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A guide for beginners with portraits of older clients: part 2 – Lighting and posing

The post-A beginner's guide for portraits of older clients: part 2 – Lighting and posing first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by Clinton Moore.

Welcome to part two in our series about photographing older customers. In the first part we looked at compiling reports and the practical aspects of preparing for your shoot. In this article you will learn about exposure and posing techniques to improve your photos of older subjects.

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

Lighting practical matters

For this article, we assume that you are photographing at the person's home – often a requirement when photographing older clients. This means that you do not have access to a complete studio setup and that you have to improvise based on space.

Lost in space

If you're lucky, your older client can still live in the old house with beautiful high ceilings, so you can set it up and bounce to your heart's content. Unfortunately, many will have been reduced 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 into this space.

In tight spaces, the best bet is to try outside. However, this is not always possible for fewer mobile customers.

Also remember that if you do a shoot in a nursing home or retirement home, you may need permission from the village manager. There is a lot of protection around older residents (and rightly so), which means that the house is not inclined to be friendly to a stranger who turns up unannounced and takes pictures of vulnerable people.

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

Flash versus continuous light

As a photographer, flash is probably your go-to for artificial light outside the studio, but take a moment to consider continuous lighting. While a flash is more portable and powerful than the most affordable continuous lighting, they can be quite disorienting for older clients – especially those with dementia. The last thing you want is to hurt the person you hope to make a smile of.

With the affordable price of LED lighting nowadays, continuous light is now incredibly accessible and has the added advantage that it stays cool for your customer as opposed to older lamps. Progress in chip-on-board LED technology also means that you don't have to worry about heavy and expensive HMI lamps if you want that classic Fresnel look.

Soft against harsh light

The purpose of the recording determines your lighting style.

It is rare for an older person to say "make me look old and gray", so your goal is probably to create a flattering image of your subject by leaning towards soft, scattered 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, the contrast is your enemy when photographing the elderly, as it accentuates their wrinkles and other parts. This can be great for gritty street photography, but it is unlikely that an older person wants you to portray them like that in a paid portrait.

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

Of course the final decision must always come from a combination of trying to convey the personality of your client and answering the agreements that you agreed in your pre-shoot consultation.

Lighting setups

We will look at two classic lighting arrangements that want to create a flattering portrait. Although there are limitless options for portrait lighting, not all work with older clients due to wrinkles, sagging and posture problems.

3-point lighting

The classic three-point exposure set-up offers you a huge amount of flexibility to shape the face of the subject in a flattering light.

For older customers, try to make your most important light only a little stronger than your fill light. This reduces the contrast and provides a more flattering light that wraps around the face. Fill light is your friend when it comes to older customers.

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

Although you use more fillings than normal, it is still important to be aware of the effects of short and wide lighting, as aging is not always good for the face shape. You can use short exposure to make a broad face look slimmer. This is usually the more flattering option for older faces.

Wide exposure can add some width to a thinner face, but it also tends to place more emphasis on wrinkles.

For older customers it can also pay to lower your lamps slightly more than with a young customer. The shadows cast by higher lights emphasize wrinkles and sagging skin.

By placing the lights higher, as you can with a younger client, you can create shadows that emphasize features such as wrinkles and crow's feet.

By lowering the lights, the face becomes soft and you can fill the eyes that sink with the years. It never hurts to throw a reflector under the subject's chin to lift the shadows.

If you drop your main light only slightly, this can make a dramatic difference to the final image.

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

Combining all changes and throwing in a reflector under the chin of the subject creates a final image that puts them in a favorable light.

Clamshell lighting

Clamshell lighting can create a very dramatic look, but with large diffuse light sources it can also flatter an older face and still give a dynamic effect.

In this setup we have a large soft box with a 45-degree angle that acts as the key and an umbrella as a filling. You may also want to experiment with a beauty salon as the main light for a more striking look.

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

Although correct exposure is a problem, it does not matter how you are exposed, it doubles for a clamshell arrangement, because excessive underlighting creates a creepy look like something from a horror film. A safe way to prevent this is to use a simple reflector or bouncing board as a filling if you are not familiar with setting lighting on artificial light.

If you do not set your input light correctly, you will get underexposure that creates a scary look that your customer may not want.

As you can see, you get a more balanced look by reducing the fill light to just over half the exposure of the main light.

If you ensure that your fill-in line is set lower than your main lamp, the classic clamshell look is created.

Combined with good posing, this lighting arrangement can be a great option to take a square image of an older person. The resulting recording can give an introspective, but intimate feeling.

By correctly exposing and properly positioning your client, you get a final shot with a good introspective feeling.

Older portrait idiosyncrasies

Although with some basic lighting setups you have 80% of your way of photographing older clients, there are still a few small hurdles you need to know that could otherwise cause chaos during your shooting.

Glasses and reflections

Glasses are the curse of your existence when working with older customers. Glasses like nothing better than to catch the reflection of your lights. And God helps you when you are dealing with bifocals!

Glasses! Guaranteed to destroy any portrait without any planning.

