There’s an old cowboy adage that goes, “Talk less and say more,” and David Stoecklein does just that. Based out of Idaho, he has photographed amazingly iconic images of the American West for more than 20 years. Astoundingly, whether it’s of a modern cowboy or an expansive Southwestern landscape, his photographic style is instantly recognizable and remarkably consistent. If you see a Stoecklein image, you know immediately who took it, and thanks to a keen mastery of natural light and environmental ambience, the images he crafts have an almost ageless feel, as if they could have been scenes from a century ago. Stoecklein says modestly that his work is simply the result of the way he sees. In reality, he has labored long and hard to perfect his photography. Here, he shares with us a few of the steps that help him see the world the way he does and a few of the technical processes that help him to produce images that stand the test of time.
Bad Weather Means Good Shots
Many elements of Stoecklein’s classic imagery can be achieved only in the real world. He finds that a lot of the appeal of his images comes from the time of day at which he’s working and the quality of the light. The “magic hour” just after sunrise and just before sunset is ideal for achieving Stoecklein’s classic look. Thanks to the unique angle of the sun’s rays penetrating the atmosphere, the light is softer, but colors and hues are stronger. The dramatic backdrop of the sun rising and setting also adds impact to backgrounds. Stoecklein’s absolute favorite time to shoot is during a storm, though. When the weather is at its most extreme, the shots will come off with the most atmosphere.
“If you have stormy weather,” he says, “there’s a lot of cloud cover and stuff like that, and then you can shoot all day. The lighting is different, but it’s beautiful, and you can build contrast with the clouds and the storminess of the sky. The worst conditions to work in, though, are just bluebird days with a beautiful blue sky and bright light. There’s no story, no atmosphere, no contrast, and there’s no drama. It’s just harder to tell a story in that kind of lighting.”
When asked what he does when he has unfavorable conditions, Stoecklein laughingly says that you go shoot in a barn or you go to the bar. Getting a classic look can be the result of creating an atmosphere as well as reacting to one, though, and Stoecklein employs a variety of trusted tricks that provide him with dramatic shots despite the environment. He looks for odd or extreme angles that add dimension to an image’s composition. He also uses a lot of side- and backlighting, even to the point of silhouetting his subjects, to add contrast and a graphic appeal to an image.
After so much practice shooting for so many years, Stoecklein also is capable of creating an atmosphere out of the resources available to him. He often adds dust to an image by using a fan or a leaf blower, or even by riling up horses (or his assistants) so that they kick up dust. Dust in the air instills the feeling of the Old West in images, and it also helps to diffuse natural light in a direct-light situation.
Says Stoecklein, “You can’t rely on Mother Nature to be exactly what you want. The whole thing about natural lighting is being able to pick the spot and see it and feel it. A lot of the time, it’s being able to direct your subject into the lighting situation that you see. By using backlighting or sidelighting or the shadows, you search for the piece of light that’s going to light up your subject just the way you need it.”
Old West, New Gear
Surprisingly, Stoecklein has used very little filtration over the years. While optical filters are an excellent way to achieve certain looks, he has chosen instead to work primarily with light and the characteristics of different lighting situations. He used to use Lee filters on occasion, and was a big fan of their coral filter, in particular, which gave his imagery an exaggerated gold feeling for a warmer touch.
“Most of my really well-known photos are pure, natural light,” he notes. “Although I love the look of filters, which I used a lot in my early stuff, a lot of those filters took away from the sharpness of the photo because you were shooting through so many layers of resin. Some of my really famous pictures that I did use those Lee filters on, though, I could never have achieved exactly in Lightroom, even if I did lose some of the clarity. You still can’t achieve the look that I like where I’m able to darken parts of the photos, which is something you really need to use a filter for, like your neutral-density filter. We still have a bunch of those that we use, especially on my scenic photographs.”
Stoecklein is a big fan of the digital filters available in Adobe’s Lightroom, as well. He has done some work in Photoshop, but as a master of working in the field, he’s able to capture close-to-perfect results in-camera. Instead, Stoecklein works through a series of minor slider adjustments in Lightroom, such as color channels, desaturation, contrast, exposure and other adjustments.
Lightroom also offers him a variety of presets for automatically adding looks to his photos. In the Develop module there’s a panel of selections, like Aged Photo, Antique Grayscale, Cyanotype, Sepia and many others. Lightroom adds these effects very quickly, and from there, Stoecklein can make minor or major tweaks to the photos for playing with color saturation or black-and-white looks. He says that he finds himself working with highlights, lights, darks and shadows with almost every photograph, tweaking each color channel individually and adding a little bit of fill light and recovery when he needs to. Stoecklein also uses his time in post to think about the process of image-making, which helps him to further refine his photography in the field.
“When I’m editing,” he says, “I consciously make a decision as to what I like and what I don’t like about this picture, and I try to verbalize it to myself. So you start to get your mind-set set up so that you remember what worked and what didn’t work. The whole look of something can change just by remembering what worked before. Whenever I lecture, I try to tell the students and the people that come to get in gear, get in shape, think about these things, and when they’re editing, go through these exercises; then when they’re in the field, they’ll be faster on their feet.”
Run And Gun
Stoecklein also thanks a few golden rules for providing him with stunning and dependable results. At all times, he keeps it simple. He uses autofocus when he needs to, and he always has his camera set to auto white balance. He’s a Canon shooter, and he relies on his sophisticated cameras to provide him with excellent results that he can adjust later if he needs to. This keeps his head in the game and his concentration on the subject, who also stays excited by staying interactive. He has Lowel lighting gear that he brings out when necessary, but for the most part, Stoecklein uses the natural light available to him. He says he hardly ever uses reflectors anymore, which is all part of keeping it simple.
Sometimes, getting a successful, stylistic image for Stoecklein is all about remembering a few simple things. Even after four decades of shooting, he’ll stop and ask himself a few key questions. Why am I taking this picture? What’s the message? What’s the story? Stoecklein finds that the most important part of an image is the story, especially with such iconic images that have such a timeless appeal.
“I think I’ve been able to maintain a look for 40 years,” Stoecklein concludes, “and I think my pictures are better today than they have ever been in my career. I’m very, very happy with what I’m doing, and I only look to get better in the future.”
See more of David Stoecklein’s photography at www.stoeckleinphotography.com.