Photographing older people

Photographing older people can be a joy for many reasons. To start with, a lived-in face is usually more interesting than that of a callow youth. Also, older people are usually more generous with their time. So here are some tips of photographing older people.

photographing older people
Three old men and a dog… the two gentlemen on the left didn’t realise they were being photographed. I had asked the man on the right to stand and pose with his little dog, which he did. But when I saw the other two men walking towards us, I simple re-framed the photograph to include them in the picture as they walked by. They didn’t realise they were in the picture. The flight of pigeons was a real bonus. This is a basic Street Photography technique and works well with a wide angle lens. Photograph by Philip Dunn for The Sunday Times


photographing older people
Okay, he’s an exception, you don’t see many old folks with this many whiskers. All the more reason to photograph him. The strong side light and low shooting angle has emphasised his amazing beard. Photograph by Philip Dunn

I life story in every portrait

It’s said that a person has the face he deserves by the age of forty. Maybe these days sixty would be more appropriate. Certainly as far as photography is concerned, the older a person gets the more of their life story will be etched into their features – and this means that older people make natural and fascinating subjects for both portraiture and Street Photography.

The sensitive photographer should be able to capture the essence of a person’s personality and of course this will be that much easier if you have a good, expressive face to photograph.

The best light for photographing older people

The direction of light that can most often enhance texture, shape and form is sidelight. So it stands to reason that if you are photographing an elderly person and you want to emphasise the lines and wrinkles of that person’s skin – its texture – then side light can come in very useful.

However, like everyone else, some older people can be extraordinarily vain, and will not take too kindly to photographs that make them look decrepit. So a degree of diplomacy may be needed if a photography session is to go smoothly. If you want to take a more flattering picture, try using backlight and reflect it back into your subject’s features with a white reflector. I explained this simple technique when I wrote about the Understanding the Quality of Light.

photographing old people
An elegant old lady with silver hair looks out of shot towards the light of a window. The light, the furniture and the subject’s expression all add to the atmosphere of the picture and help create an nostalgic and evocative portrait of a beautiful lady. Photograph by Philip Dunn

I love photographing children because of their natural innocence and charm – they can be appealing and very funny. Well, so can older people, and often the sparkle of youthful mischief and memories still shines through in an older subject’s eyes and facial expressions.

Explain what you want to achieve

When you are photographing older people, you will find that they tend to be much less self-conscious and easier to work with than younger adults. Old people often take it as a great compliment that a photographer is interested in them. Often they are willing to give up their time as a result. You will almost certainly be able to work closely with an older person in order to achieve the picture you have in mind. So explain exactly what you want to achieve at the start of the session.

Take the time to LISTEN

When photographing older people take time to listen. Listen to what your subject has to say. Older people have been around a long time. Most have often gathered knowledge and stories worth listening to. Sadly these days, not everyone is prepared to take the time to listen to our senior citizens. If you are prepared to be an exception, you will be rewarded with some fascinating stories, and you will help put your subject at ease and achieve better pictures.

Don’t be afraid to ask…

street photography portrait of elderly man in trilby hat
It would be impossible for me to pass a face like that in the street without asking its owner to pose for a quick portrait. This gentleman was pleased to oblige – and we had an interesting chat into the bargain. Older people are often pleased, and take it as a compliment that a photographer should want to take their picture. Photograph by Philip Dunn

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