How to Photograph Grandma - a DPS Community Workshop

How to Photograph Grandma – a DPS Community Workshop


It’s time for another DPS Community Workshop (this is where a reader asks a question and we all attempt to answer it together).

This week’s question comes out of a sad question and is one that I know the reader would appreciate your help on a lot. It comes from Mandy who writes:


“My Grandmother has been in hospital for the last few weeks – she’s been very ill and we’re told she doesn’t have long left to live.

My extended family suddenly had the realization that none of us have a good recent photograph of her and they have asked me if I would be able to take a portrait of her.

Grandma has agreed to it and even asking seemed to lift her spirits a bit so I’m happy to do so but….

I’m terrified. She’s been bed-bound for a while now and I’ll have to photograph her in her room. I may be able to have her moved to a chair – but she’s frail so I don’t wish to disrupt her much.

My question for you and your readers is to see if you have any suggestions? Suggestions around posing, lighting, framing – everything would be greatly appreciated. I’m going into this pretty much alone with no support from anyone who knows anything about photography – so I’d love any suggestions or encouragement that anyone here at DPS could give.

I’m using a Canon 20D and have a speedlight flash and 24-105mm lens. Can anyone help me?”

Do you have any advice for Mandy? Feel free to leave your suggestions in comments below – even if it’s just a few words of encouragement I’m sure that she’d appreciate it.

image by laurengalik

Update: I have just been on the phone with Mandy to see how she’s doing. She tells me that she will be going in to photograph her Grandmother tomorrow. She asked me to pass on her thanks to you all and wanted to let you know that she’s been reading your advice and that it’s filled her with hope.

Feel free to keep leaving your advice and suggestions in comments below – it seems that this is a problem that isn’t just facing Mandy but others also – perhaps this page can act as a resource for many and not just Mandy.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Carol Lawler June 12, 2010 05:19 am

    I wish I had had the opportunity to take one more picture of my grandmother. Am sure you do well.

  • Maureen February 17, 2010 11:51 am

    I wish I would've seen this before I went to see my Grandma last weekend. She's 94 years old and her health is fast deteriorating. Thanks everyone who had shared their tips and knowledge, I'm a total amateur here and I'm looking forward to go back and take pictures of my Grandma in April and use all of these great tips.

  • BC November 1, 2009 04:14 am

    i am so sorry to hear about your grandma, Mandy. i agree with everything everyone said.
    Having a multi-gen shot as the formal one sounds wonderful! And do go when she's not worn out.
    And for items you use to brighten the scene (esp. clothes/bedclothes) try to make sure it has colors that your grandma likes- very nice idea to use things she loves, 'cause they will cheer her up, even more. (then leave them there, for her to use, if you can)
    If you choose to make an audio recording, as well as the pix, i think most cell phones will do that (you should have a memory card in your phone, but mini-sd cards have come waay down in price!) and the phone is very inconspicuous.
    I wish you well, and your family, too!

  • Christian October 23, 2009 12:16 am

    Ill try that again:

  • Christian October 23, 2009 12:15 am

    I got a chance to take a few shots of my grandma recently, after she had been hospitalized for a bad fall that ripped open her hand and bruised her whole arm.

    You can barely tell she's got stitches in her hand in this pic:


  • Barb February 5, 2008 05:20 am

    Take pictures of everyone, especially your family. Take some of everyday activities, special times, and just anytime. My youngest son became coma like on the last day of his senior year of high school and was pronounced brain-dead due to the lack of oxygen on the morning of graduation. We later came to find that we did not have many pictures of him. I now take as many pictures of my loved ones and it does not matter what they are doing. Thank you for the chance to share this.
    Grieving Mother,

  • Melissa S January 26, 2008 10:09 am

    Hugs to you. Hope you were able to get some fantastic photos of Grandma. I've enjoyed reading the tips and stories. My husband's Grandfather passed away Wednesday and I'm so glad that he and our daughter were able to visit him in August and get some photos then.

  • Pat January 18, 2008 12:37 am

    Hi Mandy...
    I just read all of the above comments with tears streaming down my face as I recalled my own grandma who we didn't get photos of in her last days with us and how I wish we had.

    I wish you well and please know that even though this is a difficult task, it will be worth it in years to come.

    My prayers and thoughts are with you.


  • focalfrenzy January 17, 2008 09:04 am

    Hi Mandy,
    I was wondering how well your shoot went? Were you able to get audio recordings as well as photos? I hope everything worked out well for you, and look forward to hearing your results. Best wishes,

  • Michael Ryan January 15, 2008 09:14 am

    Why take one of your Gran alone? I could not take a photo of a person knowing they knew it could be their last photo, its the eyes, I could not do it for my Uncle 2 weeks before he passed last July and when my own Gran passed 25 yrs ago, I would not have been able then, but I did sit and talk with her...

    So, my suggestion, why not take photos of all the family for your Gran to enjoy and then take your photo, of her enjoying the photos, Documentary rather than portrait

  • Tammy January 15, 2008 01:25 am

    My grandma passed away last January. I struggled a lot over whether or not to take photos. In the end, I wasn't able to. I'm still torn over it. There were some very big emotional things going on as well, and she had dementia so she couldn't decide for herself.

    Anyway, I would make sure she is where she would be most comfortable, whether it's in the bed or wherever. You could take her some old photographs and have her look through them as you take shots. I think that would give her a dreamy/content kind of grandma look. Let us know how they come out.

  • Ken January 13, 2008 10:45 pm

    I think the best kind of photo will be a informal family portrait, which has everyone hugging together, heads side by side, shoulders by shoulders.

    All the best. :)

  • Lynne Rogers January 12, 2008 05:26 pm

    Hi, I have just experienced the same thing with my mother who passed on 1.12.07. I didn't want to capture her last moment with Dad as sad as it was so just concentrated on him passing his hands through the bed rail and clasping hers. He now has this above his bedhead and loves it. It makes him remember how he felt on that last occasion with her after 50yrs of marriage! I sincerley hope that it all works for your. Regards, Lynne

  • Suzanne January 12, 2008 12:14 pm

    This is a very good question. I loved some of the advice. Might I suggest making a video slideshow of images of your grandmother? I did this recently for my Dad of pictures of his father, who passed away a few years ago. It spread amongst the family and I have now made numerous copies. Here is the video for any who care to watch it. (You will have to load a small piece of software for it to run.)

