Warm Light, Cold Light

For David Stoecklein, any light will do. He takes what the scene gives him and makes the mood match the subject for inspiring photographs.
Photographer David Stoecklein is well known as a master photographer of the American West, but if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s just a hunter of light. And for this cowboy photographer, even though so many photographers speak in these terms, the metaphor makes sense. His mission is seeking out drama for his photographs—and that usually means working with both warm and cool light.

David Stoecklein - Warm Light, Cool Light
David Stoecklein is known for his portraits of the American West. Strong use of light and a keen understanding of the impact of color temperature give Stoecklein's images the dramatic feel of the Old West. "I have a picture blown up in my office," he says," and it’s called 'Ride ’Em Like You Stole 'Em' [opening spread]. It’s real blue, dark light, with just a bit of wispy last evening sunlight silhouetting the cowboy and the horses. Some people would look at that as cool light, but it has a lot of energy. I think you can have just as much energy in blue light as you can in the hot light."

"When you wake up in the morning and you’re going to shoot, you’re looking for light all day long," says Stoecklein. "I tell my clients, 'Hey, we’re out here searching for light.’ I work all day long looking for that special piece of light. That’s the challenge every day. Sometimes you never get it, and it’s hard to do anything cool without it."

The best way to find special light, of course, is to look at the beginning and end of the day. Shooting in the first cool rays of dawn and the last warm evening glow is a big step toward great photos, and Stoecklein is happy to share all he knows about the intricacies of shooting in warm light, cool light or any little light at all.


David Stoecklein - Warm Light, Cool Light

"One thing that’s important to remember," he explains, "Is that in the morning when you’re getting up and you’re tired and everybody is tired, the light is running away from you. You start out early in the morning and, boy, that light comes, and you shoot, shoot, shoot. The light is running and running and all of a sudden it’s gone."

Sunrise and the predawn hours are perfect for cool-light shooting. "Trouble is," Stoecklein says, "those cool blue shots aren’t as popular as the warm glowing shots. To find that warm light, you have to look at the end of the day because afternoon light is, in all ways, the opposite of morning light.

In the evening, he continues, you start at four o’clock or whatever, and that light is coming at you; it’s just building and it’s getting better all day. As you warm up and everything warms up, it’s getting better. The evening light also has the benefit of the moisture and the dust and the atmosphere that builds up during the day, so it’s always warmer than the morning light and it’s always just a little bit better light. But also, for your mood as a photographer and the model’s mood and all that kind of stuff, the evening light is always better. It’s really the best of it all.

"In many ways," he adds, "the biggest trick to working with warm and cool light is just being there at sunrise and sunset—almost like shooting fish in a barrel."

Photography is all about telling a story,"he says. "So throughout the day, you try to create different stories. I always try to analyze the story that I’m trying to tell as I’m taking the picture. Sometimes the light dictates what the story is.

With digital capture, Stoecklein is able to extend that shooting time to work in the ultra-low-light levels found long before sunrise and after sunset. He doesn’t do much digital postproduction to enhance the colors, simply because he’s not much of a computer guy, but he suggests using filters, and he’s happy to incorporate them into his repertoire when it comes to amplifying the warm and cool light he encounters.

David Stoecklein - Warm Light, Cool Light

"I do have a series of Lee filters," Stoecklein says," so I can warm with that—darken the sky, darken the foreground. I can do all kinds of little tricky stuff. I really don’t do much of that in the computer. With digital, I shoot more early stuff and more late stuff, and more foul weather. Digital is just easy to work with."

Knowing how to utilize your tools in the magic hours of dawn and dusk is only a fraction of what it takes to build a body of work like Stoecklein’s. In practice, it’s all those hours between sunrise and sunset that make or break a day’s shooting—and a career.

"I had an assistant years ago," Stoecklein recalls' "and he said, 'Well, good job. You made a great picture in the golden light of the day. Let’s see you do it at two o’clock in the afternoon.’ You have to be able to work all day and make good photos all day."

Since Stoecklein has clients to please, he has to do something exceptional in whatever light with which he’s faced. It’s at those tough times when his flexibility comes in handy. He says it’s necessary for all photographers, shooting at any time of day and in any weather, to be able to abandon their preconceived notions in favor of what the light presents.

