How to photograph the elderly to be not just flattering but to show fitness and health?
April 23, 2008 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I've been commissioned to take photos of a 70 year old nutritionist and her husband, showing them "as fit and healthy as possible." Can you offer advice on how to do it and what to charge?

At least one of the photos will appear in a magazine, accompanying an article she is writing on healthy aging. Here is a photo of the couple in question (not taken by me). She told me that she isn't really happy with any previous shots that have been taken of them with the same goal, so it's a tall order - especially considering I don't have any experience photographing older people. I have met her and her husband a few times but we haven't had a lengthy conversation yet, so it'll essentially be shooting a stranger. I let her know that I'm best at candid, outdoors and active, "real people" type portraits as opposed to carefully lit, sedate studio portraits, so we've decided on a 3pm shoot at the beach (it's 11 hours from now, I'm in Australia). I don't know what they intend to wear. I've got a Nikon D70 DSLR, an SB-800 flash, a tripod and somewhere around here I've got a gadget that will allow me to use the flash off camera but I've only done it once - normally for outdoor shoots I've only used flash as fill, and sitting on top of the camera. Through all of this the subject of cost has never come up and I haven't done many paid shoots - how should I charge for this project? Thank you in advance for your experiences and insight!
posted by andihazelwood to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to mention, I also have a circular polarizer...
posted by andihazelwood at 10:56 AM on April 23, 2008

Firstly, if you're doing it for a magazine, have you considered the licensing rights?
You'll want more information from them, such as their average run (issues, coverage), how big the image is, if they want reprints, and several other things.
This link can give you a little information on media licensing

As to the actual pay for the photography, don't undercut yourself. Try to break it down a little. How long are you shooting? How much post processing are you putting into this? Are you traveling to meet them? Weigh that out, and come up with a number. Since you're new at this, you'll probably think it's too high, and say "I'm not good enough for that". They're hiring you because they like your eye and want your touch. So obviously, you are good enough for it.

Secondly, as to the actual shot, 3pm sun is bad. You get squinting eyes, and it just doesn't work out for portraits. I also don't like the type of contrast it gives the image, but that's my personal preference. Now if you're shooting them being active, it can work.

70 year old nutritionists. They exercise, I'd imagine. They do some sort of activity, I'd guess outdoors. Try to shoot them doing that, just enjoying themselves.
What are their personalities like from the brief time you met them? Can you take 5 minutes to discuss some of their activities and passions? What got them into the healthy phase of their lives? What drives them to do what they do?

I'm personally have gone through a lot of this recently, and am still working my way up, so take all of this with a bit of salt.
posted by fnord at 11:03 AM on April 23, 2008

Well, as far as the issue of cost, I would imagine that usually would have been discussed prior to 11 hours before the shoot itself. Did you guys even discuss ballpark figures? Do they even know you're expecting to be paid?

As far as how to make "older" people look healthy and fit -- assuming they actually are healthy and fit it shouldn't be terribly difficult. I don't know of any particular techniques photography wise that might make them look more fit, but I think the key is to capture the inherent vitality they most likely already possess as nutritionists. Seconding what fnord said, shoot them doing something they enjoy - whether it's hiking, some sort of sport, etc... and the vitality should shine through on it's own.

Another thing you definitely need to get clear is what exactly didn't they like about the other pictures they've had take, so you can avoid those mistakes. People are often very vague when you try to find out what they didn't like, but it's crucial to getting the shot they're looking for. As for the shot you put in your post, I think the weakest part of the picture is the composition, where the fruit is so dominating the lower right of the frame it almost completely obscures your view of the gentleman peering out from behind it. Make sure your subjects are the focus of the frame. I also personally think a lot of youth is found in the eyes and smile, so make sure they look happy!

Wish you the best of luck. Let us know how it goes.
posted by rooftop secrets at 11:22 AM on April 23, 2008

Not a pro photographer, but I would think you'd want a lot of indirect light reflected softly into their faces to minimize wrinkle-shadow.

They already look healthy and fit. Get them relaxed and happy and they should make great photo subjects.