  • Dan Chant January 12, 2008 06:45 am

    Just had another thought after posting.

    I'm not sure if this is possible/allowed but I think bringing in some music from her past would help bring that sparkle back especially if someone asks her what thoughts and memories it brings back.


  • Dan Chant January 12, 2008 06:36 am


    I'm sorry to hear about your Grandma's ill health, I can totally relate to what you are going through as my Grandma is very unwell at the moment.

    If I were in your shoes I would try to make the 'photo opportunity' as informal as possible. This won't be easy under the circumstances but I think it would be made a lot easier with family in the room with you. I think capturing your Grandma's natural 'essence' is so more important than propping her up in a chair possibly making her feel uncomfortable and awkward.

    Every Grandma has a cheeky son/daughter that can conjure up a smile from nothing. Get your family to engage your grandma and reminisce about the 'good times'. It astounds me how amazing my Grandma's memory is when you engage her about yester year even though she can't remember something she did two hours ago.

    You want to try and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible while capturing these precious moments but DON'T be a martyr. Whack your camera on Auto and get someone to take a few pic's of you with your Grandma.

    Good luck


  • Amy January 11, 2008 11:36 pm

    I recently took so photos of my 89 year old grandma with my daughter. I found that being around a baby put a sparkle in her eyes. Does your grandma love children? Does she have any great grand children around? You may capture some really touching moments if you bring them in. Just make sure they are well behaved, and don't wear her out! I agree with natural lighting, adding some color, maybe just a bright sweater, and no flash for sure!

    Good luck!

  • Michael January 11, 2008 05:31 pm

    Like a lot of people I'd probably go for a shot of the face, probably in black and white and making sure that the eyes are the key point, (windows of the soul and all that...).

    Maybe an alternative to this might also to be to get some of the family in the same room and then snap some candids of people smiling and talking with her, like it's been said before if people are telling her that they love her the emotion will come into the shot.

    Either way, my thoughts are with you. It's a tough assignment but this is where we, as photographers can rise to the occasion and create something magic as a record of a special person.

  • sasikumar January 11, 2008 04:09 pm

    Hi Mandy,
    I’m really sorry to hear about your grandmother

    I agree with

    "Michael Says:
    January 10th, 2008 at 4:59 am

    I also recommend a multi-generational portrait if you can arrange it. Those in the elder generation really dig the idea of photos documenting the family legacy. We did a 4-generation shot at Christmas and grandma couldn’t stop talking about it. I also think that this kind of setup for the “formal portrait” aspect of the event can shift the frame of mind from “Grandma’s last portrait” to “great opportunity for a family portrait.” Maybe making difficult emotional ground easier to tread."

    Please get your kids to the hospital. Let them talk and smile about something.

    Give them some stick candy(some choclates) to them and ask them offer to each other... keep the background dark... and low light..bounce flash.. .

    Try some candid of Grandma

    And also ask the Kid and grandma to give out warm, wide opened smile.

    I think, the smile photo will be really good...

    Goodluck Mandy.

  • kelley January 11, 2008 10:29 am

    Hi I am very sorry to hear about the shape of your grandmother, and hoping and praying that she will come back out of it. One thing you can do is bring her a blanket, afghan, or what have you that she loves and put it around her and put her flowers around her bed to soften the hospital stuff. Even put another blanket or sheet on the wall behind her if you want to that way it will make it look like she is home in a hospital bed. Of course keep her talking so she looks animated. So with that hopefully helping good luck with your project.

  • Bob January 11, 2008 09:18 am

    That should read Steve Bedell.

  • Bob January 11, 2008 06:56 am

    The latest issue of Shutterbug Magazine arrived yesterday. After reading this post I started reading it. Found a wonderful article by State Bedell on his experience, offering his advice, on photographing residents of a nursing facility. Both this post and the Bedell article are touching from a personal point of view, and instructional from a photographic point of view.

  • Mandy - The Photographer Blog January 11, 2008 06:51 am

    Hi Mandy,

    It was strange reading this as I am another Mandy, and my Nan has also been in hospital for a couple of months after breaking her hip. She will be bed ridden for the rest of her life and need to be moved to a nursing home.

    I know how hard and emotional this time can be, my thoughts are with you.

  • Aaron D'Souza January 11, 2008 03:57 am


    Since (as you rightly point out), the environment is somewhat cluttered and distracting, use a long lens (100mm equiv), and/or use a snoot or gridspot on your flash to restrict the light to only the areas where you want it to go. That will allow you to have her stand out, and reduce the rest of the room to several stops below the main subject.

  • Mark B January 11, 2008 01:33 am

    Hi Mandy,

    There's lots of good advice here on the technical side, and also in engaging your grandmother to bring out her spirit and reconnect with her joy.

    One thing I would say is don't be afraid to post-process the images too. I recently took some pictures of my fiancée's ill grandmother (a very similar situation), and in the "darkroom" I later removed some prominent varicose veins, improved the area beneath her eyes, "plumped up" and smoothed her skin tones quite a lot, and generally improved her look through editing and retouching.

    There's nothing "fake" about this, nor is it trying to "airbrush" the portrait, it's simply that the illness had emphasised certain aspects of her physical appearance, and I reversed that. Of course I checked with my fiancée that I hadn't changed anything that was hers (accidentally removing a mole etc.) and so on, but of course that won't be relevant for you.

    Her family loved the pictures and we have a couple printed now.

    I hope you can cherish the time with her, and use the session as a vehicle to connect with her, as well as to record images. The photos will be wonderful, I am sure.

    Good luck

  • Kristen January 11, 2008 01:00 am

    Use the soft light from the window...
    Be casual about it and make sure you are quick.
    keep it real.
    let her know you love her with your actions.
    You will remeber her at her best so don't make to much of this time, photographically.

  • john cooper January 10, 2008 11:24 pm

    Sounds simple but often there will be a hair dresser at the hospital that can help tidy her hair etc... My Nan for example looks 20 years younger when she's had a visit
    good luck

  • Matt Jowett January 10, 2008 10:23 pm

    Hi. In the old days, my grandmothers generation, bedridden ladies used to wear bed jackets, essentially normal clothes as if they were going out somewhere. So you could try and get her to dress in her favourite blouse or jacket (if she wants to) and photograph from the waist upwards...just a thought. Matt.

