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The Hot Shoe Diaries

Aug 26

In Lighting, Upcoming Events at 12:42pm

Back in the country, and back on the internet. Couple of reasons for blog lite (or, truth be told, blog zero) over the last two weeks. I’m shooting a Geographic story and they moved the sked up one month on me, which takes away a month for scheduling field time. Kinda compresses things. Another is I’ve been writing like a banshee on my new book, due in December, “The Hot Shoe Diaries, Creative Applications of Small Flash,” which you can find at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I wanted to call it HSD, Big Light from Small Flashes, but the above is okay by me.

I’ve always been a bit interested in noir, and crime novels, and my buddy Mark is the perfect subject. He’s a good guy and a good photog, so don’t jump to the wrong conclusions about him from all these mean streets pix of him. K-man, shot with small flash, just may be a recurring character in the book. Above, K-man on the streets of Gotham. Who knows where he’ll turn up next?

You can blame David Hobby, at least a little bit. When I told David the title, he was like, cool, you should shoot some noir stuff, and make stories. Fits, I guess. Remember Rear Window? Jimmy Stewart catches the bad guy with…flashbulbs.

The book will not be an instruction manual. Basically, it will be an irreverent brain dump of my whole history using small flash, back from when I first got my hands on flash powder to the SB-900. There will be sections on buttons and dials, batteries, flash attachments, light shaping tools from gaffer tape to umbrellas, and sketches. Along the way, of course, there will be lots and lots of pictures, some good, some not so. (Some will even outright suck!) I’ll show the ups and downs and sideways of using flash in the field. Mistakes, which I’m very open about, come with the package. There’ll be other notable sections, too, like one devoted to the instruction manual titled:


An homage, if you will, to the lucidity and riveting nature of instruction manuals everywhere.

Another event in the history of small flash will be noted….


And of course, the current transition from SB-800 to SB-900 will be discussed.

In Tucson right now for the Geographic. Continuing true to my history with them of going to places at the worst time of year. Arizona in August. Siberia in February. See below.

Above is noon time, Lake Lavozero. The Russians were impressed that I suffered on the ice all day with them, and that of course led to a vodka soaked dinner at the polar observatory where we were housed. It was an upgrade, actually, from the hotel I was staying at. In my room the day previous, I heard a repeated smashing sound from down the hall. Again. Again. Smash! I walked down to check it out, and this enormous woman, chef for the hotel restaurant, was lifting chunks of ice out of an ancient freezer. Inside those chunks of ice were chickens. She would then raise it over her head, and violently throw it down on the floor, freeing the chicken parts. Dinner that night? Chicken soup!

Anyway, one of the guys at dinner turned out to be the police chief of Murmansk. The next morning he opened the trunk of his car, which was filled to the brim with automatic weapons and handed me a Kalashnikov. He gestured at a row of milk bottles in the distance and took the safety off. “Shoot, yes?”

In the macho outback of the Motherland, one does not turn away from such a command. Honestly, it ain’t hard to chew through a buncha milk bottles with a machine gun, so it went very well. This lead to a conversation that became an opportunity to engage in one of the most depressing nights in my life. I spent the whole night in the drunk tank in the city of Murmansk.

I was doing a story on light for Nat Geo, and they sent me up there to where the cold and the dark lead to a lot of alcoholism and suicide. The drunks leave the bars in the wee hours and stagger into a snow bank and are dead by morning. The police send out patrols to look for these guys, and drag ’em into the cozy confines of the drunk tank to dry ’em out. Brutal.

Come to think of it, Arizona’s really nice in August… More tk.

Mike Wiacek says:

on August 26, 2008 at 1:27 pm

Joe, that shot of you with the sb-800’s priced to move is terrifying on so many levels. However, it’s a great shot. Looking forward to the book!


John Milleker says:

on August 26, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Always love your stories Joe.

Because of that, got my HSD pre-ordered, however, please include a manly photo on the cover. Don’t want my manliness questioned with such a title and an undescriptive cover photo.

