Let’s face it, if you’re not a rare photogenic beauty or have good photographers as friends, you most likely look terrible in photos. So, does that mean you’re ugly? If so, why is it that you don’t look half as unattractive when looking yourself in the mirror? Let’s explore these questions and try to find out how we can look our best in photos.
A window into a flat world
Your eyes capture the visual essence of your outside world. Remember how scary it is whenever you close your eyes and try to imagine how would it feel to go blind? Goosebumps all over. But have you ever thought about what it would be like to live with only one eye? When we try to focus our view on something really small or far away, we close one of our eyes. There’s something missing though – it’s the stereo vision!
Human eyes come in two, but unlike horses which have one on each side, we have both of them right in front of our heads. Thanks to the close side-by-side positioning, each eye takes a view of the same area from a slightly different angle. The two eye views have plenty in common, but they also complement each other — each eye picks up visual information the other doesn’t. It’s enough to close each of your eyes for a second, then compare the views to see what I’m talking about. So, each eye takes a separate view, but in the end, both images are combined after becoming processed in the brain. The small differences between the two images add up to a big difference in the final picture! The combined image is more than the sum of its parts. It is a three-dimensional stereo picture. The brain also ignores the nose which would have been a drag to always see for the rest of your life. Thank you brain!
I’d recommend you follow the story of Susan Barry, a woman which for 48 years of her life was stuck in a flat, 2-D world.
So, the main point is that we see in 3-D. A camera has only one eye, so photography flattens images in a way that mirrors do not. Also, depending on the focal length and distance to subject, the lens can create unflattering geometric distortions. For instance, if a photo is taken with a short focal length (zoomed out) and at the same time the subject is also close to the camera, then you’ll get a fisheye lens effect that skews the portrait, making the nose and forehead look bigger. A good photographer knows he needs to position himself farther out and zoom if needed. Indeed, this amplifies the shaking effect, but keeping the camera still using a tripod does the job.
Then there’s another factor – unless your face is perfectly symmetrical, people see it differently than you do in a mirror. This is because mirror images are reversed, as opposed to what photos capture or what other people see directly. Watch these two photos of Abe Lincoln below to get a definite idea.
Also, when looking yourself in the mirror you have the advantage of always correcting the angle in real-time. Unconsciously, you’ll always look at yourself from a good angle. In contrast, photos always seem to catch you at a bad angle. Everybody, no matter how ugly they are, has a good (or at least better) looking side.
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Flash ruins everything
When you look at a real-life object, you have the advantage of automatically compensating for lighting, as your eyes adjust to see better, while your brain also processes the image for the best contrast. When mental calibration is absent, a photo will often turn out indifferent with shades and lights that not only look unnatural but unflattering as well. Things get a lot worse in the dark when you need to turn the flash on. The flash makes the skin look shiny and greasy, and sharpens the edges of your face making you look like a polygon troll. For your best pose, try to take photos outdoors under natural lighting. In fact, according to OK Cupid, the flash adds seven years.
The fake smile
“Say cheese!” Oh, boy, that always ruins it. Really, whenever I have to ‘pose’ for a photo, I always wind up looking like I’m about to get my driver’s license. If someone tells you to smile for a photo, don’t do it unless you really want to. Just stay as relaxed as possible, so your face muscles won’t grind in an unnatural and unflattering pose. It’s just a photo, there’s no need to become too self-conscious about it. Also, it’s best to keep your eyes open and chin up. This will get rid of double chin, up the nose shots, asymmetry caused by muscles twitching in the face, shoulders pulled all the up to your ears and most importantly it will make you focus on something other than your horrible photographic past.
The instant shot
Tests with Air Force pilots have shown, that they could identify the plane on a flashed picture that was flashed only for 1/220th of a second. While most of us aren’t fighter jet pilots, we’re capable of distinguishing between minute differences in highly succeeding frames. When people are concerned, however, the brain doesn’t pay attention to each individual facial expression that arises from moment to moment. Instead, the brain averages these out and discards momentary deviations, so when you’re talking to another person you’re actually looking at a corrected, fluid representation of that person’s face. Imagine consciously feeling every twitch of an eye or facial muscle, hundreds of these every second. Thank you brain!
A camera is a lot different though. It freezes a sub-second instant in time, complete with all the deformity you wouldn’t notice in average mode. Push the shutter multiple times, and choose your best photos. A good photographers might take even hundreds of photos before settling on the perfect one.
Do photos surprise reality?
Another way why photos make you look ugly is comparison. Like we pointed out above, we’re used to seeing faces in real life that are moving in a fluid manner. Guess where do you see the most photos on a day to day basis? Billboards. Yup, those perfectly photoshoped faces. When you look at a photo, you’ll automatically compare it in your head with other photos you’ve seen, and most of these are of celebrities. Photos of extremely graphically altered celebrities. It’s hard, but please stop comparing.
The take away is that you probably don’t look that bad in your photos. It would really help if you’re less self-centered and judgmental of your own looks. As long as you refrain from making stupid poses while taking pictures, you’re halfway there from the perfect portrait.
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