  • Rahni Newsome January 10, 2008 07:48 pm

    Hi Mandy

    I think take some things from her home that the family associates with her, her bed throw, her favourite shawl, her bed pillows that you all snuggled up to when you were young, and maybe her favourite knitting or photos or favourite china tea cup or something like that (including her 'lippy').

    Just go with it, we can all give you advice but while your shooting go with your intuition and it will work out beautifully. You'll know when the shot is right on the day.

    Good Luck and happy shooting

  • Bilka January 10, 2008 05:53 pm

    Hi Mandy. My best to your grandmother, your family and yourself. As you move through this take time to smell the roses as you perhaps learn little things about your grandmother's life that you never knew. Listen, learn and love much.

    The ideas of fixing up her surroundings are good ideas. Ask the staff if her bed could be made up with her personal sheets, blankets and pillowcases from home. Maybe an end table and a lamp with some favorite pictures would be nice too. Use the softest lighting possible and try to remove the sterility of the hospital setting from the pictures and your mind. Think about grandmother and her personal life experiences.

    Maybe the best advice I could give you is to not burden yourself with the task of making images. You are too close to the situation to do this without a lot of stress and performance anxiety. Ask a friend who might be good with a camera or a pro to help. Maybe someone who has a history of serving your family, like a wedding photographer. Explain your situation and I'll bet they will come out very inexpensively if not freely.

    Use soft light and a soft heart. Don’t tire her out, know her limits and when to stop shooting and be kind to yourself.

    Wishing you all the best.


  • Michelle S. January 10, 2008 04:44 pm

    Great post, but I wish I'd been warned before I clicked over from Darren's Twitter. My gramma had a stroke last month and I lost her at Christmas. She was the love of my life and I just spent about a half hour bawling as I remembered the last photos I took of her, including one the day she passed as she was sleeping. No offense to you Darren...I'm just still really sensitive, I guess.

    Even though most people thought it was weird that I took the photos, for me, it's important to have these last memories captured in a way that time can't erase. That was one of my biggest regrets when mom passed three years ago...I never got any last photos with her and of her.

    Once the hurt eases a bit, I'm doing a tribute site to gramma which will include some of the photos I took, as well as some video I had a friend shoot of the funeral. Gramma came from a big family and unfortunately, all but me are still in Europe and they never saw her to say goodbye. This way, they can still share in the memories and such, even though they're several thousand miles away.

  • JF January 10, 2008 02:24 pm


    sorry to hear about your grandmother's illness. I haven't read all of the replies, but a couple of practical things you may want to keep in mind - that are not strictly related to photography, but may help you with the shooting process. If possible, talk to her doctor and the nurses. They may be able to tell you how hectic her day may - as in what times the doctors will round, if she'll have any procedure done or X-Ray taken, or if there's a time when she will receive a medication that may cause sedation or pain.

    You may want to be there when she's calm and with not a lot of people coming into the room. Also if the nurses know the reason for you to be taking pictures there, they may be more eager to help you with the wheelchair or changing the position of her bed. Also up to a point they may be able minimize the interruptions and give you some privacy when you're there taking the pictures. Best of luck.

  • Darren January 10, 2008 01:40 pm

    I have just been on the phone with Mandy to see how she's doing. She tells me that she will be going in to photograph her Grandmother tomorrow. She asked me to pass on her thanks to you all and wanted to let you know that she's been reading your advice and that it's filled her with hope.

    Feel free to keep leaving your advice and suggestions in comments below - it seems that this is a problem that isn't just facing Mandy but others also - perhaps this page can act as a resource for many and not just Mandy.

  • Rick January 10, 2008 01:34 pm

    Mandy - My Mother died within the last year of dementia in a nursing home and, while it wasn't the best place to get a picture of her, I did find that candid shots of her really were the best. Of course, in her condition they were really the only ones possible. My wife's parents were in a similar situation, but they were of sound mind and shots of them were posed. I really like the candid ones better.

    Sadly, all 3 of them have now passed away so the most important thing is to just get some images while your Grandmother is still with you. I'm sure they'll come out just fine and you'll be glad you did.

  • Bryan Nelson January 10, 2008 12:20 pm

    Here are a couple of tips for a difficult situation:
    1. Don't forget to keep talking/listening to her even when you taking pictures.

    2. Avoid direct flash. Use bounce flash of ceiling/walls curtains but watch that the bounce surface doesn't affect the color.

    3. Use window light if available. If there is enough window light consider turning off any florescent lights and use reflector for fill or bounce flash for fill.

    4. A in-expensive piece of white foam core board can be used as a reflector.

    5. Before you start taking pictures look around for a good angle that avoids distracting elements in the background.

    6. Consider converting the pictures to black and white to avoid white balance problems with mixed light.

    7. Privacy curtains can be used to simplify the background.

    Best of luck,
    P.S. I'm just starting a project with my father-in-law who has been diagnosed with ALS.

  • Christine January 10, 2008 12:19 pm

    Hi Mandy, I had to do this myself for my mother in law and didn't have any background except for the hospital bed linen, not very nice,Find out from your grandmother if she has a favourite fur coat or something luxurious to drape behind her over the pillows and pegged up on the bed head , if its a favourite home made quilt that she has made even better.
    Just make sure its something that she loves and she will be happier, Cover her IV lines ect or you may be able to P/shop them out. Maybe get some of her fav scarves and these will enhance her skin tones. Has she a fav hat or fur hat , elderly people like their hair to look nice .
    Cant help you with the camera set ups as I only did hand held shots.
    Wishing you all the best.
    Christine in the Ridge

  • April January 10, 2008 11:17 am

    As everyone says candid shots are way to far as lighting..I am a beginner so someone please correct me if I am wrong..but you need to make sure you check your white balance..I know that differnt indoor lights give different effects. incandescent lights will give your pictures an orange tent and fluorescent lights will give them a blue tent so when I'm shooting indoors I always have to adjust my white balance. I hope this makes since and that I am not way off base..also if there is a window in the room you might want to take advantage of the natural lighting.

  • NuclearAdam January 10, 2008 10:32 am

    Sounds familiar. I had the same situation with my grandmother, and I had to cross the country to make it in time to say goodbye. My condolences.

