Tips for taking a non-traditional portrait of an older person?

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Q. I’m an art student in Norway currently working on a photography project, which requires me to submit a portrait photo of my grandmother to an exhibition. How do you shoot older people? She’s 88, can barely walk and lives in a day-care home but I really want to take an interesting and special photo of her. Do you have any tips on how to take a non-traditional portrait of an older person?  A good setting, which does not include a pale white background (as I would have normally used)? Thank you! – Dagny Irene Tonstad Torsteinbø, Norway

A. Hi Dagny Irene, Okay – I know she can’t walk very well but hopefully you could use a wheelchair and take her out into the garden? The light would be much better outside. I always like doing photos of older people in a beautiful environment if possible. I personally don’t like close up shots of older people showing all their wrinkles, etc. – as I feel it is unflattering for them – it’s okay in Greek holiday brochures but my job is to make people “love” themselves in a photo!

I find people in their 80’s like a “nice” picture! They like to see a scene with trees in it – to be part of that scene – so she could be sitting on a lovely seat in a park or a garden and you create a landscape photo of a “lady sitting on a seat under a tree in a park or garden” rather than a close up of an old lady. If you do it like this you can take both anyway – close up and distance.

Also the light under a big tree will be soft and beautiful whether the sun is shining or it’s raining. Obviously if it’s raining and cold it might not be ideal for her comfort – but if you tell her what you want to do – she will probably be up for doing it! I once photographed an 88-year-old woman, and asked her to sit on the floor! I told her we would all help her up afterwards – basically I treated her as if she was 35 and she loved it! 88-year-old women still feel 35 inside, and you will make her day if you help her to feel this way, have fun, and make it a great experience for her, rather than wheel her out as an old lady and treat her as one. You have to tell her what you are doing, and ask if she minds – explain what you are trying to achieve.  My lady came into my studio hobbling on a stick – and 2 hours later she was leaping back up the stairs!

Say, “I bet you still feel 35 inside don’t you? Well there is no reason why we can’t do a shoot like that – I’ll help you to move around, help you get off the seat, etc. – we’ll have loads of fun and it will be a day out!” If you put it like that she will love it! You will have to give her lots of rests in between of course – but she will appreciate a fun shoot. I find older people do not want to be treated like old people – otherwise they just have to go along with it for your sake, not theirs! Put yourself in her shoes and ask yourself what you would want – that will help you!

Good luck and send me the picture!

Annabel x


Feedback

Hi Annabel! Wow!  You put it out in the perfect way and I understand what you are saying!  I never thought about it like that – you are a great teacher!  I will try to do as you say; I’m sure going to make her feel young! Thank you sooooo much for your great direction, I can’t say it enough, you have been a BIG help to me. When I read about you and what you do I just think that you really inspire! I’ve always thought that a good photo means dressing up and a lot of make-up but it doesn’t. We don’t have to.  We should all be natural and show our real beauty! Thank you again. May you have a great day!  Keep up your good work! Dagny Irene

Note from Annabel

Not sure about entirely natural – I DO like a bit of make up! And my clients love being pampered and looking fabulous for their photo shoots! Here are a few shots below which illustrate making the shoot fun for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest member of the family.  Please note that the older ladies in these shots are only in their 60’s – not their 80’s!

People over 50 still feel like they're 30! Don't treat older people as if they are ancient - treat them just like you would any younger person, and give them a great photo shoot experience.

People over 50 still feel like they’re 30! Don’t treat older people as if they are ancient – treat them just like you would any younger person, and give them a great photo shoot experience.

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Most women want to look and feel fabulous in photos, whether they are 16 or 60 – great makeup, great lighting and a great experience are all you need to bring out how they really feel.

TOP TIP: Lying on the floor means your client is looking up at you, which makes their eyes look bigger – don’t shoot at eye level – whatever the old text books say!