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. Stoecklein’s talent at harnessing the power of natural light brings drama and atmosphere to his images, and at the same time, working with natural light also gives the photographer a number of freedoms while he’s shooting. Less gear to manage frees him to concentrate on his subjects and also allows him a lot more mobility to find interesting compositions without needing to take the time to change lighting setups.

Primarily, though, Stoecklein explains simply that, for him, the world of the American West is best represented by the use of natural lighting because it gives the viewer a visceral experience when they see the pictures.

"My goal in life has been to document the West and to document it as it is in the period of time that I lived," he explains about his modern take on an historic subject. "I’ve found over the years that I really don’t like doing this sort of formal portrait where the lighting is very controlled and the person is posed. Some of those portraits are just spectacular, but for me it doesn’t give the real mood, the feeling, the personality and all of the things that I like to capture in my portraits."

Stoecklein recently completed a series in Idaho, for instance, and he shot the whole set in natural light. "I wanted to show my subjects in the dirt and the grit and what they really do and the weather that they’re really in," he says, "not some lit-up thing with strobes and everything. I don’t want to knock the guys that do that because that’s a real art to be able to do that; I’m just saying it’s not my style."

Here are David Stoecklein’s top-10 tips to help you think creatively and get better results when working with natural light.


Learning the manual functions of your camera will tell you the most about what your camera is capable of—whether the lighting is natural or otherwise. Stoecklein leads a number of workshops, and he says that he’s constantly shocked to find that his students often lack an understanding of the fundamentals, like aperture, shutter speed and depth of field.

"I really hope that people take the time to learn the basics," says Stoecklein, "because if they don’t learn shutter speed, aperture and focus, they’ll never be able to get to the really creative part." When shooting in a run-and-gun environment, as Stoecklein frequently does, light and atmosphere can change so rapidly that it’s too much of a challenge for the automatic metering and focusing abilities of even the best DSLRs. Learning to predict the situation and quickly anticipate and adjust manual settings is paramount for capturing the best light when you don’t have control over the light source as you would with strobes, monolights or flashes.


Backgrounds are used as a prop for helping to establish the character of your subjects, adding to the overall aesthetic of an image and giving your viewer a sense of place. But there are also practical uses for background buildings and open ground. They give Stoecklein a way to control natural light without having to use light modifiers.

This is one of his biggest tips: Be aware of your surroundings and the ground. Stoecklein often keeps his eye out for white barn doors, open windows and other structures that can act as a stylish backdrop while adding fill light or bounce. Open, bright and sandy areas will be highly reflective for bouncing light back up to the oft-brimmed faces of his cowboys, while the more absorbing dark greens of grass and fields can act as a vacuum to suck up luminance when it’s too bright.

Stoecklein says that he’s always looking to combine an environmental portrait with a character portrait, an approach that you can’t go wrong with when working in the dramatic environments of the West. Stoecklein finds that dust, for example, is easy to kick up for automatic ambience when working with horses and cattle. It also interacts with natural light as a large diffusive softbox, which adds more light for Stoecklein’s exposure. "When you have a dusty situation," he says, "your exposure increases because the light is bouncing around on the particles of dust. So they add one heck of a great element to a portrait or to any scene. Plus, the nature of the dust adds a bit of story."


Stoecklein says to keep on your feet. Constantly switching up your angle is useful for playing with the natural environment and the direction of the light. On a shoot last year for eight-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association All-Around Cowboy champion Trevor Brazile, Stoecklein found himself with only 30 minutes of daylight left because of delayed travel from inclement weather in the area, including tornadoes. By positioning himself low to the ground, he was able to quickly incorporate the dark and ominous background of evening clouds into the image while instilling a sense of heroism in his subject by choosing to shoot Brazile from below. Stoecklein is using a single natural light source, the sun, and by accommodating his shooting angle from the directional light, he’s able to control the lighting to a degree. He’s a big fan of backlighting and rim lighting, which he can perform by shooting toward the sun or reflective light.


When working with moving subjects, as Stoecklein so often does, you should know how to predict the zone of focus ahead of time by understanding aperture and depth of field. Faster shutter speeds require less light, which means a larger aperture (ƒ/2.0, ƒ/2.8) for a shallower zone of focus or depth of field. Conversely, you’ll gain larger depth of field with smaller apertures (ƒ/11, ƒ/16), but then, of course, there will be more image blur from the slower shutter speeds required to let all that light in.

Finding the best exposure often will mean a compromise between the fastest shutter speed possible and just the right amount of depth of field. "Focus is the most important creative tool that I have," notes Stoecklein. He may have to change focus several times during a sequence, and when using autofocus, it’s important to anticipate the correct autofocus points. "I may change my focus points four or five times as the horses are running or the cattle are moving," he says. "So many people think that it’s autofocus so it’s going to focus for you, and it doesn’t. You still have to move your focusing points."


Though he used tools like reflectors and optical filters frequently in the old film days, Stoecklein chooses not to use light-modification gear in his work, instead relying on natural surroundings and backgrounds to work with the light. Ironically, Stoecklein says that he’s actually using tools more often to block light rather than to enhance it. Referring to it as "goboing" the light, Stoecklein will employ common items like cowboy hats as a lens shade to reduce flare. Shooting from the shade of nearby walls or trees is another trick that Stoecklein uses to do this, and it also gives him artistic backlighting possibilities as he shoots toward the sun for rim lighting and silhouettes. Stoecklein will position his subjects in the shade, as well, to re
duce flaring further while removing uneven shadows and reducing the high contrast caused by direct light.


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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