    For the picture I'd flood it with a lot of light, erase all shadows from facial features that can make any subject look older. MAybe a little overexposure to make it more heavenly. Sounds like you want it not to be a portrait that reminds you of her illness. Like others say, I wouldn't have her pose, and i'd shoot it on rapid fire, to get the best possible moment.

  • Jason January 10, 2008 10:30 am

    She's most likely not used to having lots of pictures taken of her, so I would set up the lighting you want in an unobtrusive way and then set up a high tripod in the corner. Use a wireless remote and snap some while you're talking and hopefully laughing. As everyone is saying, candids will capture her personality and charm better than formals. Good luck, and take care during this tough time.

  • TG January 10, 2008 10:30 am

    I have no tips to offer you dear, but wanted to say that I will keep you, your family and grandmother in my prayers that you will all be able to enjoy these last days. I hope the pictures you take will bring you all much joy in the days to come.

    Take care and God bless.

  • LivinDownUnder January 10, 2008 10:03 am

    First, best of luck with this task, it is a difficult one.

    Although I don't have any photography advice, one suggestion that I would like to make is that if you get her talking about her life or something memorable, record it. My wife recorded her grandfather talking about WWII about a year before he passed; the whole family wanted a copy of it. It is a great way to help keep them alive as well as pictures.

    So basically, take a tape recorder or some other voice recording device, place it near her while she is talking and you are taking the photographs.

    Good luck, and above all, enjoy your time with her!

  • Laura G January 10, 2008 10:00 am

    I would tend to agree with the other posters. Arrange a pretty colored cloth behind her and over her pillow and take photos while she has other visitors in the room, capturing her expressions as she visits with them. If you have access to a camcorder and a means to set it up aimed toward her, you might also try that while you and your family/friends ask her to tell you stories about her life. Then you will have those stories captured for history as well :)

  • Michele January 10, 2008 09:30 am

    As a registered nurse and wannabe photographer, I see this as a wonderful opportunity. In our family we call it the best of times during the worst of times. Don't be afraid to "hide" the oxygen for just a second but also, take the pictures with any medical equipment too. Take some really close shots of her face so that you can see be beauty of her years, her eyes and mouth, maybe even ears, hair. Don't forget her hands, think of the things that family says "Oh, she has grandma's ______". Take pictures of others with grandma including any staff members that might have gotten close to her or the family. They'll be honored and it will bring back sweet remembrances later. If there is treatment happening that isn't embarrassing, capture that too. What is her reaction to the meal tray, the therapist, the doctor. Is there a special pet at home? Ask about a brief visit. Ask her about her childhood favorites. Like others have said, keep snapping, she'll finally forget the camera. Take some of the pictures from her eye level also. Have a bit of fun and I bet she joins in.

  • James January 10, 2008 09:18 am

    I usually find a hospital's fluorescent lights and white walls make for not-so-nice colors. You can play with the white balance to get better colors. I like using a white balance that makes everything a bit yellower (daylight and other outdoor settings). Black and white can look good, too, on close-ups. Good luck!

  • Jack Foster Mancilla January 10, 2008 09:08 am

    Also. ... In addition to my previous posting. ... It came as a surprise to me when my mom passed in Oct of 2006 how nice it was to have a little phone that recorded video. ... This was 3 days before my mom died, and she was only conscious about 1 hour after this.

  • Michele January 10, 2008 08:43 am

    My advice is to use a slightly longer lens so you can get up close without being in everyone's face. In addition to the traditional photos, you might want to get contras -- one of the grandchildren or great grandchildren kissing full lips to a wrinkled cheek, the wisdom of her eyes next to eyes that have yet to learn. You can also go in close to just take a playful smile, the crinkles next to the eyes, or the beauty of the creases in front of the ear.

    Depending on how well your grandmother is doing, you could even play with it as a photo shoot -- it could really boost her energy and spirits!

  • photokunstler January 10, 2008 08:31 am

    You've got lots of great advice above!
    I can tell you that the day before my mom left us (unable to talk because of tubes in her throat), I said I love her as shopaholicann recommended -- but I will NEVER forget her face and eyes melting, absolutely softening into love when I asked HER -- do you love me? Wow.

    I'd just have loved ones near, have them active in her room, she will watch them, talk with them - catch those expressions. And how wonderful an opportunity you have to chronicle a piece of her life!

  • Laura January 10, 2008 08:30 am

    Personally I wouldn't do it alone, have other family members come with you and take candid shots of her enjoying her family. this is a good idea because then your family will probably like the photos better because they have the memory of that moment. One of my favorite pictures i have of my grandma is from the last time we saw her and you can see in her face how happy she was that we were all there.

  • Vonda Rochelle January 10, 2008 08:11 am

    I think most of the points have been covered by what to do and how to set up the room, etc.
    I lost my grandmother around 10 years ago so I realize exactly how important each picture turns out to be. If you can schedule for some of her love ones to pop in and grab a shot of them together - those will be priceless forever to each one that takes the time.
    Here are what mayd seem a few strange but deeply rewarding ideas: if she has been one of those ladies that quilted, knitted or did any of that, get a piece of her work and take a photo of her hands holding it...possibly telling you when she made it and how. Any deep interests she has held over her life time summarized in a photo says so much more than you will ever imagine. If she loves or loved to read, a photo with her hands laying on a get the idea.
    Get as many photos of her face as you can of course but also consider focusing in on individual areas.
    A photo in a hospital room is always sad but by zooming in or cropping, you will create family heirloom photos easily.
    Best wishes on all you shots and prayers and blessings to you and your family

  • klein January 10, 2008 08:01 am

    Hi Mandy,

    I'm no pro or anything, but I imagine if you bounce the flash off the walls or ceiling to diffuse it and just leaving the settings no auto, you'll be good. Perhaps if you can put a large piece of material behind her back as a background (to cover the bed and the pillow) you may be able to take her out of the hospital for the photo at least.

    Also, the best thing to capture her real self, rather than what she has become more recently, might be to ask her about her youth. What does she remember about the war/s, her husband, did she like big band music and what were the 1960's like through her eyes?

    Just a few thoughts.

  • wilsonian January 10, 2008 07:44 am

    If your family has a relationship with the nursing staff, and they are willing to help, take in a soft pink sheet (and pillow cases) to lay over the upper part of the bed (under your grandmother). Most women with white hair look great against pink, as opposed to the harsh white of hospital sheets.