Maybe they're the type of people who are never happy with how they look in photos? Make sure you negotiate your fee and get paid up front, and that your fee isn't contingent on them liking the photos. Seconding rooftop secrets's suggestion that you find out what it is that they previously didn't like.
posted by desuetude at 11:27 AM on April 23, 2008

Response by poster: fnord, thank you for the licensing site, that's going to be extremely helpful. It'll be about a 15 minute drive (15kms) and I expect we'll spend an hour shooting, so I'll take those into account. Personality-wise, she comes across as rather reserved and proper and he seems opinionated and a bit blustery. However, both have been very nice every time I've met them and those first impressions are obviously way oversimplified. Obviously I'll need to find what makes them laugh and smile.

rooftop secrets, I agree that discussing it before now would've been wise! When she initially emailed me she asked if she could "commission me" to take a photo to go with her article, so yet she is expecting money to be involved. The back and forth since then has been strictly about time, place and circumstance. I will make a point of asking exactly what they're after, compared to the other shots they've had done.

desuetude, I agree that talking dollars should come first (and I'll call her about it when the sun comes out, before I drive down there this afternoon), but get paid upfront too? Is that normal??

Also forgot to mention I have an 18-200mm and a 105mm prime available. Sheesh, you'd think I've been awake since 3am. Oh wait...
posted by andihazelwood at 11:43 AM on April 23, 2008

Natural light always looks more "fresh and healthy" to me. I think colors in the photo you linked to are kind of dull, especially the background.

I would ask them to bring a few changes of clothes in different colors so they don't show up with something that clashes.

Why not take a quick look at images in some fitness/health magazines online to see if the style/angle/colors/location can inspire the look you want.

Are you going to retouch them at all? I'm in charge of a lot of photoshoots (but not a photographer) and always end up retouching photos a tiny bit before I show them to the person. Hands are a big giveaway for age and can always use a little softening. Even my mom makes me retouch photos of her nowadays, it's become so expected.
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:54 AM on April 23, 2008

Stylistically, up-angle shots tend to impart more "presence" or "power" to a subject than do straight-on shots. Down-angle shots definitely diminish a subject's presence.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:01 PM on April 23, 2008

I would suggest a different tack from trying to hide their age: try to emphasize their healthiness and activeness while showing their age. This may not appeal to them, depending on their vanity.
posted by cardboard at 12:08 PM on April 23, 2008

Oh, I was probably typing faster than I was thinking when I said 'paid up front' -- I meant negotiate the fee up front. Presumably you'd invoice after for your $.
posted by desuetude at 12:34 PM on April 23, 2008

If you are even remotely considering using that "gadget that will allow me to use the flash off camera but I've only done it once" I strongly suggest you do some testing beforehand. Given the possibility of contrasty late afternoon light, using it could be a valuable approach if you do it right.

Make sure you have plenty of charged batteries; memory cards, etc. If you're going to shoot anything off a tripod, or use the tripod to hold your flash, put plastic bags over the tripod feet to keep sand out.

Who is bankrolling the shoot, the couple or the magazine? If it's the magazine, call up the photo editor and ask what their regular rates are for this kind of thing. It could be anything from zero dollars to well over a thousand. Also, ask if they pay upon acceptance or upon publication. If it's upon publication you could have a long wait for your money. Considering how most magazines work these days, you could have a long wait one way or the other.

If it's the couple paying, you'd best have a number in mind before you discuss pricing.

This couple obviously expects something very good from you, because the photo you linked to, while not perfect at all, shows them to their advantage in terms of looking healthy and youthful.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:53 PM on April 23, 2008

Search some stock libraries for "active senior" shots, and pick out several samples that are unmistakably different to the nonprofessional eye. Bring along those plus their prev shot, (and back issues of the mag, if possible). Use them to solicit details about what they consider to be appropriately flattering images. I'm frequently surprised by what kind of unexpected feedback comes out of such discussions.

Bring spare clothes for them, or at least whatever accessories and props you can pull together in a hurry. You and they may be in agreement that none of it belongs in the photos, but again you can develop a firmer sense of their likes and dislikes just by getting feedback on several items. Green = makes me look washed out? Tennis racket = raising my arm draws attention to the wattles? Okay, good to know.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:50 PM on April 23, 2008

Diffuse light is key. If you light them with direct light - from the sun or directly from your flash - you will enhance all the texture and wrinkles and whatnot. Don't do that.

Get yourself some way of diffusing the flash light: umbrella, softbox or (if you're cheap) a big white sheet and some means of suspending it vaguely vertically. Practise using the flash off-camera because you WILL need to do that. If you're shooting indoors, you can bounce the flash off white walls and ceilings to get the diffuse lighting and that doesn't require you to bring a diffuser. You should try using something like an omnibounce though because it will spread the beam and give you a larger area for the diffusion.

