Available Light Portraits
Learn to make maximum use of natural light to create exciting outdoor portraits
I just love natural light," remarks photographer David Stoecklein, whose modern yet timeless portfolio of the American West is proof he knows how to wrangle available light. Stoecklein is constantly on shoots in areas that don't always have running electricity. No power usually means no studio lighting—but it isn't only for practical reasons that Stoecklein has become a master at using available light to create stunning portraits.
"My type of photography is called run-and-gun," explains Stoecklein. "I might go on a giant assignment for a big company and only take two bags of cameras. Most of the time, I only bring one or two little reflectors in case I need to use them. So after all these years of doing this, my eye and my brain are just kind of trained to look for unique light or unique lighting situations, and if I don't have them, I have to be able to search them out, so that I can get the background the way I want it—or use backlighting or sidelighting or whatever I can find to use to make everything seem as natural as I can. And in a portrait, you want to be able to make the face come out and to have the character of the person come through. You do that by using the light."
Throughout the day, as the sun moves from east to west, natural light subtly shifts in intensity and in color temperature. Morning light is often bluer, for example, and aesthetically feels colder and moodier. The warm light of the setting sun, on the other hand, is more yellow, and saturates reds and oranges. A firm understanding of the different moods that color temperatures produce is an incredible advantage, especially for natural-light portraiture.
"With anything you do, you want to have that good light," says Stoecklein, "and warm evening light has that warm kind of glow and feeling, which is really nice. It's one of the lights that look the best. My only problem with warm light is that it gets too warm, and everything gets really gold and orange. It's kind of tough—everybody wants to shoot that last piece of light, and it can be really good, but it can also be bad.
"On the other hand, another thing you have to remember," continues Stoecklein, "is that with morning light, the good light runs away from you. You get up, and everyone is tired, and the light is just running away as fast as it can. And then in the evening, the light is coming to you and building to a climax. In the morning, the climax happens so fast, and then it quickly fades away, but in the evening, it's only getting better and better and better. So the evening light has always been the best for me."
The "magic hour"—the hour just after sunrise or just before sunset—is named so because of the amazing quality of the light during that time. Rays from the sun travel farther through the atmosphere, and the light is less harsh, so colors are more pronounced, shadows are softer, and highlights are less likely to be blown out. To capture these magical times, Stoecklein often finds himself living the life of his favorite subject, the cowboy-up before dawn and working through the last light of the evening.