Thursday, June 7, 2012

Natural-Light Portraits

The majority of David Stoecklein's images are captured with raw natural light, which instills his photography with a cinematic look and a timeless feel, despite being captured with a modern digital camera.
By David Willis, Photography By David Stoecklein Published in Shooting
Natural-Light Portraits


When working with natural light, the sun may not be adjustable, but your subjects certainly are. Even though Stoecklein is usually working with tough, grizzled cowboys, he has no problem asking them to move as needed. This can mean simply repositioning the subject to best capture the natural light or it can mean completely reworking an entire cattle drive to best make use of existing conditions. "You need to be able to ask people to do things in such a way that you don't offend them, but that they know you're trying to achieve a great picture," he explains, adding that most people will be cooperative.


Stoecklein uses Adobe Lightroom to browse his images while making corrections and adding digital filters to change the look. He compares it to the film days, where you had an idea of what the final image would look like based solely on the film stock and exposure. He says you should have a basic idea of the image that you're looking for beforehand so you can capture the best possible exposure and then quickly make changes using software without getting too heavy-handed in the post.

"Today, you have to think about what you're going to make the picture look like," he says. "I process everything in Lightroom. There are so many ways to use that—to darken the clouds, or add more contrast, or brighten the face up, or whatever you need to do. I already know what it's going to look like when I finish with it. And that's just like the old days of processing in your darkroom."


One of the reasons why Stoecklein prefers to work so minimally when it comes to lighting is that he considers a personal connection to be one of the key elements of his brand of portraiture. By working with minimal distractions, a tight crew and a limited amount of tools, he can keep his focus on the subject who in turn keeps his or her focus on Stoecklein and the job at hand. His "go-to" lens is a telephoto 400mm ƒ/2.8, for example, which he says he uses a lot because his distant subjects are often caught unaware. "I get a lot of portraits and beautiful stuff just because people don't even know that I'm taking them," he laughs.


It takes a lot of experience before you can rely on your gut, but with nearly four decades of shooting under his belt, Stoecklein has a good sense of what he's looking for. "I'm pretty lucky because I don't rely on a meter," he says. "So I'm not running all around trying to figure out what the light is. I'm very aware of my photography; I do it all of the time and I'm always in training. I see situations where I know the light is going to be good and I see situations where I know the light is going to be bad. I know that because I think about it consciously when I see my pictures."


Mother Nature is unpredictable, and natural light and conditions often can change quickly. Sometimes they don't, and you'll have a situation where the natural light is flat and the skies are uninteresting. It's important to know the relative lighting conditions beforehand, so check expected weather conditions and more specific information that can help you prepare for the light, like the direction and times that the sun will rise and set, which will help you nail down both "magic hours" of the day, Stoecklein's very favorite time to shoot. "Almost every sunrise is 1?500 at ƒ/5.6," he says about his preparations for the following morning, "and sometimes it's 1?500 and ƒ/4.0 or maybe down to ƒ/2.8, depending on what I'm shooting, but that's my starting point every day. I leave it mostly on daylight setting, and then for Picture Style, I set it on neutral. My ISO is always at 100. Sometimes, depending on the clouds or whatever, it won't change until sunset."

It all takes a bit of patience. "I had a class in California two weekends ago," says Stoecklein, "and we were at a branding. We got there at 5:30 in the morning, and the light wasn't that good, things weren't happening. We worked all day, and it was hotter than heck. I had seven students with me, and everybody was getting pretty tired, and I said let's go back and look at our pictures. One girl said, 'No, you guys are wimping out, we gotta stay, the light's only getting better!' I looked at her and I said, 'You're right, we're staying. Okay, guys, you gotta toughen up now, we're going to wait.' And as the light is dropping out, all of a sudden all the roads became backlit, the dust came up and all of a sudden everyone just started to get wonderful pictures! But if we had been too tired from the heat and everything and gone back to the hotel, we would have missed all the great stuff."

See more of David Stoecklein's work and information about his photo workshops at

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