into a studio with a bed sheet from the linen closet (covering a doorway and turning a harsh strobe into a giant light source) and a tablecloth (taped to a wall as a quickie backdrop).

Well, yeah. "Of course," you'll say. Only I could have gone another 20 years and maybe never thought of that. D'oh.

McNally is a walking catalog of lighting techniques. But that stuff is not worth a hill of beans if you cannot pre-visualize interesting photos and then do what needs to be done to make sure you and your subject pull them off.

This book gets you inside a working shooter's head like no other book I have ever seen. Those of you who are closer to the beginning of your journey than to the end will find this book invaluable.

Those of us who have been around the block a few times will be at once fascinated to see how he works -- and thinks -- and pissed off that we did not have this book twenty years ago. And the "how he thinks" part is there in spades. All of the little voices in his head are on full display throughout the book.

From simple bedsheets in doorways to complicated production shots (like this one of shortstop Ozzie Smith) he lets you completely inside his thought process to see how he breaks down barriers -- technical and interpersonal -- to produce the photo he first sees in his mind.

And if you think his shoots are a bed of roses, think again. It's the problems -- and how he solves them -- that makes the book so interesting. This is all done with candor and a total lack of pretense that is rare in a book of this level on any subject, let alone photography.

And it is laugh-out-loud funny, too. This is a guy you could have a beer with.

Not Your Average Joe

It is hard to explain how different this thing is from the typical photo book. Just for a little sense of what it is like, let me hit you with the names of a few of the mini-chapters:

• Get the Right Five Minutes
• Have Faith in Your Ideas
• Remember, You're Not Spider-Man
• Put the Light in an Unusual Place
• People Will Think You're Crazy
• Better to Ask for Forgiveness
• The Subject Determines the Light
• Yanko Supremo
• Bring a Chainsaw
• Think Like a Comic Book
• Be a Pest

You know, the typical chapters in a photo book.

The last part of the book is entitled, "Bar Stories," and that is exactly what it is. This is one of the very best things about being a photographer, and reading these makes me wanna shut this whole blog thing down and go back to shooting full-time. It really brings you into the heart of what is so interesting about the profession.

It wouldn't be a photo book without a glossary, but even this is off-kilter. Some terms, in alphabetical order:

• Arc 'im
• Biddybastards
• Cheeseball Piece of S#!%
• Fnugy
• (A) Strong 8
• Valley of the Gels

(FWIW, "Inverse square law" didn't make the cut for this volume.)


It's a wonderful book, and I suspect many of you will remember it twenty years hence, assuming you still have twenty years left on your odometer. I sure as heck wish I would have had it twenty years ago. When people ask me what they should be reading if they want to be a better shooter, this is where I am gonna send them.

About That Special Surprise

Just as exciting as the book, I am very happy to tell you that McNally has just joined the growing ranks of pro photographers who are also bloggers. He already has a few posts up, and will be adding more as he goes.

You can get a good sense of just who you'll be dealing with by reading his introductory post. I am very much looking forward to seeing where he takes it. He is a great teacher who knows how to break things down so they are intuitive for even the most thick-headed among us.

He's thinking video too, with a new YouTube channel. So he's pretty much in it for the whole nine yards. This is a perfect example of the tipping point I believe we are at WRT the photo industry starting to teach the next generation of photographers in a direct, unfiltered way.

Which is way cool, IMO. Welcome to the sphere, Joe. We are so glad to have you.

And to those of of you who have read the book, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

:: Amazon: The Moment it Clicks ::
:: Moment it Clicks: Video Preview ::
:: Scott Kelby on McNally's Book ::
:: Joe McNally's New Blog ::
:: Joe McNally's New YouTube Channel ::


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Nick Davis said...

Sold. David, you've inspired me, and I'm digging into the books by these guys as fast as I can get hold of them.
I love the open-source mindset that is swelling in photography in the internet age. After the Strobist seminar last month, I've resolved to finally get off my a$$ and do what I've dreamed for years. Be a photographer. My journey starts here and it's all going to be out in the open, for any and all to read.
Cycle 61 Photography

February 04, 2008 3:38 AM  
Blogger ckk said...

I haven't received my copy of the book yet, but I'm looking forward to it even more after this review!

If you haven't seen it already check out this blog post by Scott Kelby, an interesting story about the birth of this book.

February 04, 2008 4:55 AM  
Anonymous Shawn said...

