Travel Photography Subjects: Old People

Travel Photography Subjects: Old People

Tibetan Mother

Travel photography is about bringing back images that represent the area you visited.  It’s about your feel of what was in front of you.  Most of us take photos while traveling with the intent of sharing them once home.  Showing others what the streets of Kathmandu were really like or how they manage to do more with less in Kenya.  The images with the most impact are often those who’s subject or theme is something familiar to the audience.  It helps us connect.

This post is number two of twenty one subjects that will help you focus when on your next journey and wish to bring back a well rounded story of where you were.  If you’re just going on vacation and only want pictures of yourself by the pool sipping boat drinks, then you can probably skip this one.  These posts are not intent on telling you everything you need to do, step by step, to capture perfect, cookie-cutter pictures while traveling.  Instead, they are intent on pointing out what are some vital elements to capture when on the road and ask thought provoking questions you may want to ask yourself.  My hope is they help guide you to find your own means to better expressing what your travels have meant to you and present that in the best light possible.

Old people.  They’re everywhere you go but many of us tend to look on by when traveling.  And yet, besides young children, I have found the elders of most areas to be inviting, warm souls who are easy to smile.  They hold the history of what has gone on around them and have many stories to tell.  And often all it takes is a few moments, a smile and an honest attempt to relate with another human to make that connection so vital to taking good people photos in general.

I like what Mitchell Kanashkevich has to say at the opening chapter of People Relations in the Digital Photography School ebook Transcending Travel, “Because people are, well, people and not inanimate objects they cannot be approached and photographed in the same way.”  This seems so base and obvious, yet when out of our element, on the road, we often look at people and photograph them as if they are an interesting sign or car.  Mitchell then goes on to describe methods for breaking the ice, connecting, posing and choosing settings.  Great advice for young and old.  His advice is easy to follow and worth the read.

Old can be very relative to where you are.  It is also very relative to what someone has gone through on their years on this planet.  Don’t limit yourself to just one definition as it will not fit everywhere you go.  When you’re in country, what types of activities are most popular with the elders of society?  Go? Dominoes? Sitting in a pub?  Find that out and you’ll find people more relaxed and approachable.  You’ll also find a wealth of stories, which is really the true value of travel.  Ask questions, if you know the language, and find out what the land was like 40, 50, 70 years ago.  Find out how their lives have changed as they aged.  Ask about passions and loss for surely they have known both well.  What have they done for a living (they may still be doing it)?  How do they celebrate life?  Ask questions and have a list ready, either written down or stored in your head.  These are the stories you’ll want to bring back.

You may notice I didn’t mention anything about taking photos.  For one thing, Mitchell covers it well in the book.  For another, it’s far more important to learn to relate than it is to tell you how to take portraits in this post.  Your people photography will begin improving the moment you set the camera down and get to know your subject first.  After a chance to chat and share some tea, then is a good time to politely ask your new friend if it’s ok to take their portrait.  Your friends back home will no doubt love the picture you show them, but they’ll love the story of the person in the photo even more.


In the comment area below I encourage you to post a photo you’ve taken while traveling of someone old.  Someone you got to know.  And please post the story of how the photo was taken to help share more than just the two dimensional.

In my case, the photo above is of an 81 year old Tibetan mother, grandmother and great-grandmother named Doma.  I met her as part of a mission from one of her sons back in the United States to record a message.  She had been ill and I was traveling to the area of Nepal where she lived, how could I say no?   My instructions were somewhat vague, with suggestions like, “She doesn’t speak Nepali, but understands Sherpa, so find someone who speaks Tibetan if you can.”  As luck would have it, her health was good on the day I showed up and one of her grandchildren was there to help with introductions, being fairly well learned in English.  Through sign language and the little bit of Sherpa I know, and from smiling a lot, I set up the camera and began recording her message to her son, 7,000 miles away.  She went on for over eight minutes when her granddaughter started telling her to wrap it up.  I thanked her and she thanked me, over and over.  Gratitude is easy to understand in any language.

I have since delivered the video to the son in the USA.  It made him laugh and cry.  If I never climbed a mountain, if I never took a single picture, if I never met another soul on that trip, the experience of delivering that video made the whole trip worth it.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Consuelo Quenzel June 16, 2013 06:22 pm

    Best line up. We will be linking in the direction of this fantastic post on our internet site. Continue to keep up the optimistic writing.

  • mary July 28, 2012 02:13 am

    Generation's contrast.
    Travel in Palermo,Sicily.

    [eimg link='' title='Generations' url='']

  • guarda moveis January 17, 2012 10:45 pm

    The beauty of time in our lives. These photos clearly show that beautiful action.