    When you're shooting, ask how she met your grandfather... that will probably bring a flush to her cheeks. :)

    Most of all, as much pressure as you feel, enjoy every moment of it. You've been given a precious gift of time with her, and the opportunity to pay attention to detail. You will probably remember this day for the rest of your life!

  • Kena January 10, 2008 06:44 am

    I took some pictures of my grand-father (who's in the terminal stages of cancer) during the holidays, and some of the best shots were taken while my grand-father and I were talking about his life (my fiance discreetly took the shots). We did not use any flash (his room receives lots of natural light) and he ended up forgetting about the camera.

  • Geoff January 10, 2008 06:04 am

    What I'd do, if it were my grandma.

    1) see if there is a dress or shirt she has that she could put on. No one feels good in a hospital gown. Help her with her hair. My grandma is 92 and still wants to look good, and hair and makeup help her feel good.

    2) I like the suggestions about brightening the room with pillows and Fabric, and letting in lots of Natural light.

    3) I'd but the Camera in the room, on a tripod, and set it to shoot pictures every 5 seconds or so. Bring lots of memory. Maybe get it a little high.

    4) bring in the people she loves. Grandkids, kids, friends. Pets if allowed/safe. Tell them to tell her how much they love her, and to ask he questions that get her telling happy stories.

    5) Save every picture. It'll be worth it.

    Good luck. We just visited my Grandpa in the hospital, and I wish I'd had my camera.


  • Yankeediva January 10, 2008 06:03 am

    Dear Mandy, my heart goes out to you. Having recently gone through a difficult experience w/ my Dad, I feel for you! I love the above suggestions about the candid aspect while she's telling stories (maybe you also want a recorder for those?), as well as the bright pillowcase and nightgown - GREAT ideas. I would also suggest having as many flowers around as possible - OR something else which is very meaningful to her (a homemade quilt? a photo of her husband or grandchildren near by?) just anything at all to take away the sterility of the hospital room. Any natural light possible will also be good. But the main thing is your presence and her loved ones around her - that is truly all that matters!
    I wish you and your family all the best in this time!

  • Marco van Lieshout January 10, 2008 05:55 am

    I'm sure that the stress of a "formal shoot" will not bring out the twinkle in her eyes. I'd go for something informal with a lot of fun and laughs. Put the camera on a tripod and take a long remote control. Put the camera so that it "looks" over your shoulder and just fire away during your talks with her.

    Most of all: enjoy while she's still around! The best picture will be in your mind.

  • Satyam January 10, 2008 05:38 am

    I feel candids would be the best to have her in different
    poses and moods.. that way various photographs in varied moods
    will be souvenirs for the posterity. Go ahead and have nice
    snaps of hers.

  • Gary January 10, 2008 05:20 am

    I'm purely an amateur, but I would do most of what Jack listed above. I think it would be important to any women to look good so she feels good about herself. It might be possible to have her put on a favorite sweater or dress. Even though she may be sitting in bed, it will should make her feel good about her looks. I reason this good feeling will come through in the shot. Grandma looks and feels as good as she can (a good thing) and everyone gets a nice picture (another good thing). Make it a "girls" event etc.

  • Michael January 10, 2008 04:59 am

    I think the ideas about inviting a surprise visitor or getting her on a roll of telling stories are great ones.

    I saw my grandmother at Christmas... she is 90 and her health has been declining rapidly the last 6 months. This likely was her last Christmas. Coincidentally, my wife just had our first child (my grandma's first great-grandchild) this past summer and Christmas was the first time for my grandma and daughter to meet face-to-face. My parents told me that grandma had been excited for Christmas and to meet the baby for months prior. It showed in the shots I took. The shots of grandma meeting Katie for the first time are irreplaceable and beautiful (despite the fact that I'm a beginner photographer with a point&shoot.) Grandma looks pretty rough these days, but she sure lit up when she met the baby.

    I also recommend a multi-generational portrait if you can arrange it. Those in the elder generation really dig the idea of photos documenting the family legacy. We did a 4-generation shot at Christmas and grandma couldn't stop talking about it. I also think that this kind of setup for the "formal portrait" aspect of the event can shift the frame of mind from "Grandma's last portrait" to "great opportunity for a family portrait." Maybe making difficult emotional ground easier to tread.

    Final thought... unrelated to photos... sneak a tape recorder in the room for a couple hours and get your grandma telling stories ("what was it like when you grew up?" "how did you meet grandpa?", etc) We did this one afternoon years ago with my now passed-on great-grandparents and the tape is now one of the most wonderful things we have to remember them... better than any photo. The great thing is, as soon as you get the tape running, everyone forgets it's there and you capture the kind of un-self-conscious authenticity everyone always looks for in great candid photos... good luck finding a tape recorder these days :)

  • Magi January 10, 2008 04:47 am


    I think you have had some really good suggestions here. I would add that you might want to put a quilt on the bed, maybe she made one, or there might be one that is a particular favorite. Rather than using a print pillow case, you might get one that is a solid color, a rose would be good as it might reflect on her face.
    I think the idea of having her talk about things to her family and taking candid, rather than posed shots is excellent. Those candid, natural photos will be more meaningful to your family, especially if you can tie them to the subject she is talking about at the time. The memories will be much more vivid that way.

    Good luck to you, and God bless you and your family.

  • Anna January 10, 2008 04:43 am

    hi mandy,

    i'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother :(

    the advice i would add to all that's been said already, is to use shallow depth of field to blur out any unattractive hospitally background. this will help with the lighting too...

    also, what about taking pictures of her with other family members... i think people are often more comfortable being in a picture with others rather than by themselves, and once she's comfortable, take a few of her by herself...

    best of luck!

  • C. Webb January 10, 2008 04:37 am

    I will have to say that the photo chosen to illustrate this topic brought a huge lump to my throat. For family purposes, you would simply add a title or label telling whose hands and the date - and you would have a wonderful and tender moment with Grandma captured for posterity. How I wish I had done this before my grandmother left us (it was many long years ago and all I had at the time was an instamatic film camera but why oh why didn't I USE it?). Don't worry too much about HOW; most important is that you are going to DO it. Since you have digital, take scads of them. I agree with others, get her talking (if she can't, just talk TO her and snap away while you do it). Formal portrait will depend on her condition and how you want to remember her. You don't want to preserve too much facial detail if she is ashen and sick-looking or has drooping features from a stroke etc. Close up of a smile or the eyes might be lovely even if the hair is sparse or the complexion is sallow. Take pictures of everything - you'll know what you want to share later on - but concentrate on looking for her "best features" and be sure to take LOTS of those. It is very sweet that you will spend time with her doing this and the fact that she is happy about it - and therefore will enjoy the session - will make any pictures you take a wonderful memory even if the lighting isn't perfect.