You can always ask your subject to completely remove their glasses, 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 get your client's eyes back on the screen, but three of the best options are:

1. Tilt down – Ask your subject to tilt their glasses down a little. This can be combined with tilting their head downwards. Don't go overboard with this unless you want them to look like Santa Claus or a librarian.

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

2. Increase your lights – By raising your lights a little higher, the chance of picking up a reflection becomes smaller. Of course the interaction here is that you get more shade. It can help to balance the change with a reflector.

Lighting up the lights solves the reflection issue, but creates a new dilemma because of the heavy shadows that now appear.

3. Lensless glasses – Perhaps the best solution. Take glasses with you and remove the lenses. Hey presto, no more thinking to worry about. The problem here, of course, is that they may not be the style of glasses that work with the face of your subject.

Manage baldness

Of course this also happens for younger people, but if you photograph older customers, you will come across many bald heads. The issue here is that a bald head will act as a large reflective surface and create a hot spot.

To solve this:

1. Lower your lights – by lowering the height of your lights, you reduce the reflections on their heads. Of course the problem here becomes the balancing act that must take place if your subject happens to wear glasses!

2. Remove edge lighting – If you are dealing with baldness, it is worthwhile to completely dispose of your wrinkle light. Find alternative ways to separate your topic from the background.

3. Powder – A neutral powder is always handy to reduce the shine of a bald head. If you have a very proud man who does not wear make-up, take a photo without powder and get the attention drawn to their heads.

Exposing bare hair

Jumping back to the 3-point lighting setup, this all comes down to the edge light. As mentioned above, the limelight is the enemy of the bald head. However, it also causes havoc with gray hair. Be extra careful not to overexpose with gray hair, because you will quickly blow the highlights faster than with colored hair.

Ask older customers

Setting older clients is difficult because, as we discussed in part one, we have a large number of what ' elderly ' to be. People around the age of 65 will probably be able to do many of your standard postures with great results. However, considerably older clients may have limited mobility and health issues, which means they cannot remain standing for long.

Stools are for fools

Assuming you are working with a client older than 80, it is best to consider sitting your shoot around them. The first thing to do is to use the stools that you use with your younger customers.

Older clients need the back support of a chair and can lose weight as unstable as a stool. They may also not have the core power to support themselves on faeces, which leads to a very bad breakdown.

Customers of 80 years and older with mobility problems probably also have chairs in armchairs where they can easily disappear.

Shooting ahead with your client in a large chair or armchair will make them look smaller and wider if they are allowed to sink.

By photographing this image, especially at the front, the client will appear small and have a non-flattering effect on their thighs (which will spread in this way).

To solve this problem, you must give your client a number of cushions to create a better posture. If the client is quite vulnerable, ask a family member to do this so that you do no damage.

Place cushions behind the client or ask them to sit on the edge of the chair to change their position.

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

By moving the client forward, it is less likely that it will collapse, resulting in a more flattering image.

Safe and secure equipment

One of the main causes of injury in the elderly is tipping over. Often they will be very used to everything that is set up in their house in a certain way. As such, moving furniture and bringing problems to great speed can cause.

First, only move furniture with their permission and of course put it back when you're done! Make sure you have left a clear path to the front door and the toilet in case of an emergency.

Second, secure your things! Put at least sandbags on your light stand and tripod. If you use something that has cords, pull out the tape and stick it.

Sandbag those lights and gaffer those cords so you're not responsible for a trip to the E.R.

An undamaged customer is a satisfied customer, so take that extra few minutes to ensure that the area is safe.

Flattering posing angles

Great, you've installed everything securely, now it's time to pose to your client.

Again, assuming you are dealing with a client over the age of 75, you are going to pose compromises.

Few people look good, so start by asking your client to turn their body off the camera. Then ask the client to turn their head back to the camera with their body facing the head lamp.

It is often best to prevent older clients from tilting their heads, as this can cause skin to accumulate under the neck. Instead, keep the head perpendicular to the body and focus on whether they want to push their jaw slightly forward to stretch their necks.

If your client is really worried about his neck wrinkles, it's best to shoot a little above the client and ask him to tilt his chin down. Similarly, if a male client is worried about baldness, photographing something lower than the eye level reduces the focus on their head.

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

Move your subject as close as possible to the edge of the seat as it is safe while supporting your back. Customers who have difficulty bearing their weight may benefit from putting their hands on their thighs

Support the client with cushions behind his back and ask if they are able to put their hands on their knees to support their weight while leaning forward slightly. Experiment with placement on the knees and thighs to find the position that provides the most natural shoulder alignment.


Photographing older customers is a great way to bring all your basic exposure and setting principles together with a few extra challenges that are thrown to boot!

Experimenting is always crucial because you will have to work with the physical limitations of your client's age and with the practical limitations of your home. By having a clear picture of your client's expectations, you can find a way to achieve a picture that makes everyone happy.

Moreover, remember that they have sometimes earned those wrinkles and are damn proud of them!

The post-A beginner's guide for portraits of older clients: part 2 – Lighting and posing first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by Clinton Moore.

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