  • Criação de Site August 11, 2011 09:37 am

    beautiful photographs

  • Jitendra Bharat Amesar January 2, 2011 05:52 pm

    [eimg link='' title='Old is gold' url='']

    A crazy co-incidence happened. I was reading the Architecture in the travel photography and clicked on the 'Old People' article when I was sitting at Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

    Right when I finished reading this article this old lady started talking to me and everything thereafter went exactly how you have said in the article. She started talking to me, we made conversations and I asked if I could take a photo.

    Thanks for your tips!

  • Jitendra B Amesar January 1, 2011 07:52 am

    [eimg link='' title='Old is gold' url='']

    Interesting article & there is an awesome story. A crazy co-incidence happened when I was reading this article at Starbucks. I have put the full story on Flickr photo description.

    I will try and use these trips and tricks more often for my pictures.

    Happy 2011.

  • Bruno Camargos December 20, 2010 02:30 am

    While in Estrela do Indaiá, a small city in Brazil, about 3.000 citizens: [eimg link='' title='Lia, personagem de Estrela do Indaiá-MG.' url='']

  • angad singh August 8, 2010 05:35 am

    old monk : )

    it was a cloudy day so I was on the look out for shooting portraits..the moment I saw him at the pier, I knew I wanted to take a picture of him and do a bw conversion on it!

    Once he was on the boat to Wat Arun, I asked him if it was ok that I took his picture..he just nodded.

  • Kunal Bhatia July 31, 2010 05:33 am

    This photo was clicked in one of Mumbai's fishing villages, just a few minutes from where I live. The man was sitting on a chair in the porch outside his home, while his family members went about their routine.

    [eimg link='' title='a photo? why not!' url='']

  • Johan July 30, 2010 08:45 am

    [eimg url='' title='30.jpg']

    Gambia 1998, so actual not a digital photo. Very strong back light so the young woman in the background has a funny shape. It's not digitally processed at all.

  • Corrado Amenta July 15, 2010 08:03 am

    here is a shot of an old lady in chinatown NY... she had the most captivating smile

  • Alexandra July 4, 2010 02:36 pm

    I'm responding to the questions concerning getting permission of the photographed person.

    If it is for personal use, no permission is necessary. However, if you expect to publish the picture as part an income generating venture (book or film) it's always best to get permission.

    I would suggest prepping a short release in simple to understand language, together with a translation of the text. You may wish to give a copy of the signed release to the person you've just photographed.

    Consider phoning a lawyer at a publishing house in your state or country to make sure that your release comprises all the necessary provisions.

  • Rick July 3, 2010 02:42 am

    Maasai elder

    [eimg link='' title='Maasai Elder' url='']

  • HappytimeBlog July 2, 2010 06:54 am

    I meant to add the link too...

  • HappytimeBlog July 2, 2010 06:52 am

    As usual some really good tips... I hope i've been able to put it into practice here

  • Mr Jon July 1, 2010 12:46 pm

    Sorry, here's the picture from Cambodia mentioned above (and it was in Phnom Penh, not Siem Reap).

    [eimg link='' title='Phnom Penh' url='']

  • john cm June 30, 2010 03:57 pm

  • Christine June 29, 2010 08:39 am

    I regret not having read this article before yesterday as I had the opportunity to meet the most beautiful woman. She is 103 years old, sharp as a tack and had many wonderful stories to tell me. It was quite funny when she commented that I had beautiful teeth, as it was her segue into informing me that she still had all her own teeth and not dentures! I hope I have the opportunity to see her again, but at her age, the time is limited. I if do get the chance to photograph her, I will be sure to share it with you.

  • Sime June 29, 2010 12:43 am


    It never has been necessary unless you intend to market a product using someone in one of the images you've taken. (very basically)

    Hope that helps?


  • Barbara McDonald June 29, 2010 12:35 am

    There was no mention of any legalities as to whether you need a release form signed when you take people pictures????? Is that not necessary any more???

  • John So June 26, 2010 04:59 am

    Here's a photo of my Grandma on our province during my visit.

  • Andy Davies June 26, 2010 12:32 am

    Good Advice. I have been on the road for around a year now and of the portrait photos I have taken, the ones I get most enjoyment from are less to do with good composition and light and more the memory of our meeting and the stories we shared (of course it's nice to capture a bit of both). After all, it's the subject that makes the photo and not the other way round.

  • Phillipa Chan June 25, 2010 10:34 pm

    It was taken in one of the temples in Angkor in Cambodia. Her facial expression really captured my eye sight when I walked pass, specailly in a high contrast environment and after bowing to her, I took this photo.