Many wishes for success on the new book!

kathyt says:

on August 26, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Yippee you are back. It is great to read your post. I so enjoy them. So I guess we can pre-order your new book. Wonder if you will set a record for pre-ordered books (I hope so). Can’t wait to see the book. Thanks again for all the great info and humor!! kathyt

Bruno Monteiro says:

on August 26, 2008 at 2:23 pm

Good to hear you’re back. It’s great to read your stories, they’re so fresh (specially this Siberia’s story) and entertaining.
I’ll be looking for HSD if it’s OK for a Canon shooter. :)

Charles says:

on August 26, 2008 at 3:10 pm

He gestured at a row of milk bottles in the distance and took the safety off. “Shoot, yes?”

If there ever was a moment, when the man says “Jump”, and your only answer is “How high?” … *that* has to be it!

Jason says:

on August 26, 2008 at 3:10 pm

Welcome home Joe. Look forward to the new book!

John Milleker says:

on August 26, 2008 at 3:20 pm

HSD is available on pre-order from though the cover looks like something just to introduce it. I’m sure the outside covering will be much more creative.

norm Cooper says:

on August 26, 2008 at 3:22 pm

AZ in August is a perfect time! Bring your cable release so that you can get time exposures of the lightning that pops during the monsoon thunderstorms. Fewer crowds and cheap golf rates (especially the noon tee-time), to boot!

Best of Luck!

Joshua Pearson says:

on August 26, 2008 at 3:39 pm

I have no doubt that Siberia in February is a brutal place, but let’s face it: Tucson in August is wonderful! There are a million things to make this the best place to be at this time of year.

The Summer Monsoon – Amazing weather with dramatic clouds and beautiful lightning. Cool weather as a result of the rains. Flash floods that prey upon people who don’t read the “Do Not Enter When Flooded” signs.

The Sky Islands – Our nearby Catalina mountains provide an escape from the desert floor. A 9000 foot vantage over the city is but a 45 minute drive. It’s been raining nearly daily in the mountains.

The University of Arizona – Classes just started yesterday and the students have returned. This brings the city back to life after our 3 month summer slumber. Somehow this city of nearly a million is still a college town at heart.

I hope you genuinely enjoy your time here in Tucson. I can’t wait to see the story in National Geographic when it comes out. What’s the angle that you’re after here in the Old Pueblo?


Ken says:

on August 26, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Welcome back, I’m looking forward to the new book. So what kind of deal do you have on the SB-800s? That’s a great shot.


Mark Newhouse says:

on August 26, 2008 at 4:10 pm

Hey Joe!

I’m in Tucson, too. Not for the Geographic – I’m here year round. :)

How long are you here for? If you have any free time I’d love to meet you.



Greg says:

on August 26, 2008 at 4:24 pm

Arizona has been quite nice this month. I’m waiting for it to be a bit cooler though.

Jan Winther says:

on August 26, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Oh yess… a new McNally book.

I see a Christmas gift for my self in the future, hehe.

Thanks man.

Frank Ramos Jr says:

on August 26, 2008 at 4:44 pm

Welcome to Tucson!

The weather is not too bad now. The storms brewing are blocking the sun…ok it sucks because the humidity is high. I rather have the dry heat.

I met you at DLWS in Cape Cod. I shot Laurie Excell’s portrait shot with the fisheye. How long are you here for? Is there any chance of meeting up… yeah I know its bold of me. As you say, being persistent helps in this business. Enjoy the time here in Tucson.


Andy M says:

on August 26, 2008 at 5:06 pm


Honestly I read and ogled over the pictures at least 5 times, can’t wait for the friggin book to come out, been enjoying (and learning a lot from) your kelby series videos so far, but a book is a book!
hilarious and educational post (The birth of speedlights had me in stitches).

JMN strikes again.

Mike says:

on August 26, 2008 at 6:17 pm

The man is back!! :) Can’t wait for the new book. I finally got my hands on an SB900 and can’t wait to see more stuff you do with it. (them…okay…lot’s of them.) Christmas listing has officially begun.

ryan says:

on August 26, 2008 at 6:32 pm

great news on new book, must be a real treat to work for nat.neo.! haha

Bob DeChiara says:

on August 26, 2008 at 7:21 pm

Hey Joe, looking foward to the new book. Just registered for your seminar in Waltham, MA on the 8th. Bring the SB-800’s with you and I will gladly take them off your hands.


