Creating a Classic 21st Birthday Portrait

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Many years ago people had their portrait painted at 21, and then later paintings gave way to classic photos. You might have a grandmother with a beautiful portrait hanging on the wall – or perhaps you remember those “coming out” pictures in Country Life Magazine?

When I was 21, I trailed round photographers trying to recreate a beautiful classical photo which would last forever. But sadly they either made me look older than my mother, or I was asked to take my clothes off!

Which is the reason I started photography, because that was the choice in those days. When my own daughter turned 21 this year, I wanted to create a timeless photo of her, which not only would I treasure, but that she would be able to show her own children and grandchildren in the future. In this fantastic world of Instagram, Hipstamatic and all sorts of incredible apps – sometimes it’s nice to go back to a classic photo, but with a difference.

I’ve done many photo shoots of Polly as a child, and as a teenager – from candid to composed, on film, on digital and now on my camera phone.

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Polly’s used to seeing lots of Instagram photos of herself, just as all 21 year olds are, so I wanted to do something different.

I took Polly along to Levens Hall, a stunning English stately home just outside the Lake District, with the most amazing topiary garden.

As you know, I love shapes – so it was perfect for backgrounds!

I borrowed a handmade ball gown from Suzanne Leverington – who I often worked with many years ago when we were both involved in society weddings. I needed a dress with a very flattering neckline, as I intended to create a classic head and shoulders shot – and this kind of off the shoulder neckline really achieves that.

My sister, Lucinda Hayton offered her talents as a make up artist/hair stylist, for Polly’s birthday present, and off we went.

Check out the video below to watch the shoot.

Top Shade in a Doorway

I started with the top shade of a little doorway hidden in the garden, because it provided perfect soft light. Lucinda had put Polly’s hair in rollers, and was going to create her hairstyle before we started – but I was really inspired by the pinned up curls before they were touched – so wanted to start straight away! As always, I start with safety shots, to practise and see how the dress works in the shots, etc.

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The top shade of the doorway creates soft flattering light, with the help of a gold reflector, for our first few shots.

Topiary Garden

The shapes and colours of the topiary garden are just stunning, and make the most amazing background.

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Levens Hall in Cumbria is a unique location for photos.

We spotted a “please keep off the grass sign” so took our shoes off and trod carefully! I love using a long zoom lens and standing well back, so that I can zoom in and out as I please. I asked Polly to scoop up her dress and run (softly!) between the flowerbeds.

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We were very fortunate to have such a bright sunny day, giving an amazing blue sky behind the gorgeous colours of the garden.

In the pictures above I am positioning Polly so she becomes a shape in front of the tree shapes – I just move around her until I feel the shapes work together. Above Bottom Left: Here I have made sure her head is between the trees, by moving my position. I’m also shooting from below to make the trees look more dramatic. Try moving left, then right and just see what looks best. Take a few if you’re not sure!

I like to shoot lots of variety, and as you can see from the shots above, some are taken from far away to include lots of garden shapes, and others I’ve zoomed right in and knocked the trees out of focus to emphasise Polly.

Lying on the Gravel

I love gravel paths! If you are careful you can make a gravel path look like a beach! It’s a question of composing the shot to exclude everything except the stones and the splashes of light in the background.

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Due to the strong sunlight, Lucinda has to hold the reflector over Polly’s face to shade the sun, but I like to keep splashes of light on the background to give depth and interest to the picture. I then move her face around until I like the look.

This is one of my favourite pictures – but it’s not the classic 21st portrait I am looking for, so off we go and try something else!

Twisted Trees

We found the most amazing avenue of twisted, gnarled trees – what a stunning background! The diversity of these gardens is amazing!

Finally, I let Lucinda create her hairstyle! We changed the outfit and used a beautiful top with a net underskirt – to create a more ethereal look in the trees.

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Because it was dark under the trees, we used the gold reflector to bounce the strong sunlight which was filtering through a gap, resulting in a beautifully lit shot.

Above Right: I’ve deliberately composed this shot to include a lot of the trees, to give the picture strength and make the gnarled wood quite dominant.

Clearly I’m getting carried away now! I’ve forgotten all about the classic 21st portrait I’m supposed to be doing, and got very sidetracked! But that’s the beauty of thinking on your feet, and going with the flow.

Perfect Moment

Suddenly the perfect moment just happens!

I asked Polly to walk away from me through the line of trees, and then called her to look back – and that’s when I saw the shot.

This to me is the classic shot I’ve been waiting for. I didn’t deliberately pose her like this – I just wondered what she would look like if she turned back to me – and that was when I saw it. I shouted, “Stop!!! Don’t move”, and then took the following shots.

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I still can’t decide which is my favourite but think it’s the one below – I just love it!

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To me, this is the classic, timeless, emotive shot that I wanted to create for Polly’s 21st birthday.

The shots above show how getting the perfect shot is part of a process. It’s not a case of asking someone to sit on a chair and taking lots of headshots – it’s about experimenting, having fun, trying lots of things and suddenly it just happens.

As always I never stop when I feel I’ve got it – it makes me want to go even further!

The Lily Pond

We’d brought along another bodice, this time in yellow, and happened to have a velvet green skirt too – perfect colours for the lily pond!

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The lily pond creates a great background.

To create a flattering position like this, visualise a mermaid – that will help you get the shape! And for a really stunning look, I brightened up the image by tweaking the curves in Photoshop – see another of my favourite shots, below.

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Brightening the image using curves in Photoshop brings out the eyes quite dramatically – this works really well when you use a gold reflector in bright light.

The look of course, is pure “get on with it mother”!!! I’d never have got that look from anyone else – and it looks great!

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I love this shot too!

Finally I have to concede that she’s had enough! I never said it was easy photographing your own child, as they tend to get bored with you! But at this age, at least they’re keen to have the photo shoot!

Annabel x


Thanks to:

Lucinda Hayton for her gorgeous make up, hair and styling.
Suzanne Leverington for loaning us her stunning vintage dresses.
Chris Whiteside for his great video.
Levens Hall for providing such a wonderful location.

Video: Chris Whiteside / Editing: James Robinson

For more ideas for birthday shoots check out Sweet 16 – Teenage Birthday Shoot (featuring Polly and her friends at 16) andTeens to Twenties (featuring Chris Whiteside – our great videographer).