    For more photos of Angkor, pls click:

    [eimg url='' title='Preah_Khan_29_FOTOP.jpg']

  • Praise June 25, 2010 07:35 pm

    I am yet to fully underst and the "Term Dept of Field". Can you please give me some more information on this and f.stop as well as camera speed.

  • Amir Paz June 25, 2010 06:37 pm

    i was on a trip to bulgaria two years ago

    and there were many interesting local old people with traditional clothes

    they were very friendly and cooperative when i photographed them, as though they were used to it

    especialy one old lady seen here, she actualy posed for the shot and mended her dress to be nice in the picture :)

    here is another interesting looking old lady, i realy like this picture, full of character... :)


  • Harvey June 25, 2010 05:40 pm

    Here's another photo of a Tibetian lady I met in Shigatse Tibet. She works at a Wool Carpet Making factory. She was washing the wool and happy to pose for pictures for me.

    We spoke in my limited Chinese.

    [eimg url='' title='wool_washer2.jpg']

  • Joey Rico June 25, 2010 03:44 pm

    here are some photos taken form my trips

  • Jahanzeib June 25, 2010 02:56 pm

    I try to take pictures of Old people, they have great character on their faces. Before taking their picture i ask for their permission i do try to confirm that how if i come back with more of my equipment for better photos, this way either they agree or disagree. No worries for both :)

    The best part is when u give them a good print, satisfaction on both sides "Model & Shooter" :)[eimg url='' title='viewphotos.php?l=3&p=578254']

  • mamoni June 25, 2010 02:24 pm

    another one

  • Cammi June 25, 2010 02:17 pm

    This image is one i took when i was 17, on a mission trip that changed my life. It is of a lovely grandmother in a rural village in Uganda. She, along with many other women, were attending a women's only meeting run by local NGO Jenga. The meeting was a follow up to a previous HIV/AIDS education and testing meeting where all the women were tested and taught about how to live with and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. She is the sole guardian of 7 grandchildren who lost their parents to AIDS, and some of who probably have the virus themselves. But hope is strong and determination characterizes these beautiful women, and even naive and young as i was, i could not ignore the beauty and history in the lines of her face, nor the love and courage in the colour of her headscarf. [eimg link='' title='' url='']

  • mamoni June 25, 2010 02:15 pm

    Taken at a community meeting at diskit village in leh, india (where i was interning with an organisation. Though she didnt knw any other language except for ladakhi n i didnt know ladkahi, we did strike a conversation. sometimes i feel communication is beyond language...

  • Jason Collin Photography June 25, 2010 02:10 pm

    Hmm, not only did my photo not show up in the comments, neither did the comment itself!

  • Dennis San Pedro June 25, 2010 10:14 am

    Taking pictures of old people is one thing that I like doing most. Let me share my this one to you.

    [eimg url='' title='DSC02671.jpg?et=5rEl%2BK9aJozu3sFOis%2BO%2Cw&nmid=277171539']

    [eimg url='' title='DSC1537.jpg?et=PRxWNmMEi6sJVBxS5l1Q7g&nmid=339585640']

  • Annelie June 25, 2010 08:42 am

    I am interested to know how you all go about the topic of legal issues regarding travel photography, especially concerning getting releases for publishing the photos, be it on the web in a blog or wherever. I am not yet very good with the "approaching people" bit, but am working on it. So far the photos are just for personal memories and showing it to friends - largely because I have hitherto been too shy to ask for model releases...But let's say I want to publish a book of photographs of my travels in a certain region, or start a travel photography blog... So after chatting nicely to a 90-year old woman with a mixture of gestures and some broken sentences in her language, and then taking a photo of her, how do you ask her permission to publish the photos - and aren't these people daunted when you put a piece of paper in front of them to sign?

  • John June 25, 2010 08:39 am

    I enjoy taking pictures of people, but I'm not a world traveler. Based in Southern California, being friendly can backfire very quickly, so how can you approach people without getting the cops called on you (a bit dramatic, but not surprising around here...) Obviously, I haven't quite worked up the best approach and I'm looking for suggestons.


  • JB Haber June 25, 2010 06:34 am

    Sorry about the links in the previous post. (They put the instructions AFTER the submit button.)

    Here's the image of the elderly gentleman I spied walking along a side street in Barcelona.

    [eimg link='' title='Alone, almost' url='']

  • JB Haber June 25, 2010 06:32 am

    While walking along a side street in Barcelona, I spied this elderly gentleman folded over enjoying the company of his trusty pal.

    I don't know which link will work here ... so here are three ...

  • Jason Collin Photography June 25, 2010 05:05 am

    flickr has just changed its page layout, the link interface is different, so let's see how it works with dPS comment system . . .