  • don January 10, 2008 04:00 am

    Dear Mandy,

    I've been where you are now. My suggestions are when you are taking any portraits, just let the person know you will take a lot of shots, and together pick the ones you like. For example, take 50 shots and together share the experience of finding which ones you both like the best.

    If you can, also take some video clips. Ask her some important questions, and fun questions, too. Record it. You will both enjoy the experience. Keep the questions to the point, and get a tripod if you can.

  • Dawn Del Guercio January 10, 2008 03:57 am

    Hi Mandy,
    I'm sorry to hear about your Grandma. It made me sad to read your post, because my grandma, though not in a hospital seems to be slowing down and disintegrating bit by bit. Although I don't have any good advice (some others had some good ideas!), I do offer my encouragement to you - make the most of the time you have with your grandma. As others said, let her tell you her stories, enjoy them, cherish them, for they may be all you have soon enough. Enjoy the photographing- take pictures of others with her as well, since you'll be there anyway, and please have others take a few shots of you and her together as well.
    Good luck, and thank you for sharing.

  • focalfrenzy January 10, 2008 03:38 am

    Hi Mandy, I am sorry to hear about your grandmother. There is alot of really good advice here, so I won't add more. Know that when you are taking your shots, the thoughts and well wishes of many on this forum, are with you. Don't be afraid. Trust your heart, your instincts, and the advice of friends, and everything will be fine.

  • Jen January 10, 2008 03:31 am

    It is difficult to let loved ones go, but what a wonderful thing you are doing to help your family remember her. The advice the others have given you is all great.

    The last memories your family will have of her will likely be of her in the hospital room. Because of this, you might want to consider the setting and make her surroundings look more like a home. Does she have a favorite shirt she can wear instead of her hospital robe? If she won't or can't change her shirt, can you find a shawl or scarf you could drape on her? Perhaps something colorful that won't be mistaken for a robe in a headshot.

    Think about the setting. You said she might be able to sit in a chair in the room. Could you place some potted plants behind her to give it more of a garden feel? Perhaps a shot of her from the waist up, with a few ferns and flowers behind her set just high enough to see the greenery behind her body and head. You might need several plants, and I would suggest emphasizing green leafy plants over too many flowers - these will liven up the photo for sure.

    Could you bring in a drape of some kind instead of using the hospital's white wall? You can pick up inexpensive sheets, drapes or tablecloths at a discount store to hang behind her if you don't have any at home. Something with texture and not too dark in color would probably be best. Just be careful not to mark the hospital wall, as they might not take kindly to that. Maybe use a large posterboard or piece of plywood to hold it up, or just ask two volunteers to hold it for you, maybe draped over a curtain rod.

    Are there any other personal items she would want in the photo? Favorite jewelry, a book, a Bible, a shawl, or maybe a pillow from her sofa?

    I think if you surround her with the things she loves about being at home, it will help her to be more relaxed and to enjoy the moment. It will also help the photo to be a treasured memory for years to come.

  • DonInMaz January 10, 2008 03:31 am


    This is obviously a great responsibility and opportunity. I can remember visiting my grandparents during their last days. That was a long time ago because I am now the grandparent. It was over 50 years ago that 3 of my grandparents passed on and I remember sitting with them – I wish I had a photo.

    Just this past three weeks my youngest son visited and he took photos of me with my grandchildren. I was honored and they will have a better way to visualize the visit than a memory. I am very happy that he wanted photos of me with my family. I wish I had a photo of me (as a kid) with my grandparents.

    Now, in a totally different vein. Often a close-up of the eyes of the elderly can be fascinating. Just be sure to bounce the flash. Ask Grandma to tell you what wonderful things she remembers about being a girl and have your camera ready for a remote shutter release. My Grandmother spent ½ hour explaining a spitting contest when she was 9. Her eyes lit up and her heart soared when she told me of beating all of the boys. I sure wish my father would have had a camera. There was another lady who I sat with. She was 98 in 1960 when I knew her, she loved to tell me what Colorado was like in 1870. Damn, I wish I would have had a camera and a tape recorder!

    Use light from the side to introduce mystery. Be sure to capture smiles and love.

    I totally agree with Brandon that you do the posed photos and then many candid photos.

  • Angela January 10, 2008 03:30 am

    I thought the title was funny in a wrong way.

    But I don't have any advice for you, I mean...candids may be the best way to go for poses. Catch her when she's happy?

  • shopaholicann January 10, 2008 03:21 am

    I would be inclined to stay away from a formal portrait as your Grandmother may feel she has to pose and this could raise stress levels. Tell her you love her and you'll see in her eyes when to take your photograph.

  • Michael Rothermel January 10, 2008 02:43 am

    My thoughts, from a purely technical viewpoint would be this.

    Open the window-shades. Some hospitals have nice big windows, so take advantage of those by letting in as much light as possible. Bouncing the flash off the ceiling would probably be your best bet, if it's white.

    Another idea, if the ceiling is high or an off-color white, or if you just don't like the above-lighting is this.. Take a large piece of white posterboard (the thick ones) and then set it up so that you can bounce the flash off the board onto your grandma. This gives you a few more options, such as bouncing the light closer and/or from the sides.

    Definitely zoom in for the portraits, as this is generally nicer then wide angle. Don't use direct flash, diffuse it by bouncing or something in front of it. Try lots of different angles, some of the best are not the apparent straight-on portrait.

    Finally, smile. If your attitude is happy, so will hers. :)

  • Zell0ss January 10, 2008 02:41 am

    Cant think of anything to cheer you up.. thats a very hard situation: be brave for your grandmom!!

    And about the pics my advice is to carry the camera there every day, do not use flash but light the room, and shoot a ton of pics, first planes of her talking to the family, especially when someone new comes to visit. I find that this kind of pics benefit for B&W treatment too.

  • Scott Weintraub January 10, 2008 02:37 am

    Perhaps offer her something to do, so her attention can be focussed on something other than the camera. If there is a baby in the family, perhaps holding the baby would provide good opportunities.

