Why you look ugly in photos – and some ways to solve it

Let’s face it,  if you’re not a rare photogenic beauty or if you don’t 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 look so much better when looking at 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 the outside world. Simply closing your eyes and imagining what it would be like to be blind is terrifying in and of itself. 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. However, there’s something missing when we utilize this technique –– it’s the stereo vision!

Human eyes come in twos, 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. You can easily see what I’m talking about by closing each of your eyes for a second and then comparing the views. So, each eye takes a separate view, but in the end, both images are combined after processing occurs 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 who, for 48 years of her life, was stuck in a flat, 2-D world.

So, the main point here 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 from the 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 away and then zoom in 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 and what others see directly. Watch these two photos of Abe Lincoln below to get an idea of what this means:


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) side.

Flash ruins everything

photo flash

Photo: all-things-photography.com

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 with shades and lights that not only look unnatural but also 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, a camera’s flash adds seven years.

The fake smile

fake smile hilary

Photo: mindthebrain.net

“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 into 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, and 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


Photo: zoznam.sk

Tests with Air Force pilots have shown that they could identify the plane on a picture that was only shown 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. As far as 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, with 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. 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 by comparison. Like we pointed out above, we’re used to seeing faces in real life that are moving in a fluid manner. Guess where you see the most photos on a day to day basis: billboards. Yup, those perfectly photoshopped 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 takeaway is that you probably don’t look that bad in your photos, and you’re judging yourself too harshly. As long as you refrain from making stupid poses while taking pictures, you’re halfway to the perfect portrait.

10 thoughts on “Why you look ugly in photos – and some ways to solve it

  1. arguethefacts

    We DO NOT see a reversed image of ourselves when we look in a mirror. Imagine you and an identical you standing next to you. Now have the identical you just walked in front of you. You will see yourself as you would looking in a mirror. The identical you did not suddenly flip horizontally. Their face didn’t change at all.

  2. Wrong

    That’s not true. In a mirror you see your right on the right and your left on the left. When looking at an identical twin, their left side aligns with your right side. Hence one ver common question: my left or your left?

  3. TThesoul44

    BUT the other you is turned around in the same area (“dimension”) you’re in. In the mirror however everything, including the area you’re in, is turned around. So if you were to turn around with your back to the mirror, you should have the exact same look you do when you stand in front of it.

  4. abyx34

    This is exactly wrong. you can see this for yourself. Stand in front of a mirror, put your left index finger on your left cheek, notice the reflection? Memorize it. Next, turn 180 degrees away from the mirror (facing in the opposite direction from the mirror), and compare the reflection you saw with yourself standing there now, still having that left index finger on your left cheek. Notice, you are now facing the same way as your memorized reflection did… so at this point you can clearly see that you yourself in that position do not match the memorized reflection… It’s so elementary, if you think about it.

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