Tuesday, April 28, 2009

REVIEW: The Hot Shoe Diaries by Joe McNally (UPDATED: 5/10/09)

I really enjoyed Joe McNally’s first book, The Moment it Clicks, but it was more like sitting at a bar with Joe with a stack of pictures and listening to how he created them. This book is very similar, in that it does more story telling than instruction, but I think it is definitely more instructive than his first version. I enjoy sitting around talking with people, and I tend to write the same way, so I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

A Warning for Non-Nikon Shooters

If you don’t use the Nikon flash system, you are going to be very disappointed with this book. While many of the topics he discusses outside of the flash units themselves apply to all flash systems (i.e., light modifiers, gels, light positions), I was disappointed that Joe didn’t do a better job discussing at least how some of what he was discussing could apply to the Canon flash system. The Canon 580EX II has much of the benefits of the SB-900 AF Speedlight, but lacks the 200mm zoom (it tops out at 105mm), built-in gel holder, and the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) system. The reality is that if I would have pulled off some of the things he has accomplished with the CLS system, I’d probably be a rabid fan of it too, so perhaps his enthusiasm is natural and warranted.

Section by Section Review

Here’s a quick overview of each section of this book:

Nuts 'n' Bolts

In an improvement over his first book, Joe actually spends some time talking about the gear that he uses – complete with pictures. This is actually very useful to know as I was a bit lost in The Moment it Clicks as to what some things were. I also enjoyed seeing his section on how to hold the camera (which I’ve seen before online) and the flash.

One Light!

Well the theory behind this section is that Joe explains how he executes certain images using one light, but he doesn’t really mean one light (as is the case on page 89’s “Killer Flick of Light” which also includes 8 2400ws lights!). This section was probably my favorite from his whole book, and the “Make Available Light Unavailable” chapter on page 98 was one of those “wow, cool – THAT’S how they do that” chapters. I loved this section the most!

Two or More

This chapter is pretty cool because Joe basically shows how two (or usually more) speedlights can accomplish what people traditionally would use strobes to accomplish. I love some of the results he gets, but of course it really helps if you have an assistant and all day to prepare for the shoot – a luxury most of us usually don’t have.

Lotsa Lights

This chapter should have been named – Take that Canon and Pocket Wizards as it is really a demonstration of what the CLS system can do. Of course Joe goes completely insane and uses up to 47 flashes at one point, and generally more than most of us could reasonably afford. However, it’s fun to see what he can pull off with this powerful flash system.

What's This Button Do?

This is a quick run down on how to perform specific tasks with the SB-900 and SB-800 flash systems. It isn’t the manual, but it is probably easier to follow than the manual!

Joe’s Recommended Equipment

In this book Joe uses a bunch of equipment. If you want to learn more or order any of it please use the links below. Of all the equipment he mentions, I’ve only reviewed the Hoodman HoodLoupe on this site which I like quite a bit, but I should note that Joe has a larger LCD on his D3 so he uses the newer and larger Hoodman HoodLoupe Professional.

Flash Gear

SB-900 AF Speedlight (Canon 580EX II)
SB-800 AF Speedlight
SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander (Canon ST-E2 wireless flash transmitter)
Nikon Gelatin Filter Holders
Nikon SC-29 TTL Coiled Remote Cord (Canon OFF-CAMERA SHOE CORD)
Nikon SD-8A Hi-Performance Battery Pack (Canon CP-E4 Battery Pack)


Full Cut CTO
1/2 Cut CTO
1/4 Cut CTO
1/8 Cut CTO
Full Cut PlusGreen

1/2 Cut PlusGreen

1/4 Cut PlusGreen
1/8 Cut PlusGreen
Full Cut CTB

1/2 Cut CTB
1/4 Cut CTB
1/8 Cut CTB
Roscolux Swatch Book 

Light Modifiers

Lumiquest 80-20
Lumiquest Big Bounce
Honl 1/4″ Honeycomb Speed Grid
Honl 1/8″ Honeycomb Speed Grid
Honl 8″ Snoot
Honl 5″ Snoot
Honl Speed Gobo Flag/Barndoor/Bounce Card
Honl Speed Strap
Honl Gel Kit for Speed Strap
Sto-Fen OM-900 Omni-Bounce for Nikon SB-900 (Sto-Fen OM-EY Omni-Bounce for Canon 580EX/580EXII)


3′x 3′ Skylite Panel Kit (Sunfire/White & Diffusion)
3′x 3′ Skylite Panel Kit (Silver/White & Diffusion)
3′x 3′ Black/White Fabric
6′x 3′ Skylite Panel Kit (Sunfire/White & Diffusion)
6′x 3′ Skylite Panel Kit (Silver/White & Diffusion)

6′x 3′ Black/White Fabric
6′x 6′ Skylite Panel Kit (Sunfire/White & Diffusion)
6′x 6′ Skylite Panel Kit (Silver/White & Diffusion)
6′x 6′ Black/White Fabric
All-in-One Umbrellas Lastolite Ezy-Box 36″x36″ Softbox
Lastolite Ezy-Box 24″x24″ Softbox
Lastolite Ezy-Box 18″x18″ Softbox
Lastolite Ezy-Box 15″x15″ Softbox


While I wish it were more balanced for Canon shooters, it’s still a good book that will teach anyone using a flash system a lot of cool tricks about how to make these little lights do great things. Of course, most of us won’t be able to use 47 flashes (nor should we) as he does in his Plane, but Not Simple chapter. Still, there’s plenty to learn from Joe’s vast experience. I’m glad I read it and I hope to see him continue to share his experience with us in a future book (which hopefully is a little more product neutral or at least Canon friendly).

Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Value: Very Good
Recommendation: For Nikon Users this is a must own. For everyone else this is a nice to have, but be prepared that you’ll have to do the flash system conversions in your head as you read.

NEW: A response from Joe McNally about this review

My first version of this review made the statement that I felt like this book was bought and paid for by Nikon, and it should have been called the Nikon Hot Shoe Diaries. However, after a discussion with Joe I realize that it is really just a case of a guy who really loves the products he uses. Sure, he’s a long-time Nikon user, his wife Annie is a tech rep for Nikon, and he occasionally does gig’s for Nikon, but this book is really just a “diary” of what he does with the system he uses every day. It’s no different from my glowing reviews of Kelby books or ThinkTankPhoto bags, because when something serves you well you can’t help but rave about it. Here’s a response in Joe’s own words:

I respectfully and completely disagree with the assertion that the title of the book should be the Nikon Hot Shoe Diaries. This is my adventure with small flash not theirs. If I had bought a Canon camera in 1973 instead of a Nikkormat, I would have written about it from that perspective...

I do assignments for Nikon on occasion, but I am not on the Nikon payroll, and I buy all my gear over the counter from Jeff Snyder at Adorama. Nikon consigns a few speedlights to me every year to teach with, but I give them back at the end of each year, and am liable for it should one go missing.

There's always a bunch of folks out there who want to know your f-stop. So in this effort, being more instructional, I named names and ratios and the like. If I wrote, "I sent the remote speed light a TTL signal from my commander," lots of folks, especially those starting out with flash, want to know which speed light and which commander, and how far away the speed light was and what kind of stand it was on.

I simply don't have the depth of experience with Canon flashes to be on sure footing when talking about them.

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