Natural-Light Portraits


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.

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