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As a relative youngster, I believe it’s of upmost important that I value and learn from the older generations. In many ways, I view them as society's most important asset, who teach and guide the young through the lessons of life that will allow them to prioritize the things that are of greatest importance. So with that in mind, it’s important for us as photographers to document and preserve the lives of those who came before.
First off, you need to consider carefully where the best location for the shoot is. You need to bear in mind that your subject may not have the mobility and energy to get themselves to even the other side of town for a photograph, so I’d suggest heading to wherever is most convenient for them.
This may well be their house or even a nursing home, which granted, isn’t the most inspiring of locations, but it’s a case of ensuring the subject is comfortable and utilising the space around them.
Placing Them in Context
Once you’ve sorted the location, it’s time to get slightly more specific about where they are to be photographed and if possible, placing the subject within a context that will tell the viewer slightly more about them than just a nicely textured background.
It may be that they’ve been living in the same house for many many years, so you could try photographing them standing on the door step or in the garden or maybe they have a favourite chair that they spend a lot of time sitting in that allows them to look natural somewhere familiar.
When working with any subject in a portrait or documentary sense, it’s vital that as the photographer, you’re able to grasp a sense of who the person is that you’re shooting, so ask questions! It’s great to find out stories as it allows you to paint a picture and enhance your imagery. When it comes to the older generations, there’s always plenty to say regarding various professions, where they’ve travelled to, any famous people they may have met and the friends and family that they shared their life with.
Photo by apdk
Tell Their Story
From your conversations you should have been able to build a fairly good picture of your subject and their character. In a similar way to considering where you might place your subject in context, you can also utilise artifacts and memories from the past to help tell the story of their life.
They might have a particular achievement that they received recognition for, and could therefore include the certificate, trophy, or statue that they received in the shot. They may be a war veteran, in which case you could include war medals or the defining day of their life might have been their wedding day, so you could have them hold a photo from that day.
You can make it as obvious or as subtle as you like, they don’t have to be holding something front and centre, it could just be on the mantlepiece behind them, but anything that might help the viewer understand more about the individual is beneficial for the image.
Getting the Expression
When it comes down to it, your exploit here is to portray this person, and their life story in a single shot. You can aid this by including elements that we’ve already talked about, but the strongest impression that a portrait gives is usually defined by the expression on the face of the subject.
Older people tend not to pose and smile as much as the younger generations, so it’s often relatively easy to get a natural shot, which may be exactly what you want, but from hearing about this persons life, you may want to say more through the expression.
Have they lived a happy life? Are they fearful that it’s coming to an end? You don’t have to ask your subject for a certain expression, it’s up to you to consider how the subject should be portrayed and to use your intuition to capture the moment that you feel defines them. That could be a wry smile, or a cheeky grin with a glint in the eye or maybe a distant gaze, all of which would say something different about the subject and their life.
Photo by Sabertasche2
Capturing the Details
Along with the facial expression, it’s important that you do all you can to capture the detail in the face of the subject. Having a sharp focus on the eyes is always important, but ensuring you catch the detail in the skin, wrinkles and other prominent facial features is also key. You may want to try a few head or face only shots that will allow you to pay more attention to the details, to place alongside a wider shot that places the subject in context.
Your decision on light sources will greatly depend upon the location for the shoot, but I’d say that in the most part, you wont want to be setting up lighting rigs and having your subject sitting beneath hot lights for extended periods of time. If possible, use natural light.
You want to the subject to feel and look natural in the shots, which they probably wont do if you start filling the room with lighting gear. It might be a question of moving a chair closer to a window to allow more light to reflect off the subject, but be creative with the light available and you’ll achieve the shot you want.
Photo by Lauren Profeta
For lots of older people that I know, family is the most important thing, so it might be the case that to have the subject in context and tell their story, you decide you’d like to include other family members in the shot.
I’m not talking a huge group family shot, but maybe 2 or 3 at a time, so it’s still a fairly small portrait set up. You can look to portray them alongside partners, siblings, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, whichever you feel is going to help portray the subject in the way you want.
Photo by thetejon
Easy on the Post Processing
I’d recommend editing this selection of shots fairly carefully. It’s important that you don’t over do the editing. The premise of the shot is that it’s a clean and natural portrayal of older person and you want the image to reflect that in the best way possible without too many strong contrasts or exuberant colours. There are exceptions of course, for example, if you’re attempting a high key portrait of grandad and his beard, but I’d say in the most part, keep it simple!
Photo by lidocaineus
Try it for Yourself!
Hopefully by this point in the article, you’ve got your phone in hand ready to call your grandparents to arrange a visit, I’m sure they’d love to see you, share stories from their past and allow you to take some photographs of them.
If visiting grandparents isn’t an option for you, maybe try to arrange a visit to a local care home, speak with the nurse and see whether you could spend an afternoon volunteering in exchange for being allow to take some shots? It really is worth the effort to capture those treasured moments and the faces that conceal a lifetime of emotions and stories.
Photo by masochismtango