Ken says:

on August 26, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Glad to see you back, in gear and ready to hot shot it

Kind regards
Ken in KY

Richard Cave says:

on August 26, 2008 at 8:29 pm

Hi Joe, stop reading these comments and finish the damn book!

I am looking forward to reading your book and I have emailed my local waterstones to order it for me.

look forward to more, I love film noir lighting

All the best


Mark K_NJ says:

on August 26, 2008 at 9:38 pm

He took another hit off of his Lucky and one last sip of his scotch.

‘That McNally’, he thought, ‘Always trying to throw some light on the subject…..’

Can’t wait to read the book! It was great fun helping you do these images…think the one above might be my favorite (though I always say that until I see the next one.) You know I dig the noir…and you took it a whole new level. Ironically, I happened to click onto your blog while watching possibly the best film noir ever, Orson Welles’ ,Touch of Evil. Appropo, no?

Charles Carstensen says:

on August 26, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Looking forward to the photos from jail. Is that anything like the photos from hell? Great blog. Thanks.

Jeff Lynch says:

on August 26, 2008 at 10:16 pm

Damn Joe. Do those guys at NG hate you or what?

PS: About the Jimmy Stewart / Rear Window bit. I’ll betcha five that none of these kids (pardon me youngsters) have ever seen the flick (Oh man, Grace Kelly) or even know who JS is! Your age is showing again Joe.


Alessandro Rosa says:

on August 27, 2008 at 1:56 am

@ Jeff, It was a Wonderful Life when Mr. Smith goes to Washington, and I ain’t 40 yet….

Hey Joe,

I was really looking forward to the Hot Shoe Diaries, even pre-ordered it over a month ago, but you sure are talking a lot of Nikon talk. Now I know that you are a Nikon Guy, but are little old Canon shooters like me welcome to the HSD party? Knowing you it is going to be great anyway, but it would be nice if one of you guys did something with Canon as well…. :’-(

me! says:

on August 27, 2008 at 5:50 am

God bless Irish heart & Love laughing spirit!

: )

Fer making your righting maximally effective…

3 top tips:

1. “Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies”
( Sol Stein )
or ( I don’t know which will work )

2. Scrivener ( a program that lets one write one’s book on “corkboard & index-cards”, infinite-paper, and many other means of structuring one’s meanings & words – makes *arranging ideas* easy, so the wordsflow follows )

3. Alcohol undoes the /edge/ from one’s consciousness…
I hope you’re preferring lighter drugs like music, nowadays
( because I don’t want us to lose your quick sharpness, to liquid obliteration! )


Rob Brown says:

on August 27, 2008 at 9:56 am

Hey Joe, great post! I too will see you soon in Waltham, I cant wait. Take it easy and keep up the good work.

Charles says:

on August 27, 2008 at 9:59 am

Hey Joe I love your blog! Any chance of showing the set up for the K-Man shot up top? Or will it be covered in the new book? My best guess is this:
2 gelled red strobes camera right just off frame to paint the body and the fence.
1 strobe shot through a pallet or something to paint the lines on K-Man’s suit, and the fence.
Another strobe snooted tight for K-Man’s face and hand.
It also looks like maybe you gelled the headlights on the car far back? One red, one blue?

shell lanes says:

on August 27, 2008 at 10:32 am

i love the sb900 flash on you jacket and i have the clamps the same 1 u used wow lot of sb900 nice pic of you

Barbara Bruckman says:

on August 27, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Joe, Glad you are back! I missed your funny and inspiring stories. Can’t wait for the book.


Michael S. says:

on August 28, 2008 at 12:37 am

Hey Joe,

The wait for your blog was well worth it. Always a great one. The Russian story sounds riveting!

Glad your back :)

mervyn says:

on August 28, 2008 at 1:48 am

Oh, I get it now.