David Stoecklein - Warm Light, Cool Light
Stoecklein's tools of choice include, from left to right: a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Lee filters and a Canon EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM lens.

"Photography is all about telling a story," he says. "So throughout the day, you try to create different stories. I always try to analyze the story that I’m trying to tell as I’m taking the picture. Sometimes the light dictates what the story is." Continues Stoecklein, "I look for anything. I like to work with a shadow as much as I like to work with a highlight. It’s a combination of the two. The warm exotic light is what everybody is so used to, but if you see a lot of the stuff I’ve been shooting the last couple of years, a lot of it has been after the sun has gone down or early in the morning before it comes up. I’d venture to say that my most famous photo is a picture called Winter
Save—it’s I-don’t-know-how-many years old—and that was an hour before sunrise."


David Stoecklein - Warm Light, Cool Light

Whether it’s morning’s first cool light or hazy midday, Stoecklein says that his love of the light isn’t just about its color. He wants to use the light's contrast to set his subjects apart.

"I remember when I first started out years and years ago when we were doing black-and-white," he recalls. "The whole thing was about contrast. You built your photo around contrast; everything was based on contrast and trying to find contrast. The contrast still is what makes the picture. In other words, on a totally flat day, you have to find some way to make the contrast in your photo, and that’s what you’re searching for, whether it’s in the cool shadows or if it’s some highlight—it could be anything. I’m always looking for that little piece."

Stoecklein suggests capitalizing on that magical light when and where you find it, but don’t get greedy. If you get your hopes up that the perfect light is right around the corner, you’re bound to be constantly disappointed. Instead, keep an open mind, polish those off-hour shooting skills, and be ready to work with the tiniest bit of perfect light whenever you might find it.

Mastering the color of light to create and enhance mood is invaluable in making more evocative photographs. You can use tools like your camera’s white balance and filters to manipulate and enhance the look of the ambient scene. Also, in postproduction, digital tools like Photoshop and various plug-ins give you the opportunity to further enhance the look.

Says Stoecklein, "The biggest trap and the most depressing thing for a guy like me is if I get too excited in advance that I’m going to have this really cool picture. I have it all preconceived, and then the light doesn’t happen or something like that. So I have to adapt. I’ll go two days in a row, and it will be just unbelievable—I’m so excited, I can’t sleep at night. Then I go out on the third day, and the weather goes to hell, and you can’t even get any blue light—you can’t get anything. So it’s times like that when you have to go back to that little book, Who Moved My Cheese? You have to buck up and say 'Well, okay, so now everything isn’t the way I thought it was going to be, so how am I going to deal with this?' That’s important: being able to change midstream.

David Stoecklein - Warm Light, Cool Light

"I’m looking for the great picture of the day," adds Stoecklein. "It may be at five in the morning or it may be 10 o’clock that night that I get it. Or it may be at high noon. I’m always searching for something. I make things happen within that piece of light. A lot of times, some of my favorite photos are just with that little sliver of light when there’s a bit of light on the horizon and there's no light on the ground and there’s very little light left in the sky. You pick up that little sliver and use that to your advantage. Even when it just breaks during the middle of the day, your subject may be totally in the shade, but the highlight behind you is what’s giving you the contrast."

The best advice Stoecklein has for understanding how to work with any light source is simple: practice. He has been doing it for years, and it pays off at every shoot when he’s able to make stunning images in amazing light or when he’s able to turn nothing light into something spectacular.

" 'Boy, you sure made something out of nothing!'" Stoecklein says of a recent client’s comments. "That’s what you have to do. I did the same thing the week before, right? And I did the same thing the week before that. It wasn’t like my first time out of the box. I remember years and years ago, I had a big job coming up and I knew they were going to expect me to shoot at 11 o’clock and one o’clock in all this bad light. So I went out and practiced taking pictures in bad light to see what I could do to make them better, what exposures I could use. I worry sometimes that I’m using the same angles and the same light for four clients four weeks in a row. But the pictures all look different anyway. It’s all about the light."

To see more of David Stoecklein's photography, visit his website at www.stoeckleinphotography.com.

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