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.

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