A Beginners Guide to Taking Portraits of Elderly Clients: Part 2 – Lighting and Posing

The post A Beginners Guide to Taking Portraits of Elderly Clients: Part 2 – Lighting and Posing appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Clinton Moore.

Welcome to part two in our series on photographing older clients. In part one, we looked at rapport building and the practical aspects of preparing for your shoot. In this article, you’ll learn about lighting and posing techniques to enhance your photos of elderly subjects.

Lighting older clients utilizes most of the same lighting principles that you apply to younger clients, but there are a few extra tricks that will ensure a stress-free and flattering shoot.

Lighting practicalities

For this article, we’re going to assume that you are shooting at the subject’s home – often a requirement when shooting older clients. This means that you won’t have access to a full studio setup and will have to improvise based on space.

Lost in space

If you’re lucky, your older client may still be in the old family home with beautiful high ceilings so you can set up and bounce light to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, many will have downsized and are often in smaller apartments. Others may be in nursing homes with less space than your average bathroom and have everything they own crammed within this space.

In tight spaces, the best bet is to try and get outside. However, this is not always possible for less mobile clients.

Also remember, if you’re doing a shoot in a nursing or retirement home, you’ll possibly need to gain permission from the village manager. There’s a lot of protection around older residents (and rightfully so), which means the home is not likely to take kindly to a stranger turning up unannounced and taking photos of vulnerable people.

This is not one of those situations where it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission first!

Flash versus continuous lighting

As a photographer, flash is probably your go-to for artificial lighting when outside the studio, but take a moment to consider continuous lighting. While a strobe is more portable and powerful than most affordable continuous lights, they can be quite disorienting for older clients – particularly those with dementia. The last thing you want is to distress the person you’re hoping to make a smile.

With the affordable price of LED lighting these days, continuous lighting is now incredibly accessible and has the added benefit of remaining cool for your client as opposed to older lights. Advances in chip-on-board LED technology also means you don’t have to worry about heavy and expensive HMI lights when you want that classic Fresnel look.

Soft versus hard light

The aim of the shoot will determine your lighting style.

It’s going to be rare to hear an older person say “please make me look old and grizzled,” so your aim is likely to create a flattering image of your subject by leaning towards soft, highly-diffused light. You can achieve this by using light from large light sources such as softboxes and umbrellas. The bigger the source, the better! You want that light to wrap around their face.

Unless it’s the desired look, contrast is your enemy when photographing elderly people as it accentuates their wrinkles and any other parts that are sagging. This might be great for gritty street photography, but it’s unlikely an older person wants you to portray them like that in a paid portrait.

Think less George Hurrell, more Anne Geddes (but leave the flower pot at home).

Of course, the final decision should always come from a mixture of trying to convey your client’s personality and meeting the brief agreed upon in your pre-shoot consultation.

Lighting setups

We’ll look at two classic lighting setups which aim to create a flattering portrait. While there are limitless portrait lighting options, not all will work with older clients due to wrinkles, sagging, and posture issues.

3-point lighting

The classic three-point lighting setup provides you with a huge amount of flexibility to sculpt the subject’s face in a flattering light.

For older clients, aim to have your key light only a little stronger than your fill light. This reduces contrast and provide a more flattering light that wraps around the face. Fill light is your friend when it comes to older clients.

Short lighting (left) generally provides a more flattering photo for an elderly subject than broad lighting (right).

Although you’ll be using more fill than normal, it’s still important to be aware of the effects of short and broad lighting, as aging isn’t always kind to the face shape. You can use short lighting to make a wide face appear more slender. This is usually the more flattering option for older faces.

Broad lighting can add some width to a skinnier face, but it tends also add more emphasis on wrinkles.

For older clients, it can also pay to lower your lights a little more than you might with a young client. The shadows cast by higher lights emphasize wrinkles and sagging skin.

Placing the lights higher as you might do with a younger client can create shadows that highlight features such as wrinkles and crow’s feet.

