BOOK REVIEW: The Moment It Clicks Is A Book That Clicks

The Moment It Clicks (large)

The Moment It Clicks is one of the most highly anticipated books to come on the digital photography market: Scott Kelby couldn’t promote it enough on his blog, so much so that he announced “The Best Photography Book of the Year is Almost Here” before it was even on the press. The coverage is still going on even months after publication, and Peachpit is feeding the fire with its “Moment It Clicks” contest and video podcast series. The contest isn’t over until the end of September so this mania will be going on for some time.

Of course, you can’t get this enthusiasm with just any author—you need a “legendary magazine photographer,” such as Joe McNally who wrote this book. Joe has had a long career and shot for many important magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic, and was Life’s staff photographer—its first in over 20 years. Joe’s pedigree is definitely elite but I am always wary when someone is introduced as “legendary” on the cover of their own book. I just checked my copy of Ansel Adams’ The Negative and I didn’t see that author introduced in such terms (the back cover biography is another story, of course). But I’ve had the good fortune to hear Joe speak at Photoshop World and he seems down to earth and willing to share his knowledge so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Anyone who cites The Uncanny X-Men as a creative influence is a friend of mine!

McNally’s voice is unique because it’s personal

Joe McNally

Joe McNally.

Though his photography has been published in many magazines and one book (Faces of Ground Zero), Joe has not written a book before so I was interested in seeing what his writing style would be like. It seems the digital photography book industry has a lot of creative voices so I wondered if Joe would try to stand out with devices like corny jokes (Scott Kelby) or witty, cerebral asides (Dan Margulis). It turned out that Joe McNally doesn’t write so much as he tells stories, and that makes for some of the best writers in any genre. He tells stories with real color and character: he can describe little actions that show insight into such people as Donald Trump, James Brown and Tracy McGrady, who seems like a real jerk (the basketball player lied to a picture editor and ducked out of a photo shoot). Joe wrote this about the incident:

Young athletes. Stick with ‘em. Always remember they’d rather be playing Halo.

They teach you in writing school to “show, don’t tell,” and that’s what Joe is doing here. He could write a book on how to write digital photography books.

Another aspect of Joe’s style is his willingness to share glimpses into his personal life as a photographer and a father. He makes it clear that his career both enriched and weakened his family life, and he describes this in ways both humorous and poignant. This is the first time I’ve encountered a voice in our industry who writes in this way. To be fair, Joe can write so personally in this book partly because the book is as much about him and his stories as it is about digital photography. Still, there are similar books out in the field (George Barr’s Take Your Photography To The Next Level comes to mind) and they don’t have such a personal tone. I appreciate it very much and will be in line to buy Joe’s next book when it comes out. In the meantime I’ll be reading his blog.

The quality of the secrets

The Moment It Clicks delivers the kind of photography insights that spur many budding photographers to go to seminars and courses only to come out confused and feeling a little duped. There’s a difference between knowing the technical trinity of aperture, film speed and shutter speed—and knowing when to follow the rules and when to break them (and how to break them). This type of knowledge is much harder to quantify. How do you shoot babies? What kind of light setup should you use when there’s no space to set up a light? Can a bed sheet really turn a window into a pro-caliber light source? How do you shoot more interesting photographs? These are all very slippery questions, but every one of them has a satisfying answer in The Moment It Clicks.

Don’t think that this book is only about vague answers to vague questions: it’s also backed up by strong technical expertise. The basic structure of the book is based on spreads, each one with a picture, some storytelling and a “How to Get This Type of Shot” section that details the light, exposure, lenses and other technical specs for the photo and others like it. Despite my appreciation for Joe’s stories, I think I appreciated the technical sections the most. To put in perspective, I recently attended Dan Margulis’ Applied Color Theory course in San Diego and left there with a new way of thinking about color correction and “channel building,” as I like to call it. Well, after reading The Moment It Clicks I thought of photography in a different way as well—I haven’t quantified my thoughts in words yet, but “posing with light” would be a good start.

One ding

With such high praise and exuberant comments from me and everyone else out there, this book has to be a perfect ten—right? It’s very close but there’s one thing that was a very minor annoyance, but kept happening and happening to the point where it was more annoying. Joe sometimes uses terms that readers may not know, so footnotes are supplied to help explain things like Lastolite panels, snoots, honeycomb spot grids and the double truck (which is actually a newspaper and magazine term). The footnotes are well-written and explain the items well. What bothers me is that it seems the same items were noted over and over again on the various spreads. Every time “double truck” was on a page, it was noted—and with the same footnote as before. “Elinchrom Octabank,” “snoot” and “honeycomb spot grid” are all repeat offenders as well. On the other hand, every now and then a term was thrown out without a note at all.

The good news is that there’s a nice glossary in the back of the book (not to mention an index), which fill in the gaps to some extent and offer some terms that didn’t show up in the book. Joe reserves some of his funniest writing for the glossary. But in the next printing if the footnotes could be weeded of redundancies The Moment It Clicks could be even better.


The hype surrounding this book is real: The Moment It Clicks is simply excellent. The best things about it are probably the stories behind each photograph and the details surrounding both the subjects and Joe McNally himself. I’d even recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about celebrities and good characters in general. From a technical standpoint it’s also a very strong book but the glitch with the footnotes can sometimes make it inaccessible for beginner photographers. But it’s still a wonderful book with a lot to offer any photographer.

The Moment It Clicks
Joe McNally
Rating: 9/10

US $54.99
Published by New Riders