UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


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 ::


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
My current project: The Traveling Photograher's Manifesto