Get the Missing Manual for Light

Get the Missing Manual for Light

 With autumn upon us, daylight hours are fewer and further between. I don’t stop shooting (later sunrises mean I can actually drag myself out of bed at a better hour), but I do take more time to catch up on my reading. Accordingly, I spend some time to put together a list of the best photography books that I want to go through each year and will bring you reviews of the ones I liked the most.

My (virtual) bookshelf is full of titles I’ve read or plan to read for reviewing or for personal edification. Some, like Brian Smith’s book on portraiture, which I reviewed earlier this week, are for personal edification and review. Some, like Light, Science, and Magic, are on there because the subject matter is of interest. And some are on there because I’ll read even an obituary by one of these authors.

Authors like Joe McNally, for example, whose books like Sketching Light and The Moment it Clicks make for fantastic and entertaining reading. Others write books so chock full of information that they become indispensable reference material that I find myself going to pretty often. My friend Syl Arena is an author and teacher who falls into the latter category, and his latest book, Lighting for Digital Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots is something that I think should be more appropriately titled “Light: The Missing Manual”.

This is Syl’s second book; the first, The Speedliter’s Handbook, is now considered to be a sort of bible for Canon Speedlites. It is easily THE definitive book on Canon’s small flashes, and Syl has carved out a comfortable niche in this area. So it would be easy for him to fall into the trap of just mining that field more to get the most out of it.

Instead, he takes a step back in Lighting for Digital Photography and throws a net over a much wider subject. It’s not just small flash anymore – though he does cover how to use small flash in specific situations. Rather, Syl takes a much more holistic approach to photographic lighting, covering everything from direct sunlight to studio strobes and how to use them for things like macro, tabletop, and portrait photography.

Syl shows the Westcott Scrim Jim in action

Syl shows the Westcott Scrim Jim in action

When he first told me about his upcoming book, I just looked at Syl and asked, “You’re going to vanish for a few months again, aren’t you?” The reason for that question was that if his first book was any indication, I knew that Syl would more or less throw himself with abandon into this project. At the end of it, he’d come up with about as detailed a volume as was possible given the constraints of the format, the publishing business, and his deadlines. And that, folks, is precisely what he has done.

The detail that Syl manages to deliver in this book is nothing short of astonishing. From diagrams showing camera positions and their relation to your subject, to sidebars containing explanations of the lingo we lighting geeks use, to detailed charts explaining the relationship between f-stop values, this is the kind of book that is exactly as exhaustive as it needs to be. Without descending in the trap of being technically verbose, or not including enough data, Syl has managed to create a volume that delivers information that should work brilliantly for you whether you’re a visual learner or someone who doesn’t mind poring over reams of text, charts and graphs.

Simple, excellent diagrams help cover a lot of material in the book.

Simple, excellent diagrams help cover a lot of material in the book.

The seven chapters (and one Appendix) in this book are broken down in a very logical progression. Syl starts with discussing the characteristics of light, then moves on to a discussion about what you will use to actually capture that light. I thought he’d talk about lighting gear first, but when I read the introduction to chapter 2, it made perfect sense.

Many photographers incorrectly think that “lighting” is a process separated from the operation of their cameras. They see lighting only in terms of using gear such as hotshoe flash and reflectors. Yet, your camera settings are equally valuable tools for lighting and should be considered first before you grab traditional lighting gear.

That makes perfect sense. So he goes into basic camera options and provides what I think is one of the best “Camera 101-style” literature out there. One thing I love about Syl is that he draws analogies and comes up with mnemonic devices to help ease the transition for newbies considerably. One of his mnemonic devices, “SAAF” (pronounced “Safe”) is something I still use. It stands for “Shutter:Ambient, Aperture:Flash”, and explains which function in your camera controls light input from which source.

He does a fair amount of this in Lighting for Digital Photography, and his swimming pool analogy on page 39 is one of the best explanations of the relationship between aperture and depth of field I have ever seen, period. Syl also gives you tips and tricks and names names when talking about the tools that he uses regularly, like the iOS apps he likes to use, for example.

It’s worth mentioning that though Syl has a reputation for being “the Canon flash guy”, in this book, he spends a fair amount of time on just about every possible conceivable source of light, from Industrial Vapor lamps, to LED bulbs, to CFL and tungsten lamps. His attention to detail here is sometimes flummoxing – few authors I can think of will mention things like “Given that spent CFLs need to be treated as hazardous waste (due to mercury vapor in the tube), the U.S. Department of Energy is focusing on LEDs and other forms of solid state lighting as the future of lighting.”

Little touches of detail like that make you go, “Huh. I did not know that. Cool!”

Continuous lighting is also covered in this book.

Continuous lighting is also covered in this book.

The bottom line here is that if you’re just starting out with your photography, or if you’re moving from using just natural light to strobes, or are a strobist geek looking to incorporate continuous light or natural light into your images, then this is the book for you. I consider myself an advanced photographer, but even I learned a few things from this tome, which, at just under 300 pages, isn’t an unmanageable volume.

Syl is one of the best teachers I’ve had the pleasure of learning from, and I hope he keeps on creating these amazing resources. You simply can’t go wrong with this book, in my opinion, and I was happy to shell out the $10.99 that it’s now selling on Amazon for (Kindle edition).

Lighting for Digital Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots is available now on in print and Kindle editions, and the iBooks Store. Go and get it now!

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter or find him at

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  1. Awesome

  2. Has great reviews on Amazon, just bought the paperback and digital version…yea I couldnt wait so had to get the digital too!


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