Joe McNally: The Language of Light

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: June 2, 2011

Category: General | Review | Videos

Ok so here’s a question for you…

If you could spend 3 hours in the company of Joe McNally shooting both in the studio and on location, with one light, multiple lights, and a variety of modifiers to overcome all manner of lighting situations you’d jump at the chance right?

Reality is that for the majority this just isn’t going to happen, but without question Joe’s new DVD “The Language of Light” is the very best next thing.

But with so many instructional DVD’s out there in the market place you may at first find yourself wondering what could possibly be so different about this one, so allow me to explain…

From the Cover:
For the past 3 decades, photographer Joe McNally has been documenting our times on assignment for publications like LIFE, Time, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and many others. Highly regarded as a Master of Light, both natural and artificial, Joe continues to create stunning imagery all over the world. Much sought after as a photographer, lecturer and teacher, Joe educates and inspires shooters of all types – pros, hobbyists and beginners with The Language of Light.

In this DVD set, Joe shares almost 30 years worth of field knowledge, instruction and philosophy about using light as a powerful tool of visual communication. He fully explores and explains different lighting techniques and goes well beyond the “how” and all the way through the “why”, of using light. Small flash, hard light, soft light, light with colour, light in the studio and on location are all dissected and explained. You see and hear all about the F Stops, shutter speeds, lenses and light shaping tools, and you are taken further into the reasons why one lighting approach is better than another for certain scenes, faces or groups. All along the way, Joe offers tips, tricks and solutions than can only be gained from 30 years with a camera to your eye. Sit back, relax and enjoy as this legendary shooter takes you on a fast paced, humorous, and always informative journey about how to speak with light.

This 2 DVD set is packed, and I mean packed full of shoots & techniques but here’s where it’s different:

First off Joe’s instructional style is totally engaging; every single thing is explained..the how, the why, the why not’s…all of it is there leaving you in no doubt about what is being done.

It actually feels as though you’re there on set with Joe as he takes you through the concept of the shoot and sets up everything and explains why he’s doing something every single step of the way.

DVD 1:
The first DVD sets the tone for what’s to come as Joe explains in simple terms how to get beautiful light from just one light source and then moves on to using several lights…all of which throughout the DVD are regular hotshoe flashes but be prepared to see what those things are capable of as Joe turns small flashes into real big light sources…quickly and easily.

Taken from the official Language of Light Website [Link] here’s what DVD has in store:

  • Turning one small flash into one big light – The name of the game with small flash is to make it look like big flash. Lots of strategies explained here, but if you’ve only got one speed light and a white wall, you’re in business!
  • Controlling harsh natural light – One of the most important things to know as a shooter is how to use bad light well. Taking hard, nasty daylight and turning it into beautiful light is actually pretty easy. Anybody got a bed sheet and a piece of white cardboard?
  • Dramatic one light portraiture – One light can be soft and beautiful, but It can also create drama through the magic and mystery of shadows. The play of light and dark on the human face is essential to explore if you want to shoot good portraits.

Now I’ll just say this…I would have brought this DVD set for this section alone!
When Joe shows how to dramatically improve your portraits by moving the light in a certain way by just 6” you’ll see exactly what I mean…Genius!

  • Tour of small flash light shapers – There’s lots of stuff our there you can hang on your small flash to shape, bend, soften and tweak it. We’ll show you some terrific ones that are simple and wont break the bank.
  • Light placement – Where you put the light is almost as important as where you put your camera in relation to your subject. We’ll show you how distance and direction can dramatically affect the quality of your light.

DVD 2:
This DVD picks up the pace with more studio time and more shooting out ‘on location’. What’s great here is that you get to see more of how Joe works his way through a shoot, working in a number of locations and dealing with a host of lighting challenges. The magic though is that there are always solutions and Joe shows how those solutions are really quite simple when you understand the 3 principles of  light…Colour, Quantity and Direction.


