The Hot Shoe Diaries

I may have mentioned that one of the most exciting developments in my photography in recent times was the discovery of off-camera flash. Or, if I wanted to be strictly accurate, my recent rediscovery of off-camera flash..

I was browsing through the B&H Photo site the other day when I noticed Canon accessories which allow you to connect off-camera flashes to your Canon film cameras. It reminded me that I once had a set of those cords, hot shoes and connector boxes, and which gave superb results. I was shooting my niece who was a toddler at the time and, if I tell you that she now has her driving license and is at university, it’ll give you an idea of just how long ago that was.

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For one reason or another, perhaps it was too limiting to work tethered with short bits of wire, I stopped doing the off-camera thing; and what a great pity that was.

Anyhow, I rediscovered off-camera flash when I found David Hobby’s Strobist website a couple of years ago and, when I discovered Joe McNally and the joys of wireless TTL flash, I was really cooking with gas.

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I recently bought the McNally and Bob Krist DVD, reviewed here, and McNally’s book The Hot Shoe Diaries from the excellent Camera Books. Today, I’m going to review the book, which is sub-titled Big Light from Small Flashes and which proves to be an apt description of what you can do with the knowledge in the book.

Published by New Riders, The Hot Shoe Diaries is as a beautifully produced and laid-out 8-inch wide by 9-inch high soft cover. McNally kicks off by stating that the book is no how-to-do-it manual, admitting that he’s far too discursive for that. Instead, it provides an insight into his mind and personality, providing a detailed look at how he approaches picture taking and the tools, in this case small flashes and accessories, that he uses to get the effect he wants.

The first section deals with some concepts and the kit he uses, including light-shaping tools, colour gels, and the like. The DVD goes into detail about how to set up all the different Nikon cameras and flashes for off-camera use, but the book is far more concerned with what to do, once the initial setup is complete. That’s not to say that plenty of hints don’t emerge along the way about equipment setup, but you’ll have to read the equipment manuals, if The Hot Shoe Diaries is your only source.

The rest of the book consists of many short sections, some as short as two or three pages, which typically include one of McNally’s awesome pictures and the thought and technique that went into their creation. The substantial first section deals with setups that he achieved using just one off-camera flash . The rest of the book is concerned with setups where two or more lights were used.

Some setups, including one in the desert outside Dubai, where seven flashes were used on a single mount, would not be possible for those of us without access to McNally’s equipment budget, but still there are still lessons to be learnt from the way he thinks. The desert shoot, for example, used the Nikon flash system’s ability to work even at very high shutter speeds, which the rest of us could well use in less extreme conditions.

The other possibility for we, who are less well-endowed equipment-wise, is to cooperate with other photographers. There are at least five people with compatible Nikon flashes, that I know, and you can achieve a very complex lighting setup with that many of them.

McNally uses the Nikon system and users of other brands will have to make up their minds whether the book will be worth it to them. The exact means of controlling the light output from off-camera flash will vary from system to system, ranging from the totally manual to Nikon’s highly evolved iTTL and CLS offering.

What to do with the light won’t change from brand to brand, however, and the book is particularly strong on that aspect. Non-Nikon users could certainly benefit from the book but there is a chance that some might find it frustrating. For all Nikon users who might conceivably use flash, the book (and DVD) are a must. All Nikon digital SLR cameras have the ability to use iTTL and CLS, even if some low-end models require an optional speedlight controller.

It’s so good, to my mind, it would be criminal not to use it.

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