By on 2010-05-03

Hanging off the side of a mountain is no place to learn lighting, but that’s exactly what Tyler Stableford did. As a climbing magazine editor and outdoor enthusiast, Stableford loved photographing his adventures. He knew he wanted to pursue photography full time eventually, but until that time came he just shot and shot and shot. When Stableford finally quit his day job, he had the free time to learn about photography. That was four years ago. Now he’s known as one of the world’s greatest adventure photographers.

“I think I kind of lucked out in that some of the photos I had taken on glaciers or ice and rock cliffs were unique and authentic to their realm,” Stableford says of his first experiences with a stock agency. “So they signed me, despite the fact that I couldn’t shoot my way out of a shoe-box with my feet on solid ground. Then I started learning some of the lighting skills. I kind of learned backwards that way. Something you might learn at day one of photo school I learned in year eight.”

Stableford obviously learned well because his portfolio now reflects the polished look of a seasoned commercial photographer without having sacrificed the realism brought by his journalistic background.

As Stableford points out, even with a downsized lighting rig strapped to his belt, the freedom to augment the already amazing ambient light gives his photos something most studio photographers can only dream of: slick authenticity.

“I’ve been studying a lot of high-end commercial photographers and the lighting that they use,” he says, “which I didn’t pay a lot of attention to earlier in my career because I was so focused on capturing what I considered authentic outdoor moments. I went full time into photography in 2004 and started devoting myself to taking workshops and learning the combined arts of commercial lighting and high-end retouching and digital processing.”

Stableford credits much of his success to studying in workshops with photographer Greg Gorman.

“To take a longtime L.A. commercial portrait photographer,” he says, “and to combine his skill and look with my outdoor look—that has been the grail for me, a challenge that I was into. It has taken my work to a whole new level by putting the time into learning commercial lighting from people who do it well.”

Lighting for adventure sports in the outdoors requires different tools than typical studio or location lighting. The principles remain the same, however. As Stableford points out, even with a downsized lighting rig strapped to his belt, the freedom to augment the already amazing ambient light gives his photos something most studio photographers can only dream of: slick authenticity.

“It doesn’t take much,” Stableford says of the lighting that has elevated his imagery. “It works great for stock and commercial work, since a lot of it is backlit to begin with. All you need to do is expose for your subject and then just fill a little bit. I’m not trying to match daylight; I don’t want to match daylight. The most common look and the one I love the best—and it seems to be a very high-selling look in the stock world—is backlit with a little bit of fill.

“The times when you really need light anyway are when light is most dramatic,” he continues, “usually in those hours around dawn or dusk, when you don’t need 1200 watt/seconds of power anyway to create drama with the light. A lot of times 120 watt/seconds will do just fine if you’re shooting in a coal mine or a wildfire. I like to shoot at ƒ/2 or ƒ/1.6 for a dramatic blur with a wide-angle lens, so, boy, you couldn’t even dial down a Profoto battery to do that for you.”

Stableford workshopped his way to more than just lighting skills. He also has developed a high level of postproduction mastery as well. The combination of simple lighting with simple retouching creates a whole look that’s greater than the individual elements. It’s also relatively rare, so it has paid dividends.

“It’s a more polished look that I didn’t always see in outdoor adventure photography,” says Stableford. “I also kind of followed my nose to where the money was. I’ve been a longtime contributor to Getty, and I started seeing which of my images were higher sellers over the years. It became pretty clear that those were cleaner, polished, a little bit of a commercial look to them, but also having dead-on authenticity because they could kind of bridge the gap, whatever someone was looking for—authenticity, but also cleanliness.”

How It’s Done
Stableford’s portrait of a firefighter on the fire line is a perfect example of authenticity, lighting proficiency and postproduction prowess. 

“I just said, hey, look at the flash,” he explains of the shot. “Maybe I had the 24mm ƒ/1.4 or something, and it was on the off-camera shoe cord. I have no idea what the flash setting was; I just set it on TTL. Manual exposure and drop the ambient about a stop and a half or so, and maybe set the flash to minus a third in TTL so it didn’t scream of flash. What I’ll do in post on a shot like that is multiple composites of the same RAW file—make the sky a little more of a stormy violet if it’s just a boring gray, then have a nice warm foreground and cool the background a little bit. Maybe there’s three processes on that shot. Then there’s vignetting to draw your eye to the light and a hand blurring so that your eye goes to the focus; it doesn’t bounce around on the glove.”

Stableford says that much of his retouching can be done via vignetting and subtle color adjustments in Lightroom. Even when he does get the image into Photoshop, he’s not doing anything particularly revolutionary, but it works.

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