Thanks for the tip! I can't wait to get mine now.

Keep up the great work!


February 04, 2008 7:01 AM  
Blogger SeanMcC said...

I see Scott is linking over to you on this post David.

I got a note from Amazon saying my book has shipped from the pre order.. Really looking forward to this.

February 04, 2008 8:38 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

Amazon says my copy of the book should arrive here Wednesday. I met Joe at Moose Peterson's DLWS session last April at Bryce. He is a terrific person as well as photographer. Your review tells me that the book will be an amazing extension of the personal care and thoughtfulness he gives to students at workshops.

Joe critiqued my photos at the session. Although he would never say it, my photos were pedestrian and relied heavily on the technical sophistication of my DSLR. But he did pick one image out and said what he really like about it was that I "turned around." That while everyone was blasting away at the subjects scouted out for us by the DLWS crew, I took a moment to look backward and see something different. That is how you inspire someone to push forward and do better.

The bonus for me is that I will hear his voice in my head as I read his book.

February 04, 2008 9:02 AM  
Anonymous robbie said...

I just wanted to let everyone know that I went searching for this over the weekend at several bookstores and found that it is NOT IN THE PHOTOGRAPHY section. This title has been categorized under Computers/Technology at your friendly neighborhood Barnes and Noble.
Yes, it took my wife insisting to ask for directions to the book.

February 04, 2008 9:41 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I can't wait for the book to arrive, Amazon has told me it's on it's way. Joe's blog seems to be broken for now though.

February 04, 2008 9:58 AM  
Blogger rodbot said...

another reason to have a blogspot page.....

when david hobby links to you saying you have a cool blog.

site down in no time at all.

February 04, 2008 10:06 AM  
Blogger "Jeff" said...

David - I thought you were going to offer an autographed copy of the book to the first person who responded to today's blog....

Jeff Thimell

February 04, 2008 10:07 AM  
Blogger captaindash said...

I keep getting those "internal server error 404" funtime messages you hope for first thing in the morning. None of the links to his site feel like wasting their time on me. Dunno if I'm the only one (or if I'm even actually awake yet).

February 04, 2008 10:07 AM  
Blogger mlondon said...

Great review David.

I've been devouring my copy and fully expect it to fall apart after I've read it about 88 times. Then I'll buy another one.

I had the good fortune to study with Joe last summer, so when I read the stories, I hear his voice in ear...urging me to go beyond whatever it is I thought I could do.

Apart from being a brilliant photographer and master of light, the thing that struck me most about Joe was how big a heart he has. All the technical skill in the world is useless if it isn't in the hands of someone who really cares about other people.

This book is full of heart. Thank you Joe for enriching ALL of our lives!

February 04, 2008 10:52 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I ordered mine today...can't wait.

February 04, 2008 2:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I pre-ordered mine awhile ago based on Scott's info, it shipped yesterday (2/2). It looks like a fascinating book and I'm looking forward to it.

February 04, 2008 2:02 PM  
Blogger But I'm a Bear! said...

Huh. GREAT Photog and instructor, but....I get a heavy feeling that Nikon and Bogen aren't just giving him a gratuitous pat on the back for starting a blog and "mentioning" their products.

DH, you don't have to approve this comment. I'm just realllllly jealous. :cD

February 04, 2008 2:07 PM  
Blogger Milo said...

i must say, you are the "oprah" of the photography world. now, please don't read anything negative into that. but i must say, whenever you recommend or review an item it becomes a best seller. haha.

i've been lurking around your blog for a while, and just wanted to say a quick thanks for the lighting education.

February 04, 2008 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Serge said...

David, if you keep recommending such good books, I'll spend more time reading them instead of taking pictures ;-)

February 04, 2008 2:15 PM  
Blogger Christopher T. Assaf said...

It was amazing to Joe at an NPPA Flying Short Course, many years ago, and make a presentation on his National Geographic story on "The Eye" and sight. Some of his words and images have stayed with me since.

Hobby teasingly let me glance at this book Friday in The Sun's offices. I will get mine as soon as I can.

February 04, 2008 2:55 PM  
Anonymous christopher said...

Oh well. 60€ on vs. 29$ on - guess i'll have to order it from the other side of the big pond.

February 04, 2008 3:32 PM  
Blogger s3brew said...

A day late and a dollar short. I ordered Kelby's Digital Photography Book Vol. 2 yesterday. Amazon suggested Joe's book as well but I'm saving for another SB-2X. Maybe my wife will get it for Valentine's Day??