    [eimg link='' title='Smiling ojisan in Shinjuku!' url='']

  • Subramanya Prasad June 25, 2010 01:14 am

    [eimg link='' title='Ajji' url='']

    This was taken in a village nearby. I saw this frail looking 80 something elderly lady herding sheep in the fields. At first, I was sad that she had to do this work all day in scorching sun [South India and it is HOT in summer]. I went near her, not to take a photograph, but to talk to her on what she does every day, hoping to hear from her that this is not her daily routine. But as it turned out, this was her routine. To my amazement, she was enjoying. The way she talked, i became mum. It was her doing the talking, describing to me how much she walks, how many sheep she had, what they eat and what she eats. I was then relieved to hear that this "old frail lady" was strong from inside and was actually enjoying what she was doing. Fortunately, she had the company of her grandson who passed time talking and playing with his grandma. With this lady, she herded sheep just to help her family which was not infact poor. But for many other such elderly people, no such luxuries. It's for subsistence and not for fun.

  • Cesar June 25, 2010 12:38 am

    Old people look great and fantastic when they're in black m white... this is a photo i took in my town where a bunch of them get together everyday to spend time chatting and dancing! they've become part of the turistic road of this place. (Miraflores, Lima, Peru) [eimg link='' title='Old guy' url='']

  • Jason Grear June 24, 2010 09:45 pm

    This might count as my first travel portrait. I didn't have a long exchange with this merchant, but I took a page out of Scott Kelby's book to chat with a merchant, then buy, then ask for a picture. I'm going to Hawaii in less than two weeks, so I'm soaking up all these travel photography tips.

  • margaret chaidez June 24, 2010 09:38 pm

    Great post. I love taking pictures of older people. I think their faces tell as much of a story as their words.

    I still remember 20 years ago when I was taking the El in Chicago. Every morning there was an elderly African American man with an Elmer Fudd hat and a wool lined jacket (what else do you wear for chicago winters?). He sat across from me every day and I always wanted to take his picture, always wanted to talk to him. When I looked at his face, with wrinkles and freckles, his eyes full of happiness. I looked forward to seeing him every day and would always study his face. I will always regret never asking to take his photo but I can see it every time I think of my morning commute

  • Sharan Balani June 24, 2010 01:11 pm

    [eimg link='' title='Brick Lane-30' url='']

    his technically isnt a travel image but a photowalk in brick lane. this man has been living on the same street corner for 70 years, and every day he is there playing the harmonica. I approached him and his story was interesting. I would never be able to stay in the same place for 70 years…just goes to show

  • Sharan Balani June 24, 2010 01:10 pm

    This technically isnt a travel image but a photowalk in brick lane. this man has been living on the same street corner for 70 years, and every day he is there playing the harmonica. I approached him and his story was interesting. I would never be able to stay in the same place for 70 years...just goes to show

  • Dru Stefan Stone June 24, 2010 10:19 am

    It's interesting that you say this, I was looking through my photographs and found very few with the people I have spoken with unless they are taken with me by someone else (when I was in China they all wanted photographs with me since my hair is blonde in color!) I'll have to make a point of taking a photograph when I am finished speaking with them. I've had some wonderful experiences on my travels speaking with the older generation! I did find a few, this one has a story. My sister, who speaks some Mandarin Chinese and I were walking through a park in Guilin, China and there was a group of ladies singing Chinese folk songs which my sister knew. We stopped and danced and sang with them. You can see by the smiles on their faces how much they enjoyed the encounter, nearly as much as we did!

  • Harvey June 24, 2010 09:44 am

    Here is the photo and story behind a 97 year old Chinese man I met in Kunming.

  • Michael S. June 24, 2010 09:35 am

    I completely agree that you must approach these subjects as people and not furniture. I'm an ex-pat Canadian living in South Korea as an ESL teacher right now, and myself and many of my friends have the luxury of rich culture and interesting photographic opportunities. Unfortunately, I've talked to a lot of my friends about this subject (and people in general for that matter) and most of them say they're too nervous or scared to talk to them out of fear of rejection or embarassment, so they quickly snap whatever blurry shot they can get before their subject looks over at them and causes them to run away.

    I admit myself that it took me a while to get used to the idea, but I have learned for myself that a smile can go a long way, especially if you can say "hello", "thank you", and "what a handsome guy!" in the local language. I took a walk in the park one evening with a tripod I borrowed from a friend and was able to take this shot of two older Korean men playing a board game. It would not have been possible to capture this shot without their permission, as the bulky tripod was somewhat conspicuous.

    [eimg url='' title='110.JPG']

  • Pedro Beltran June 24, 2010 09:14 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more