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.