Photographing Portraits of Seniors

There was a time in photography when the word “seniors” meant people near or over 50 years in age.  Today photographers refer to senior portraits as high school graduation photos. But it is those in the aging demographic that don’t get much attention during discussions on photography that I want to write about this time.

When one does a search about portrait techniques or checks published books on portraiture I doubt there will be much, if anything at all, about photographing people whose faces are starting to, or have already, aged.  After all, our society is obsessed with youthful beauty and we don’t want to be reminded about aging. Despite that, baby-boomers make up a large segment of our population and they will still want portraits by photographers.

Attend a class, or buy a book, on how-to portrait techniques, and you’ll find it’s all about angles of light with discussions about off camera directional light to create drama and dimension to a subject’s face with highlights and shadow.

Shadow on the smooth face of some 18-year-old can be flattering and sexy, but when a sidelight creates deep shadows on a face that has a few more years of life it is anything but flattering, and certainly won’t be sexy on most.

Lighting manuals instruct us not to use a flash from the camera’s position, and are critical of straight-on flash. However, using a diffused flash straight-on reduces shadows and wrinkles, and a soft, direct light makes it easy to reduce any age lines easily during postproduction.

Retouching, or postproduction as it seems to be called now, has always been part of the process with those that do portrait photography, especially with seniors. I can remember hours with magnifying lenses, fine tipped brushes, mixing dyes and reprinting for final photographs. Now, I have computer programs to remove blemishes, creases, and bags under eyes. I brighten eyes, and sometimes whiten teeth, and always make sure there isn’t loose skin under the chin, or on someone’s neck.

Some of this I have done for years, only now I do it more, and it is a lot easier to retouch with computers and digital cameras. I know there are many photographers that say with misguided pride they do everything in the camera. In my opinion, that’s all right for sports and wildlife photography, but it would never do with a portrait client, they deserve more.

My advice for those photographing seniors is to take the time to choose a flattering perspective that hopefully shows some of their personality, and remember senior portraiture requires direct diffused light, retouching, and more relaxed poses than when they were young. Don’t choose low or awkward angles and tell your subject what you are doing. Remember these senior clients have been having their picture taken for a long time and in my experience are helpful in producing their own photograph.

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Retirement and Photography

Within the last few months I have been meeting recent retirees who have taken up photography as a way to fill anticipated free time and add an interesting challenge to their future.

I talked to a recently retired fellow last week about an expensive new lens he had purchased as a retirement present for himself. I was as excited as he is about his new lens and thought that it was a neat way to start his retirement. When I mentioned he will have lots of time to do photography, he made me laugh at his reply, “yes, as soon as it gets warmer”, but I know a bit of cold weather isn’t going to stop him. Anytime I get something new, I can’t wait to start using it. So, even though he complained about the cold, he’ll be out this week with his new telephoto lens putting it to use no matter the temperature. I know he wants to photograph birds, but I suggested he take a drive to a nearby area photograph the Bighorn sheep just for practice. 

Baby boomers are starting to retire and many are seriously taking up photography. I heard one fellow say, “I figure with the time I have I should enjoy every day.”  He had just retired and had spent well over $20K on a camera and lenses to set himself up for wildlife photography.  For those that gasp at that level of expenditure, be aware that his recreational investment won’t be taxed every year, won’t need expensive maintenance, and will give him years of enjoyment at no real additional cost, except perhaps expenses to drive to some exciting location.

Another retired friend just downsized to a small apartment, although an avid hunter all his life, he has given up packing a rifle, and instead packs a camera with a long lens attached. He explained to me that he really likes to hunt, but the fun ended and the work started when he shot something, however now it continues after the shutter is released and I expect he enjoys the compliments others given him when he displays a great photograph. He can hunt and photograph wildlife anytime and anywhere. His story of how he snuck up on an elk herd near Jasper by quietly wading a glacier fed river, and crawling through the underbrush, for many super images of majestic elk was superb. I can imagine him wet to his waist, covered with mud and pine needles, but happy and excited with the pictures he captured. Now that’s hunting.

Modern camera technology has freed photographers from equipment and production challenges of the past.  A photographer no longer is weighed down with heavy, metal-bodied SLR (single lens reflex) cameras, and lenses. Gone is the challenge of selecting the correct film for lighting conditions, and the need to worry about storage of film for long trips. Like me, those photographers with tired, old eyes now own cameras that quickly focus by themselves with focus assist indicators for fine detail. The days of returning home from vacation with film, and waiting for days to have it processed, or worrying about how to pay for the processing are happily long gone. Photographers immediately know if they got the shot right and can delete the errors.  We have passed the “click-and-pray” days.

Want to send a picture to the grandkids? It’s laughably easy.  I remember a three-month trip across Canada that I took in the 1970s. I would shoot slides, put them in mailers, and have them sent to my home address. My house-sitting friends would then get together and have slide shows wondering where I was when the picture was made. Today I could post my pictures for friends and family with commentary on a social network, or an image-sharing site like Flickr, from my motel room or while relaxing at Starbucks.

Photography is a tailor made pastime for retirement. It is supposed to be a great time of life and what better way to capture new memories, to be creative, to remain active, and to keep that brain stimulated by working with a camera.