A Way With People

David Stoecklein has a knack for putting people at ease and posing them naturally. When he walks onto a ranch or some other Western setting, he knows exactly what he has to do first. He doesn’t start, as you might expect, by searching for the best available light—that comes second. First, he builds a rapport with the subject of the shoot. Whether it’s an anonymous cowboy on the range or a Hollywood movie star, his key to composing a great environmental portrait begins with establishing a connection to the subject.

An environmental portrait really is just like any other photograph. The first thing is, it has to convey an emotion and tell a story.

Environmental portraiture differs from traditional portraiture in that the photographs are of people in surroundings that relate to who they are or what they do. Think of a race-car driver sitting behind the wheel, an artist standing in front of her work at the studio or a chef in the kitchen of his restaurant surrounded by culinary delights. The focus is more about the person’s work, interests and habitat as part of a larger narrative about him or her. These often are the kinds of pictures used in newspapers and magazines.

Using his incredible sense of composition, attention to detail and masterful lighting skills, Stoecklein has become known for his portraits of the American West. He compares the job of a photographer to that of an entertainer whose success hinges on keeping the audience captive. Likewise, in photography, successful portraiture depends on keeping the subject in the mood the photographer wants for the pictures, he says.

“If I’m doing a ranch, I have to quickly find out the personality of the ranch or ranch owner because I’m trying to portray that in the story,” he explains. “Every picture is supposed to tell a story. Whether a portrait or picture of a landscape, it’s all supposed to communicate. That’s the essence of good photography—to tell a story or convey an emotion.”

So before he starts shooting, Stoecklein spends time just absorbing the environment. He gets to know the people he’s photographing by finding out about their personal background, likes and dislikes, or interests that they have in common. He uses whatever it takes to build up a level of trust and respect because that, in turn, creates a sense of ease and comfort when it’s time to start shooting. Much of the challenge of portrait photography simply is getting the personalities of those behind and in front of the camera to mesh and then figuring out how to maneuver for the best possible photograph.

Stoecklein is all about creating pictures that don’t look posed, so he tries not to give too much instruction on how to act in front of the camera. He wants everything about the images to look and feel natural. For him, this kind of photography is more about capturing a moment than composing a portrait.

This philosophy extends to lighting, which is Stoecklein’s next challenge after he has bonded with his subject. He doesn’t show up to an assignment with a bunch of strobes because he rarely uses anything but natural lighting. In fact, he doesn’t show up with a lot of anything, including equipment or assistants. And that, he says, only better serves his purpose when trying to create a relaxed atmosphere.

Generally, he works alone unless it’s a big assignment requiring hair and makeup people, along with assistants to help set up. While it’s certainly easier to have a staff that can lighten his load, Stoecklein has found that using fewer people equals a better shooting experience (though he acknowledges some of his best photographs have come from suggestions made by longtime assistants).

“I’m trying to get to know who I’m shooting, and if others are there, they naturally want to do that, too. But any time that gets taken away from me takes away from the time I have to be intimate with my subject,” he explains. “So it’s just easier to go in with my bag of gear, without assistants, and be alone with the subject.”

Stoecklein has photographed such famous faces as Lyle Lovett, Robert Redford and George Strait. Although it makes sense that a celebrity would have an easier time in front of the camera than someone who doesn’t live in the limelight, that isn’t always the case.

“Some people who you may think would be comfortable being photographed, aren’t. They may even be more uncomfortable because they have higher expectations,” he explains. “People are just sensitive, especially famous people. My deal is to try to find that sensitivity and get them comfortable, especially if they don’t know me or my reputation.”

Stoecklein, who is a Canon Explorer of Light, shoots digital, and the LCD provides him with a great tool for loosening up people who have difficulty relaxing in front of the camera. In a particularly tough shoot with actor Michael Keaton, after taking a series of shots, Stoecklein would show him the images on the camera’s LCD, and Keaton would tell him what he liked or disliked. He used the same approach when he photographed country music singer George Strait, who also wasn’t so fond of having his picture taken.

“[Keaton’s and Strait’s] agents told me that I’d spent more time with them than any other photographer ever had. I got all of these great candid shots,” he says. “Because I could show them the pictures, it created a different rapport. That’s where digital is really nice, mainly because they can see what’s going on.”

Stoecklein began his career as a professional photographer taking lifestyle shots of skiing, fishing, hiking and biking. He landed assignments for companies like Coca-Cola, SKI Magazine, L.L. Bean, Reebok, Timberland and Scientific Anglers. It wasn’t long before he turned his lens on his neighbors living on the great ranches out West. His fascination with the ranching heritage of the American West led him to become friends with, and later photograph, the men and women still living the cowboy lifestyle.

While documenting the contemporary West is Stoecklein’s personal mission, it’s this work that led him to more assignments for companies like Jeep®, Chevrolet, Marlboro, Ford, Remington, Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Wrangler, among others.

He uses long lenses for most of his work, mainly a 70-200mm and 400mm. He does some wide-angle portraiture, but generally uses telephoto focal lengths to allow a little breathing room between himself and his subject, and keep the atmosphere relaxed. He’s known for his ability to harness light during those brief magical hours immediately after sunrise and before sunset when the sky is filled w
ith ambient light that delivers breathtakingly beautiful colors and hues. Strong use of light and a keen understanding of the impact of color temperature add a sense of drama to Stoecklein’s portraits, which often look like they were taken straight out of the Old West.

Lighting and story are the key elements of any great photograph.

“Lighting and story are the key elements of any great photograph,” he says. “An environmental portrait really is just like any other photograph. The first thing is, it has to convey an emotion and tell a story.”

To see more of David Stoecklein’s work, visit www.stoeckleinphotography.com.


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