Lifestyle: Seniors

Lifestyle: Seniors


photo by Glenn Glasser

If you were to spend a day talking to advertising agencies across the world about their image needs, ‘Active Seniors’ would be a term you would hear on repeat. Why?

Partly because the world’s population is aging (think lower fertility rates and longer life expectancies globally), and corporations everywhere are scrambling to create special product lines for this market. But it is also significant that such a large portion of ad dollars is spent by pharmaceutical companies – and some of their most important products target aging seniors.

There is massive demand for current, diverse, high quality images of seniors doing just about anything you can think of. We cannot summarize it better than one of our clients, who shared with us that their fantasy get-rich-quick plan is to “start a new stock website called”

Read on to learn how to approach this subject with commercial success.

“The sky’s the limit, give me everything you have so it will be there if I need it. Shoot all ethnicities, a range of ages, as many realistic activities and surrounded by as many different groups of people (one person, an older couple, with more than one grandchild, all the way to a large family reunion). Show them walking dogs, having coffee, picking up grandkids from daycare. Use a whole range of shots from close crops to pulled out with tons of field and room for copy. And help us tell stories with a single model.” – Karalyn Leavens, AgencyRX


photo by Brad Nelson, shot for Pfizer.

There is one fundamental definition we need to nail down before we get into the do’s and don’ts of this category: ‘What is a Senior exactly?’ Ask this question to several image buyers, and you’ll receive a range of answers.

In a nutshell, ‘Seniors’ includes anyone 50+; the majority of the category falls between the ages of 50-65.

It seems like there is some demand out there for ‘really old looking people,’ but not in advertising. Advertising tends to be aspirational; when you are marketing to 85 year olds you show pictures of 65 year olds – the sad truth! In other types of publications, such as the AARP, each decade above 50 is considered a distinct and equally important market segment; in this case 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s and above.


We had some of our most fun talks with the buyers and photographers who work with seniors. We are grateful to all of them for their input:




This is what buyers need, what they don’t need, and what drives them nuts – presented in order of hysteria-inducement.

  • Everything out there for seniors is so, SO dated! Buyers consider ‘dated’ to be visibly older than 5 years. See for yourself – go do an ‘active seniors’ search on most major stock sites and see how dated everything looks. The styling is off, the image quality is not quote contemporary. We need new imagery!

  • We need greater ethnic diversity. Also notice on that search how few ethnicities are represented beyond Caucasian. Agencies often produce extended global campaigns that could run 2-3 years, with various images used in rotation or across different ethnic markets. Typically they want a single scenario shown across all of the major ethnicities. Not finding basic concepts across multiple ethnicities is often the trigger that makes buyers commission photography rather than purchase stock.
“I am always looking for multi-ethnic affluent seniors. The typical portrait of someone smiling straight into the camera has no use for us – we might as well go to Sears and pull a picture out of a frame to use. If anything, have them looking straight ahead but pensively. Show more natural poses (i.e., just having brunch together with the paper on a Sunday). And make sure production values are there: everything has to be properly lit and there needs to be an editorial aspect, where the picture tells the story of who the person is.” – Thu Nguyen, American Express Custom Solutions


AARP, March-April ’08; Ebony, July ’08

  • Not enough range of activities! Seniors are shown in an incredibly limited number of circumstances, often including a tennis court or a grandchild. Seniors do the same things as everyone else: wake up, have coffee, read the paper, exercise, eat, talk on the phone. And of course there are activities and topics specific to seniors that could be explored with greater variety and originality: retirement, enjoying your life and extended family, travel, financial planning, aging issues, health, discrimination… Really push yourself to move beyond the first images that pop into your head when you think of mature adults.


photo by Glenn Glasser

  • Shoot series of images. This is something we heard occasionally in other categories, but we heard it from every person we talked to in regards to active seniors. Buyers would like to see a single model portrayed across a variety of situations. Imagine the phases of a senior’s day (and year) and shoot them engaging in those various scenarios. Imagine the variety of emotions they go through in a week and capture those emotions. Capture different angles and a full range of crops – from far away shots to close ups on arms and other body parts. Shoot both horizontal and vertical images. Also capture environmental aspects; if you are shooting a woman in an assisted living environment, capture the context – details of the room or of the home, the dining room, food. Why do these buyers want series? Because they are often developing story-based content and not just a single ad run or magazine article. Specifically, pharmaceutical companies are often trying to show seniors moving from a phase of poor health to an active lifestyle.


Seniors Prevention

, July ’08

  • Shoot a greater range of emotions. Similarly, buyers would like to see a greater range of emotions depicted. Rarely do buyers want to see extremes, which is often what stock photography has to offer (extreme happiness, extreme sadness). There are too many images of seniors staring straight into the camera and smiling. Try different emotions and different angles. There is presently a lack of images showing seniors as ‘contemplative’ and ‘pensive’ – which is not sad, but thoughtful – as well as ‘satisfied’ or ‘content’ – which is not happy, but appreciative.
“With seniors – they have survived, worked hard, lived through war, made difficult choices, adapted, overcome, witnessed an explosion of technology over a lifetime, laughed, cried, built, understood, reflected, and are now eager to impart. I often take ample time during my portrait sessions to genuinely hear their stories. If you’re lucky enough to get 30 minutes with a person – try taking 20 minutes to listen and just be ready with your camera should a moment present itself.” – Glenn Glasser, Photographer

  • Avoid stereotypes. This is somewhat addressed by the ‘range of activities’ tip but it also extends to the buyers’ frustrations that so much of what they see, they cannot use because it engages stereotypes. If you are shooting seniors on location, don’t put a quilt on their laps and scatter crafts around the fireplace.