By lowering the lights, the face softens, and you can fill in the eyes which tend to sink with age. It never hurts to throw a reflector under the subject’s chin to lift the shadows.

Dropping your key light by just a small amount can have a dramatic difference to the final image.

You will then get a final shot that creates a warm and inviting portrait.

Combining all the changes and tossing in a reflector under the subject’s chin creates a final image that presents them in favorable light.

Clamshell lighting

Clamshell lighting can create a very dramatic look, but with large diffused light sources it can also light an older face in a flattering way while still providing a dynamic effect.

In this setup, we have a large softbox angled at 45-degrees acting as the key and an umbrella as the fill. You may also want to experiment with a beauty dish as the key light for a more striking look.

The clamshell is a simple setup and can be achieved with just one key light and a reflector to act as fill if need be.

While exposing correctly is a no-brainer no matter how you’re lighting, it goes double for a clamshell setup as excessive underlighting creates a ghoulish look like something out of a horror movie. A safe way to avoid this can be to use a simple reflector or bounce board as your fill if you’re not comfortable with setting exposure on artificial lights.

Failing to set your fill light correctly will result in underlighting that creates a scary look unlikely to be desired by your client.

As you can see, by reducing the fill light to a little more than half the exposure of the key light, you get a more balanced look.

Ensuring that you have your fill light set lower than your key light will create the classic clamshell look.

Combined with good posing, this lighting setup can provide a great option for taking a square-on image of an older person. The resulting shot can convey an introspective, but intimate feel.

By exposing correctly and positioning your client beautifully you will get a final shot that has a great introspective feel.


Elderly portrait idiosyncrasies

Although having a couple of basic lighting setups will get you 80% of the way to photographing elderly clients, there are still a few little hurdles to be aware of that may otherwise cause chaos on your shoot.

Glasses and reflections

Glasses are the bane of your existence when working with elderly clients. A pair of spectacles loves nothing more than to capture the reflection of your lights. And God help you if you’re dealing with bifocals!

Glasses! Guaranteed to destroy any portrait without some planning.

You can always ask your subject to remove their glasses completely, but many will feel that they look wrong without their glasses after having worn them for so many years.

Managing glasses always requires a bit of compromise to bring your client’s eyes back into the image, but three of the best options are:

1. Tilt Down – Ask you subject to tilt their glasses down just a little. This can be combined with tilting their head down as well. Don’t go overboard with this unless you want them to look like Santa or a librarian.

You will largely remove the reflections by asking your subject to lower their chin and tilt their glasses down. However, be careful not to overdo it!

2. Raise Your Lights – Raising your lights a little higher reduces the chance of picking up a reflection. Of course, the trade-off here is that you will get more shadows. It can help to balance the change with a reflector.

Raising the lights resolves the reflections issue, but creates a new dilemma due to the heavy shadows that now appear.

3. Lensless Glasses – Possibly the best solution. Bring along a pair of glasses with the lenses removed. Hey presto, no more reflections to worry about. The issue here, of course, is that they may not be the style of glasses that work with your subject’s face.

Managing baldness

Sure it happens to younger folks as well, but if you’re photographing older clients, you’re going to encounter a lot of bald heads. The issue here is that a bald head will act like a big reflective surface and create a hot spot.

To resolve this:

1. Lower Your Lights – by lowering the height of your lights you reduce the reflections on their head. Of course, the problem here becomes the balancing act that has to take place if your subject also happens to be wearing glasses!

2. Remove Rim Lights – When dealing with baldness it’s worth considering doing away with your rim light entirely. Find alternate ways to separate your subject from the background.

3. Powder – Having some neutral powder on hand is always handy to reduce the shine of a bald head. If you’ve got a particularly proud male that won’t wear “makeup,” take a photo without any powder applied and show them the attention drawn to their head.