  • Patrick Jones January 10, 2008 02:24 am

    Emon's story telling idea is excellent. And what if you included objects and pictures from her past that she could hold as she told the stories? Ask her to tell you what to bring -- a few objects that trigger stories or hold deep meaning for her. Perhaps video tape it as well?

    Prayers for you, your grandma and your family. And have a wonderful time!


  • James January 10, 2008 02:23 am

    Do not leave her alone, pun the photo someone whit her so would not seen lonely but surrounded by her loved ones, and try get some happens in her eyes.

  • Tana January 10, 2008 02:19 am

    I think the best portraits are candid portraits taken in the subjects natural surroundings. With that said, I would take my camera into her room. She can be asleep or awake or whatever. Spend four hours there just being with her and take lots and lots of pictures. She may seem up-tight in the first twenty (or fifty) but once she gets over the nervousness of being photographed and goes back to being herself, you will have some precious memories. Take pictures of her interacting with the staff, being alone, sleeping, talking with people, whatever. You could even invite a few family members to be there with you and just converse or pass the time however they normally would if they were just visiting.

    My husband's grandmother is very difficult to photograph. She is stiff and stern when she knows she is being photographed. But once she begins to ignore the photographer (because paying attention to me gets old after a while, and I take a lot of pictures - 200 or more in one visit), I have captured some priceless memories of her just being the person we know her to be.

    Good luck!

  • Jack Foster Mancilla January 10, 2008 02:17 am

    Be prepared before you go to shoot her. ...

    Get her a colorful/nice pillowcase for her pillow, and make the bed look as nice as possible in a hospital, maybe even just take some nice cloth to accent the pillowcase. Have some nice soft makeup for your grandmother.

    You Set your lighting first. Use indirect lighting from an open window and use the flash to bouce of an oposite wall for fill.

    Have someone else close to your grandmother in your family do all these things. ... Fix your grandmothers pillowcasse, wash her face fix the bed.

    While you photograph everything, your grandmother, the hands doing the makeup, the faces of everyone in the room. ...

    Then when everything is in place, and your grandmother is ready, talk to her as you take pictures. Most important! You listen to what she has to say. Look into her eyes through the lens. ... You will know which pictures to take.

  • Jenny January 10, 2008 01:55 am

    If she's been in the hospital for a while, she probably feels gross (as in--doesn't get her hair washed and hospital baths are sub-par). One nice thing pre-portrait would be for you or one of your family members to offer to wash and fix her hair. Hospitals will usually have a little contraption that you can rest her head in that collects the water, etc.

    If she's strong enough to get up in the chair next to the bed, that might be a good opportunity. Usually in the morning around 9am-ish is when the nurses/aids may do this. If there's daylight, you might be able to turn the chair to optimize lighting. You may need to sensitively hang around a little earlier so that you can get photos while your Grandma still has some energy. If you get there and she's been up for a while, she might be exhausted and look more frail.

    Also, you can take a picture of her sitting up in her bed. With a little cajoling, the nurses would be happy to help you move the bed, angling it and the equipment around your Grandma to maximize lighting. (This might be more tricky if she's in a cramped ICU, but if she's on another type of unit, you should be OK).

    I'm a nurse first, amateur photog second. Hope that these suggestions are helpful!


  • Dave January 10, 2008 01:54 am

    Mandy, I photograph older people for a living. People who are passing on or in serious conditions. In my experience, people really don't mind much how the photos look. Obviously you want to try and do your best to make them look good, and the article above had some very good suggestions, but what really matters most to the family, is that they have something to remember them by, no matter how they look.

    Make sure you get some good close face shots, pictures of her with grand children, children, family and friends. Again as the article suggested above, candid shots are great. They really are what bring out the persons personality.

    One of the things I do is I'll set my camera up on a tripod with a remote attached to it. This way they begin to pay no attention to the camera. I'll frame it like I want, then I'll ask them to tell me some stories from their lives. As they tell these stories, they begin to remember, and they're face will show it. Some of my most choice shots have come from their remembering. If you really sit and listen, they always have some beautiful stories to tell, and it will help you figure out what kind of personalities they have so you can express that in your photos.

    Good Luck, Hope this helps!


  • Emon January 10, 2008 01:53 am

    Mandy, so good of you to spend the last few days with your grandma and do her portraits.

    My only advice to you, coming from a filmmaker POV, is to have her tell you stories from her past when you shoot and not have her pose at all. You will be able to, then, capture her as your family may have never seen her. And, to add, avoid artificial lighting as much as possible.

    I've recently met (online) a brilliant NYC photographer, Susan , who's been taking pictures of her dad. Check her photos out at:

    Hope I've been of some help. My best to you.

  • Jennifer January 10, 2008 01:51 am

    Perhaps dressing up the surroundings will help?

    If she's more comfortable in bed, leave her there. Can you move the bed near a window to use the natural light? Maybe bring in a bright afghan or quilt, and move her flowers, plants, and cards to tightly surround the bed. Then by keeping the image tightly cropped, you can exclude all of the bells, beeps, and whistles of the hospital room and fill the remaining background space with cheery well wishes.

    Does she have a memory box or favorite small heirloom that she can hold (and maybe talk about). That may help keep everyone relaxed and natural.

    Best of luck.

  • Hannah January 10, 2008 01:50 am

    Hey, I'm really sorry to hear about your grandmother. It sounds like quite a daunting task but i'm sure the finished pictures will be really great! I cant really give you any advice on the technical side 'cause I'm not too great on lighting and stuff myself, but why not bring a family member in and get her chatting about events in her own life, or things that she was interested in? It might start her off talking or smiling with that sparkle in her eye.
    Hospital lighting is normally quite harsh and artificial so maybe use something to bounce some light back onto her face. I think i read somewhere (probably on this site to be honest!) that you can use yourself as a reflector just by wearing a white teeshirt or something! Sorry i couldn't help more, i'm sure it will go well and like IonBuck said, the most important thing is 'Take it with your heart!'

    H x

  • Brandon January 10, 2008 01:40 am

    Hi Mandy,

    I'm kind of in the same situation as far as my grandmother is getting to a point that she's in pretty bad health. I've been trying to take the most pictures I could. You can tell that she is kind of self conscious so it's hard to get a good formal portrait.