  • Use energetic models. Often seniors are depicted somewhat lifelessly. The models and the images need to capture energy, regardless of what you are trying to show.

Seniors Family Circle April '08 photo 10.jpg

Family Circle, April ’08

  • Show normal activities and capabilities. In terms of activities, show people dancing, leaning on a counter, or shopping for groceries; every day activities that require a range of physical movements. But don’t show seniors doing gymnastics or use over obvious gestures (i.e., grabbing their backs in pain). Walk the fine line to include subtlety and reality in your images.

, July ’08; Stages for Retirement

“It sounds horribly cliched, but we try to show the positives of aging; finding examples of seniors who exemplify a positive attitude and personal energy even if they are struggling with health issues, financial issues, discrimination – they combat the struggles and find a positive way to carry on.” – Michael Wichita, AARP Bulletin

Those are the major tips, but also bear in mind a few other specific points raised by buyers:

  • No waist-high pants!

  • No comb-overs!

  • Use current clothing, but nothing too formal. If you are shooting in NYC, imagine a couple walking around the Upper West Side – they aren’t too dressed up, but they’re contemporary, in an urban setting, wearing understated but current clothing.

  • Shoot with fairly neutral backgrounds – no clutter

  • There’s a huge demand for affluent seniors doing basically anything – again, advertising is aspirational. Especially for financial companies and banks, they want to show how retirement can be enjoyed when financial stability and strong financial planning are in place.

  • Stick with natural poses

  • Wrinkles are ok!

  • Need pictures of senior couples in romantic but not overly-sexual situations (think Cialis, Viagra advertising)

  • Need faces of pretty senior women (think Botox ads!)

  • Most models should be attractive, mainstream looking seniors. But we always like to throw in a wild card and pitch something edgier to our clients. If you find real-life models who are the classic ‘dames’ or other individualistic seniors, there could be a place for that too.

  • Focus on the positives of aging. The topic can be treated with levity.

  • Most of what we see in senior stock is over-lit. Keep your lighting realistic.

  • Never put alcohol in a shot.
“Show the world that old people have fun. Show a bunch of kids at a strip club but show Grandpa as the life of the party! My grandma was active til the day she died – we had a lot of fun – let’s show the world that.” – Brad Nelson, Photographer

The consensus we heard from photographers was that the best way to get great images of seniors is to really engage with them. Here are their top tips:

  • Cast real people. Every photographer we talked to about seniors emphasized the importance of finding inspiring models and collaborating with them to capture their lives. If you have boring models, you will have boring pictures. Find people aged 50+ who are dealing with all of these topics that the ad agencies and other buyers (including those above) are trying to depict, and go through it with them – staying active, staying healthy, dealing with finances, dating, being romantic, traveling, all the normal stuff! Carry business cards at all times and find the right models to collaborate with – your models need to have the right look and they need to be vital.


photo by Glenn Glasser

  • Get model releases. A large portion of senior imagery purchases come from advertising and you therefore must have your models sign a release. Pharmaceutical advertising often depicts sensitive subjects, so be sure your models are comfortable with that kind of portrayal.

  • Have fun! The photographers we talked to ended up shooting seniors because those were some of their favorite relationships – starting with grandparents, neighbors; the people they grew up around from other generations. If you can’t engage with them as peers and love where they come from, then find another topic to shoot. To be successful, you’ve really got to enjoy their personalities.

  • Good pictures of tennis still count! As much as buyers say ‘no more older people playing tennis’ – there will always be a market for good pictures of almost anything. The clich├ęd scenes can be top sellers if they are executed extremely well, meaning current styling and a fresh perspective.


Stages for Retirement


  • Please strive to get model releases for all pictures of seniors!

  • Always use an accurate age of the model as a keyword (as in 50’s, 60’s…)

  • Use subject and concept keywords

  • Use ‘senior’ as well as ‘senior citizen’ as keywords

  • Always use gender and ethnicity as keywords

  • Describe the setting and activities as specifically as possible

7. SHOTLIST [download] Beyond our high-level needs list, here are some ideas to get you started. Please just consider these a jumping off point – we encourage you to find your own angle into this topic and get creative.

  • Active lifestyle, enjoying retirement
  • Dancing
  • Walking on a beach
  • Gardening
  • Traveling
  • Driving in a convertible
  • Fancy dinner
  • Shopping
  • Swim class
  • Running, walking, exercise, golf
  • Using technology – on the computer, using a cell phone, playing wii!
  • Romance
  • Socializing
  • Fishing
  • On the phone
  • Caring for pets
  • With grandchildren
  • Opening the door, welcoming family
  • Decorating for the holidays
  • Aging/getting older
  • Back pain
  • Walking w/ a cane
  • Eating healthy
  • Sleeping well
  • Assisted living center
  • At the pharmacy
  • Opening a pill bottle
  • Still lives of pills, medicine bottles, other health/pharma images
  • Healthcare at home
  • People not being able to pay healthcare bills
  • Older people being taken advantage of
  • Respectful images of disabled elderly
  • Attractive senior couples on silo/no background
  • Overweight seniors in lifestyle settings


Are you a buyer or photographer with extensive experience relevant to this category? We’d love to hear from you! Please email us with any additions to the Shotlist, Tips, or any other sections of this article.

We look forward to it!

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

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