You’re a “flasher” 😉

Jason Bell says:

on August 28, 2008 at 10:53 am


You should have been wearing a kilt instead of the shorts. You could have made a light tent :)

Looking forward to the next book.


carlos says:

on August 28, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Welcome to AZ in August. It’s a dry heat…….. except during monsoons, but even then it beats the southeastern US because the humidity never gets up near the triple digit mark…… unless you submerse yourself in one of the lakes. Yeah, we got a few….

I knew you had a bag full o’ 800s, but I had no idea you had that many stofens! The shot does let us know that you’re a guy with real fashion sense though. Keep the posts (and books) coming as time permits. We’ll patiently wait and then gobble them up like little pigs…… But it’s OK. It’s a “light” meal….. (groans supplied for free).

Robert Von Mayr says:

on August 29, 2008 at 11:06 am

How’d you like that Thunderstorm here in Tucson last night, Joe? Some terrific lightning.

Murray DeJager says:

on August 29, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Hi Joe,

OK, this is a little bit off topic but I just came across a web site that I’d never been to before called I immediately looked you up, because you seem to have become my favorite photographer in the world wide world! Now don’t let this get you down. It’s not because I like your photographs, which are great, but rather it’ because I like your personality. Smart, witty, fun to be around. In fact, you kind of remind me of… well me! Well, me but with all the fame and fortune.

Anyhow, I was surprised… no, actually stunned to find that you are not represented on this site at all! It seems that you have never uttered even a word that could be deemed inspirational!

And yet the pages are filled with quotes from people who weren’t or aren’t even photographers. There’s even quotes by models… what’s that about.

So how about it Joe. Could you say something… anything… that might cause people to stop and say, now and forever, “Wow, that’s deep!”


Billy Mitchell says:

on August 29, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Joe, You have a book out???????

Michael George says:

on August 31, 2008 at 12:02 am

The “birth” photo made me lol.

I enjoyed this post. The last 3 shots seem particularly different from what you normally shoot. I think they’re beautiful. Is the last with film???

Alan Young says:

on September 3, 2008 at 1:46 am

Hi Joe,

I am looking forward to the new book! Love the SB800 for sale pix.

Michael Ignatov says:

on September 4, 2008 at 1:09 am

I didn’t realize you were here in balmy Tucson. Next time you’re in town and need a voice-op light-stand, let me know. Or stop by the Daily Wildcat and lay some inspiration on aspiring PJs . :)

Cody Hanson says:

on September 26, 2008 at 5:08 pm

AHhh! I didnt know you were in Tucson either! damn we missed out.

Its really not that bad in august, you should move here yes? haha.
Im sure its lovely here compared to Siberia in February.

I hope I catch that edition of the magazine! Cant wait to see what you shot here in this here boring land.

-Cody Hanson

Mark Howells-Mead says:

on April 21, 2009 at 4:54 pm

So, I was in bed with Joe McNally last Sunday, when suddenly….


Blacksun says:

on September 27, 2009 at 8:03 am

Howdy Joe,

I am just reading your amazing book and winder if you simply delete some flashes or equipment from your photos during post-prcessing.

Just to avoid bugs like the one on the page 283 (Plane, but not simple): under the mechanic’s cart there are still visible feets of a tripod.

Why not to let all the tripods appear on the photo? 😉

Uwe Noelke says:

on October 11, 2009 at 6:43 am

Today I have read about another 30 pages. Thanks for all this very helpfull hints. It’s an ammazing book.

Frank Wollinger Fotograf aus Osnabrück says:

on December 15, 2009 at 4:13 pm

I love the SBs!

Sören says:

on February 9, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Today your book arvived.
I’m very intersting 😉

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Christian Siebold Photography | Fotograf says:

on October 22, 2011 at 9:12 am

Thanks for showing the technical versatility and creattive possibilities of the “hot shoe flashes”

Marcus Thelen says:

on February 27, 2014 at 5:54 am

Very nice pictures. I particularly like “The Birth of Speedlights” :-)

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