  • High speed sync – High speed flash! These (often overlooked) techniques help to tame the sun, and limit depth of field for effective portraiture. Just because the sun is out in full force, doesn’t mean you can’t use flash effectively.
  • Mixing color temperatures – The “big three” of flash lighting – quality, direction, and color. Throughout the DVD, we talk about the color of light and how we mix flash with ambient and existing artificial light.
  • Flash and blur – Flash moves fast! We’ll explore how to show motion in a “still” photograph.

  • Athletic portraiture – Strategies for lighting the athletic human body. Drama, intensity, and excitement are key components of the world of sports, and your flash technique has to meet that challenge. We’ll show how to make the athletic body come alive.
  • Lighting in a tight spot – Small spaces present big challenges. The locations photographers encounter are rarely ideal. We’ll tackle different tactics for lighting dramatically in a small space to get maximum effect.
  • Group portraits – Our favorite thing! Groups! Tips and tricks for lighting the masses, large and small.
  • Engaging Your Subject – Before you can photograph someone effectively, you need to establish a relationship. Get to know them, make them feel relaxed, and help them encounter the camera with confidence. All throughout both discs, we show the importance of human relations, and how to make someone feel and look good in front of the lens.

Folks I could go on and on about how good this DVD set is; seriously I would have paid alot more than the $159 (£97) price tag. Sure I’m a photographer, I do portraits, I use flash in studio and on location but there’s one thing I don’t do and that’s ‘stop learning’ and when it comes to learning I want to learn from the best.

I’ve watched both DVD’s a number of times already and each time I do I pick up more tips and techniques. But understand this…it’s not just the technical know how you’re learning here…it’s how someone regarded as being one of the best in the world assesses locations, works through lighting challenges and maybe most importantly interacts with the subjects he’s shooting.

Where to Purchase:
The DVD set is only available through Adorama [Link] and costs $159 (£97) and what’s more there’s even FREE International Shipping.

Quite simply…One of the best investments I’ve made to date! Highly Recommended!

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  1. Jonathan Thompson

    Hi Glyn, thanks for this post. As soon as I saw this dvd was available I’ve been biding my time until we get moved this month, then I’ll be ordering it. I learn so much from so many, Joe has a teaching style that seems to work for me, the fact that i look up to him in awe and for inspiration helps. It doesn’t matter what gear you use, his techniques work, that’s it.. I’ve watched all his Kelby Training videos, you see him get intense, excited, frustrated, so it’s ok if we feel like that, after all he’s been at it for 30+ years. I think anyone who loves photography should buy this, you never know where it will take you. I’ve half a mind to ask to borrow your copy until mine arrives 😉

    Thanks again for the post and a big thanks to Joe for sharing such incredible knowledge.

    Cheers, Jonathan

  2. Paul Dakeyne

    Glyn, thanks so much for this additional insight into what, for me anyway, was probably gonna be an inevitable purchase (being a fan of Joe’s books for a few years now). Anyway, the inevitable comes sooner… ordered from the States and awaiting the postman 🙂
    Cheers again Glyn and keep up ‘your’ great work too man

    • Glyn

      @Paul…Nice one mate; you’ll love it. Trouble is though it’s going to feel like forever waiting for it to arrive…lol 🙂

  3. DaveT

    Hi Glyn,

    I have Joe’s book ‘The Hot Shoe Diaries’ and was able to translate the information for Canon use, would you say that this is just as easy in this case?

    • Glyn

      @DaveT…Absolutely it is mate. Sure Joe’s a Nikon shooter but this DVD set doesn’t really play any service to that at all i.e it’s for any shooter using any brand. This is all about the light and how to see it, manipulate, work with it and so on…seriously good mate…seriously good!

  4. Ziggy


    Love the review of this DVD. Is it ‘region free’, or do/can you order it for Region 2? Or is it DVD Rom? Must be going blind in my old age………



    • Glyn

      @Ziggy…It’s a DVD and regards the Region, it looks like it’s Region Free which is a bonus 🙂

  5. Tony Sale

    This looks like a great dvd doesn’t seem to be available in the UK yet though.

    • Glyn

      Tony, if you go to Adorama’s site they ship internationally and were doing free delivery.




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