Monday, March 31, 2008
Available Light Portraits
Learn to make maximum use of natural light to create exciting outdoor portraits
"I'm really a director of photography," says Stoecklein, "so when you direct the people, you can't be embarrassed or afraid or shy about asking your subject to move a little bit, even if they're working. Even cowboys—you may want to gently ask them, 'Hey, would you mind moving a little this way? It will really help my picture.' Most people will say, 'Yeah, no problem.' So I do move my subjects around to get better light. Asking people to move around, or moving your subject, whether it's a horse or a person, into the proper light with the proper background is very important, and you shouldn't be shy about doing it."
Backgrounds can contribute to the character of the subjects as much as the subjects themselves. If there's an available background that acts like a set or tells something about your subject that his or her face won't be able to communicate, use it for everything it's worth. Stoecklein, who generally shoots with a 400mm ƒ/2.8 lens, keeps his backgrounds simple to avoid detracting attention from the person he's photographing.
"The background is almost as important as the foreground," he says. "I use it as a color palette. I look for hot light, or yellow light, or red light, even green grass that I shoot out of focus, or a tree out of focus, or a horse trailer—anything that's out of focus that will be my background. I'll move my subject so that the background, the focus on the background, becomes like the backdrop of a studio."
While Stoecklein doesn't use much equipment besides his cameras, little things can help to subtly alter an image. An off-camera flash, for instance, can provide good fill for reducing shadows in high-contrast scenes or removing the shade from obstacles like hat brims. They also can be used to add a catchlight, the highly sought-after reflection of a light source in a subject's eye. Catchlights bring depth, dimension and sparkle to the eyes and can give a portrait life.
Reflectors, Stoecklein's minimalist accessories of choice, are easily portable and indispensable tools for bouncing or diffusing available light. Basic models are available in gold, silver and white for warming, highlighting and reflecting light into localized areas of an image, especially useful for bringing extra attention to a subject's face. White reflectors often are porous and also can function as a diffuser for adding shadow over the subject when the sun is too strong.
Stoecklein chooses to rely on the automatic functions of his camera, a Canon EOS-1D Mark III, for white balance. White balance in cameras is calibrated in most cases for skin tone, so it's usually a good reading, but scenes can always be misinterpreted. Consistent attention should be paid to white balance because white balance gradually shifts while the light changes, and different areas can have a different color temperature altogether.
Extreme differences in dynamic range also can play havoc with a camera's automatic exposure readings, so handheld spot meters are another great solution for determining exact exposures. Models like the Sekonic L-558R DualMaster and Adorama Ambient 1º Digital Spot Meter provide a one-degree angle of view for localized and exact metering.
"My whole moment of satisfaction and excitement is the moment I press the button and I see that great picture right in front of me," concludes Stoecklein. "It's always so wonderful, and I really like working outside, where I am right now-in this beautiful countryside, with windswept snow and amazing mountains, and above it all, the clouds that are moving past—and, of course, the people. It really makes your day wonderful when you have really great people who you're working with, especially in the great environment of the American West. That's what really turns me on. It's constantly thrilling for me, and that's why I like to work so much with natural light."
To see more of David Stoecklein's photography, visit www.drsphoto.net.
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