The elderly members of our communities are some of our greatest assets. They have seen the roar of change, the cruelty or war, the upset of recession, and the power in our humanity at work. Photographing them gives us a chance to capture the history they have witnessed and participated in but there are some distinctive challenges that are paired with reaping these benefits. Here are some tips to make photographing elderly people an overall smoother experience.
Give them Space
Unlike kids and teenagers, older people did not grow up in the world of hand held technology and digital cameras. While many have learned how to hunt and peck their way through an email, some are still uncomfortable in front a DSLR cameras firing at 10 frames per second. Shooting with an 85mm lens or greater gives the photographed a little bit of space from the camera. This becomes especially important when you are hoping they will interact with other people.
While it is always important to communicate with the people you are photographing, having a conversation with the older generation is important for a number of reasons. The first is that they are more likely to be comfortable in front of the camera if they are comfortable with you as a person. If you already know them, it gives you a chance to explain the timeline and how you operate as a photographer. If you don’t, it gives them a chance to learn a little bit about you and that familiarity will instill confidence in your collective goal to get the perfect shot. It’s also gives you time to learn about them as people and draw from their history for inspiration.
Incorporate their life and their lifestyle
Older people live lives that incorporate their history. They are established selves, unlike youth who are still creating who they are, the elderly have a community in which they operate and a set of habits which are long set and followed. Those habits and quirks create this amazing space to capture them as people and not just as subjects. One of the most interesting shoots I did was with a man whose wife was dying and he wanted to have some portraits done in their home. He was a WWII veteran and his home told the story of his life. I took pictures of the little details including photographs on the mantle and their joined hands. Later after she had passed, he called me to tell me that those pictures were precious to him because they depicted to reality of their last few months together.
Use Soft Light
Use soft light and avoid using any harsh flashes if you are trying to avoid emphasizing wrinkles.
Typically, using diffused soft light during a portrait session is recommended unless you are specifically trying to create shadows. Older people fall into two categories. The first are those people who don’t really want to look old. They want to look wise but youthful and those people do not want portraits that highlight laugh lines or crow’s feet. The second type are those older people who consider the marks of their age as a badge of every success and failure, every laugh laughed and sob wept. They are also the minority and they will let you know if they want portraits that accent their scars and age spots. For the most part use soft natural light.
Try a classic black and white conversion
There are two reasons why you should try out a black and white conversion. The first is that black and white conversions are a way to cover skin imperfections without an excessive amount of post processing if the photo was shot in a diffused light. On the other hand, if you are trying to highlight the idiosyncrasies of your subject’s face, black and white will accent the shadows and the highlights.
The other reason is that the older generations like seeing black and white photographs because they remind them of the photographs they have from their own youth. I frequently have elderly clients come back to me to thank me for including some black and white photos they can hang with the portraits they have of their parents and photos of their children when they were young.
Be Mindful of Glare on Glasses
There are a few different methods for avoiding glasses glare that obstructs a good view of the subject’s eye. The first is to have them take them off. Some people will automatically offer and don’t want to wear them for photographs. Beyond that, be aware of where your light is coming from and turn your subject away from bright spots of light. Having the subject angle their glasses down just slightly will diffuse the glare but should be done with great subtlety otherwise it will make them look like Santa Clause or a particularly distraught librarian. You can also have the subject tilt their chin down just slightly or turn their head to the side slightly.
More Formal Poses
Older people love having both formal and candid photographs. If you flip through a traditional family album found on the coffee table of many a family, the photos contained within are a mix of obviously posed photos and candids taken at family functions. While creative shots are important, the more formal shots are also a part of family histories.
Back light or light from the front
Using other methods of lighting, especially lighting from the side will accent wrinkles by creating more shadows as the light travels across the surface of the face. Pay attention to the way the light falls across their face, which parts are lit and which are in the shadows. Have your subjects turn towards even light or away from harsh light that isn’t flattering.
Make sure they are Comfortable
Pay close attention to any physical limitations the people are you are photographing may have. If they have a disability license plate or placard pay special attention to the amount of walking and stair climbing you ask them to do. Make frequent breaks to rest or drink water. Watch for any signs of distress.
Overall, photographing elderly people can be an amazing experience where you learn about the rich lives and experiences of the people you are photographing. Keeping your eyes and ears open will allow you and your subjects to create awesome honest portraits you will both be happy with.
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