February 04, 2008 4:10 PM  
Anonymous monkey said...

I didn't even bother looking at the price I jsut ordered... Do you see the effect you have? haha

February 04, 2008 4:18 PM  
Anonymous Jon Senior said...

Great... But the European publication date is 28th March! Why do you taunt me so?

February 04, 2008 5:12 PM  
Anonymous wilksonian said...

I've been reading his "On the Road" workshop stuff and just eat it up... He really has some writing chops... Like this from his blog talking about shooting corporate big guys sitting in "chairs covered with the skin of the testicles of unborn calves"...

is this guy great or what...

February 04, 2008 5:28 PM  
Blogger Nicholaus Haskins said...

Man....that shot with the mirrors...had that in my head for a while now! It's like thinking of a cool product, then the next day you see it. None the less, Joe is an amazing feller.

February 04, 2008 7:34 PM  
Anonymous Suchy said...

Any Vancouver shooters may recognize Syx from Vancouver Photo Workshops in the header of Joe's blog. The header cycles through a numbe of pics, but Syx is in there.

Just ordered the book.........looks like an inspirational read.

February 04, 2008 7:58 PM  
Anonymous allykat said...

I'm already inspired and just bought it through your link. Look what an effect you have in case you're wondering how the DVD will do!

February 04, 2008 10:32 PM  
Anonymous Ryan.Scott said...

Good to hear. I had heard good things about this already, and actually just ordered it last week. Because of this post, I'm chomping at the bit.

February 04, 2008 11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do hope you're getting paid for this kind of advertising

February 05, 2008 12:53 AM  
Anonymous Photographer Italy said...

I'm waiting for my copy.
It will be here when I will be back from Guinea...

February 05, 2008 2:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ordered the book and I look forward to reading it.

As for his blog, well, he's milking the Nikon fanboy angle for every click-through he can get.

Is this a great country, or what?


February 05, 2008 9:40 AM  
Blogger shidachi said...

For the European strobists, don't wait till end of March! I just ordered it today from It will be delivered faster and it is much cheaper (the book costs equiv. 57$ in France).
I can't wait to receive it!

February 05, 2008 11:31 AM  
Blogger Miguel said...

Everybody in Europe: The book is 19 pounds at Since it's EU all you need to pay is shipping, no tax.

February 05, 2008 4:25 PM  
Anonymous Mhogan35 said...

Just saw that you recommended this book from up at work, didn't even have time to read the whole article, before I purchased the book!

Am I an addict, or what? hehe

February 05, 2008 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Ryan.Scott said...

Got my copy today and I can't put it down. Great read!

February 05, 2008 9:15 PM  
Blogger Barb said...

Mine just came today....I'm sure I'm going to be up all night reading!

February 05, 2008 10:23 PM  
Anonymous David Lonh said...

The power of this blog is a bit scary. I ordered a copy and noticed that it's up to #28 on Amazon's best seller list, just above Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope". Joe for president, perhaps? Or maybe he'll give up photography and retire to a private island somewhere with his billions in royalties.

February 08, 2008 9:07 PM  
Anonymous Glenn said...

I got my copy earlier this week and have been savoring it bit by bit though my desire is to devour it.

The great thing about it is that the 'IT' clicks many many times, for different reasons, on different levels but with the same level of satisfaction.

As a relatively novice photographer I knew going in I had a whole realm to learn to start with but the great thing is this. It almost forces you to ask the proper questions of yourself about what you're doing and why.

This book could be read by any level of photographer or simply those who love photos. I'm sure as I progress and read this book over and over again it will connect with me time and time again for differing reasons. This is a book that could very well be held together with a duct taped binding years from now.

Given the perspective and the possibilities Joe opens to you is nothing less than a fully guided trip through his mind, heart and nervous system. Its a photographic E ticket ride.

The stories will make you laugh, bring a tear to your eye and make you wonder. And through this you will find that you are now thinking about your photography in a different manner.

For a book of this length there are precious few words but those that are there offer all that you need and probably more than we could have hoped for.

Drink those words up, they are intoxicating.

February 08, 2008 11:31 PM  
Blogger Ivan Makarov said...

Thanks for an excellent review, David. I finished the book last night and posted a quick review of my own here - .

I agree with you, it is an excellent book we will long remember. It was also nice to see you mentioned in there.

February 10, 2008 12:57 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home