Use the sun as primary light but make sure it's diffuse, not direct sunlight. Use the diffused flash as fill to get rid of shadows.

Regardless of how you diffuse the flash light, if you're outside then definitely get another white sheet to put at their feet - this will reflect some sunlight up into their faces, get rid of under-brow/chin shadows and (if they're on grass) ensure that they don't have dark green light coming up from underneath.

The example photo you show emphasises healthy eating and nutrition, but the light is very dark, warm and muddy and the brick background is horrible. You would do well to look at some newish "lifestyle" magazines and note that they often use fairly cool light, e.g. sunlight and shoot in high-key. Therefore you want a pale background that's as non-distracting as possible. Get the background a bit over-exposed and well out-of-focus. Get their faces as bright as you can without blowing highlights.

Shoot in RAW so that you can get the white balance and exposure spot-on. Reduce the contrast and saturation.
posted by polyglot at 9:02 PM on April 23, 2008

and read, absolutely no less than all of the Lighting 101 section.
posted by polyglot at 9:03 PM on April 23, 2008

Two ingredients: lighting + retouch

1. For lighting, I second as the definitive site for you to get your flash photography technique up and running. Here's a quick link to Strobist: Lighting 101 for you to quickly get started.

2. You should probably do some minor retouch to refine their 'skin quality'. Photoshop is not your enemy: in the old days you just spend hours in the darkroom doing crazy things to get things the way they are :)

There are tons of books + sites on this category so I won't go through this one:
Google: Portrait photo retouch tutorial

I'm a semi-professional photographer
posted by seeminglee at 12:08 AM on April 24, 2008

Considering that this woman is really quite beautiful, I don't think this is a tall order. I suspect a satisfactory result is going to be more about setting and lighting than anything else, and you've got lots of advice on that.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:09 AM on April 24, 2008

When lighten them do so from head on, because lighting from the either of the sides will result in shadows accentuating their wrinkles. 3pm at the beach is going to be pretty tough, so see if you can relocate to a nearby park, or some other shaded area. Position the flash off camera and above, so it's coming down on them much like the sun. If you can, get a frame of some sort (fly screen frames work v. well) and attach some gauzy muslin; voila instant semi-softbox which will give you nice soft defused light. Have a few pieces of foam board on hand in case you need to soften any shadows (such as under the eyes, etc) Use a long lens, reasonably low aperture will give that real magazine out of focus background look. If you can, try and get them to wear light fresh cool colors (nothing like that awful orange shirt that just screams old old old). Interact with them, give them feedback after each shot (it's a cliche, but do the "Great, Perfect smile, fantastic!"), and let them see the results so they can give feedback. Have a few different ideas for poses, camera position and such, and try and have fun!

(That photo you linked too looks like it was taken by a monkey with a 3 year old kodak easy-crap.)
posted by oxford blue at 3:53 AM on April 24, 2008

How did it go?
posted by oxford blue at 1:37 AM on April 25, 2008

Response by poster: It went quite well, thanks. I shot about 130 photos and got 10 that are decent:

She's happy with them and was happy with the price I quoted, and asked me to send all 10 to the magazine for them to choose what to print. It would appear that I'm very lucky to have gotten the photos at all, five of the raw files right at the beginning of the shoot produce a "Could not complete your request because an unexpected end-of-file was encountered" error when I try to open them!

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions in this thread - I'd seen the excellent before but didn't have time to go over it before the shoot. I did time looking at stock sites for ideas and that helped immensely. I practiced using the off camera flash before the shoot (didn't need the gadget after all, the camera has everything it needs to make it happen) and shot quite a few that way.

Her husband was very easy going and relaxed through the entire thing, but it seemed no matter what I did I couldn't get her to relax- many of the outtakes are simply because she looks self conscious - but interestingly, the clothing choices were entirely theirs, and she stripped down to her swimsuit of her own accord!

I know I need a lot more practice with posing and lighting, hopefully I'll get more regular gigs so I can get better at it- thank you again, everyone!
posted by andihazelwood at 4:41 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

They turned out very well indeed; you managed to convey vitality and fitness while respectfully acknowledging their maturity (that said, wow, I can only hope I look that good at that age!). The only weak photo of the bunch is 7; where they are all squinty and uneasy looking. The rest would go well in any magazine.

If you can produce these sort of results—and continue to improve—I imagine you'll get a lot more work.
posted by oxford blue at 7:40 PM on April 25, 2008

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