Exposing hair

Jumping back to the 3-point lighting setup, this all comes down to the rim light. As mentioned above, the rim light is the enemy of the bald head. However, it also wreaks havoc with grey hair. Be extra careful not to overexpose with grey hair as you will quickly blow the highlights much more easily than you would with colored hair.

Posing older clients

Posing older clients is tricky because, as we discussed in part one, there is a range of what constitutes being “elderly.” People around 65 years of age will probably be able to do many of your standard poses with great results. However, significantly older clients may have restricted mobility and health issues that prevent them from standing for long periods.

Stools are for fools

Assuming you are working with a client over the age of 80, it’s best to consider basing your shoot around them sitting down. The first thing to do is turf that stool that you use with your younger clients.

Older clients need the back support of a chair and could fall off something as unstable as a stool. They also may not have the core strength to support themselves on a stool leading to some very bad slumping.

Clients over the age of 80 with mobility issues are also likely to have recliner style chairs that they can easily disappear into.

Shooting front-on with your client in a large chair or recliner will tend to make them look small and wider if they are allowed to sink back.

Shooting this image, particularly front-on, will make the client appear small and can have an unflattering effect on their thighs (which will spread when seated in this manner).

To remedy this issue prop your client up with some pillows to create a better posture. If the client is quite frail, ask a family member to do this so that you don’t cause any harm.

Place pillows behind the client or ask them to sit towards the edge of the chair to shift their posture.

By bringing the client forward and focusing on the head and shoulders framing, the resulting image is more flattering.

By moving the client forward they will be less likely to slump resulting in a more flattering image.

Safe and secured gear

One of the major causes of injury in elderly people is falling over. Often they will be very used to everything being set up in their home a particular way. As such, moving furniture around and bringing in big gear can pose problems.

Firstly, only move furniture with their permission and, of course, put it back when you’re done! Ensure that you’ve left a clear path to the front door and the toilet in case of emergencies.

Secondly, secure your gear! At the very least put sandbags on your light stands and tripod. If you’re using anything that has cords, pull out that gaffer tape and stick it down.

Sandbag those lights and gaffer those cords so that you don’t end up responsible for a trip to the E.R.

An uninjured client is a happy client, so take those extra few minutes to make sure the area is safe.

Flattering posing angles

Great, you’ve got everything setup safely, now it’s time to pose your client.

Again, assuming you are dealing with a client who is older than 75, posing is about compromises.

Few people look great square-on, so start by asking your client to turn their body slightly away from the camera. Next, ask the client to turn their head back to the camera with their body facing the key light.

It’s often best to avoid having older clients tilt their head as this can cause bunching of the skin under the neck. Instead, keep the head perpendicular to the body and focus on asking them to push their jaw slightly forward to stretch their neck.

If your client is really concerned about their neck wrinkles, it will be best to shoot from slightly above the client and ask them to angle their chin down. Similarly, if a male client is worried about baldness, shooting from slightly lower than eye level reduces the focus on their head.

For clients who are unable to shift their neck or body due to age, a front-on shot can still be flattering, but you will want to try and shift the weight forward.

Move your subject as close to the edge of the chair as is safe while supporting their back. Clients who struggle to support their weight may benefit from placing their hands on their thighs

Prop the client up with pillows behind their back and ask if they are able to place their hands on their knees to support their weight while leaning forward a tad. Experiment with placement on the knees and thighs to find the position that allows for the most natural shoulder alignment.


Photographing elderly clients is a great way to bring together all of your basic lighting and posing principles with a few extra challenges thrown in to boot!

Experimentation is always key as you will have to work with the physical restrictions of your client’s age and the practical limitations of their home. By having a clear idea of your client’s expectations, the two of you can find a way to achieve an image that makes everyone happy.

Moreover, remember that sometimes they’ve earned those wrinkles and are damn proud of it!

The post A Beginners Guide to Taking Portraits of Elderly Clients: Part 2 – Lighting and Posing appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Clinton Moore.

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