    My suggestion would to be make the room as bright as possible since hospital rooms aren't the cheeriest of places to be. The extended family would probably appreciate seeing her in a brighter place rather than something dark or low lit. You might tell her you are just going to hang out with her for a few hours. Take a couple of "formal" portraits but what I found best is trying to sneak a couple of candid shots while she's not looking. These capture her personality more. After being in the room for a couple of hours clicking pictures she'll probably relax and forget about you. You might arrange a surprise visit from someone and try to capture her reaction. With your 105 lens you should be able to crop most of the hospital room out and zoom in on her expressions or details.

    I try to put myself in the extended family's position. They probably want to know that she is happy, being treated well, and surrounded by people she loves. If you can show this rather than a staged picture they will probably love it.

    I don't know if that helps but I know exactly the pressure you're feeling. Just relax and make it a fun event.

  • KForsythe January 10, 2008 01:29 am

    I guess I would try to take it at 100mm, a tight shot, with the widest aperture you can get with your lens, to blur your background. A close shot of your grandma's face will always be cherished by your family. I think I would try to keep out as much of the "hospital" as possible, and I like your idea of having her sit in a chair, if she's able. Maybe even pulling the bed forward a bit if she's bedridden, and putting a flash on her to darken the background?

  • Fernando January 10, 2008 01:25 am

    Hello Mandy
    First of all let me say that I am saddened to hear about your grandmother being ill. It is always hard, no matter the circumstance.
    I think that the best photography usually comes from the candid type shots, and not always the posed shots. I would therefore suggest that you don't do it alone. Bring family and friends which can talk to her and keep her at ease while you go around in the background and get your shots. I would suggest taking LOTS of shots, as you don't want to miss the right one! Fill the frame to try and minimize the background. Have someone bring flowers and get the shots of the moment she sees them (it will inevitably bring smiles to her face!) Don't be afraid to take shots of raw emotion such as tears, even as hard as it may be, emotional shots of your grandmother will always bring you to remember her as she was when you look at them for years to come.
    Remember that you are not only there to take photos, enjoy the time as well!
    Good Luck!

  • Sam January 10, 2008 01:23 am

    Great idea to preserve your grandmother's legacy! I suggest a simple side light. If you came in close for a head shot, you might not have too many distractions in the background. It's a hospital, so good luck on that...

    Also, many hospital rooms have a pretty good window. So, if you pick your time right, you might can get good light coming in for either fill or main light.

  • Evan January 10, 2008 01:21 am

    I think you're right in the thought of not wanting to disrupt her. But you might ask her if she'd like to be moved out of the bed for it. Might pick her spirits up even more!
    But I'd also think about just bringing a nice quilt, favorite throw, or something of that nature, to put behind her on the bed. (Just in case she doesn't feel comfortable leaving the bed too) This way it's at least not the white bed sheets in the background that will remind you of where you took the photo.

    Just get her in a comfy place, and maybe have her tell you a favorite story while you shoot. This way she'll be giving you a natural smile! Then when everyone in the family sees the photo, they will be able to remember her for the fantastic person she was.

    Good luck.
    You'll both be in our thoughts

  • Maggie January 10, 2008 01:20 am

    Is she able to carry on a conversation for any length of time? If so, get her talking. It will help to animate her face. Also, make sure that her hair is nicely brushed, and if she can tolerate it, some light makeup will help the hospital washed out look. If the hospital room, has larger windows, try to go for natural light - most hospital rooms are too cold looking by themselves. Maybe get a colored sheet to put behind her to bring some color into the scene.

    Good luck to you. I know this must be a difficult time for your family.

  • Purplcat (Mary) January 10, 2008 01:17 am

    Mandy, be sure you don't put too much pressure on yourself to produce the "perfect" portrait. I cherish the impromptu photo shoot I did with my grandmother 10 years ago. It was her last "good" day (she had Alzheimer's) and I have some precious photos of her laughing and holding my (then) infant daughter. My advice is to take a lot of pictures, engage her, and enjoy the time you spend with her, it will be precious!

  • Marte January 10, 2008 01:15 am

    Let her stay in the hospital bed, prop her up with some pillows. Depending on how the wall behind the bed looks, you could perhaps hang up a sheet somehow, behind her. Shoot in colour, and when you see the pictures, decide if they might be better in black/white. (Use Channel Mixer, not desaturation!)

    I think the most important thing is that you make her smile. I think that if you manage to capture a picture of someone so sick, looking genuinely happy, you'll have the best portrait ever. Don't think too much about the technical side of it. The emotion is much more important.

  • J January 10, 2008 01:13 am

    That is a tough situation to shoot in. If it were me, I would focus more on trying to capture her essence and person more than I would her current hospitalized situation. It sounds obvious, but harder than you might think.

    Lose the flash, kill the overhead fluorescent lighting and use the incoming natural light (if there's a window, hopefully), and use a tripod. Try going for low-key shots, try different perspectives and compositions, don't try to focus on taking traditional portrait head-shots the whole time. Experiment with processing them in black and white, that way the image further removes the drab hospital setting and gown, leaving just her.

    The fact is that folks in a hospital setting typically don't look their best and would rather not be remembered that way. A flash and bright lighting tend to exacerbate that (and make for boring images). Of course, IMHO. Good luck!

  • IonBuck January 10, 2008 01:08 am

    I am sorry that I can't offer any advice but would like say "hang in there!" and it's the thought that counts. Take it with your heart! :D

  • romrom January 10, 2008 12:54 am

    This is funny because actually my grand mother had to go the hospital several times in the past weeks for heart diseases and I had the idea at christmas to give a try to some portraits, -just in case-. I found that the best place to shoot was in her most familiar place, the kitchen, so that she felt confident with the camera. I was lucky because I had beautiful light at sunset coming through the window that allowed me to make the portraits I wanted.

    Have a look here
    and love your grand mother!

  • Miguel Eduardo Gil Biraud January 10, 2008 12:49 am

    I would focus on her eyes and make her talk while you are shooting the pictures. Make her talk about things she enjoyed doing, small kids in the family if any, life when she was a teen, ... My grandfather loved to talk about his 20s and his eyes were full of life again remembering it.

    For the technical part of the photography I am sure other people will advice you better but I enjoy taking portraits with a 100mm lens. The reduced depth-of-field brings the subject nicely in the picture.

    Good luck and enjoy the shooting!