Why Your Selfie Doesn’t Look Like You

Have you ever had professional photos taken but felt that you didn’t look like yourself in the photos? Or maybe you didn’t like how you looked in the photos? No, you’re not imagining things! There is a reason for this.

With the wide availability of smartphones, people are taking selfies quite often; some even multiple times daily. We’ve come to see ourselves as we look in these photos. The problem is, there are a few reasons as to why this isn’t actually how we look.

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Filters

Filters can be quickly applied to our phone selfies to make us look more attractive. We can brighten the photo, smooth our skin, add faux makeup, or even completely alter the size of our eyes and shape of our faces.  As one can imagine, a person gets accustomed to and comfortable with their own appearance as it looks in a phone selfie. It’s understandable that everyone wants to put their best face forward on social media, but unfortunately over-using filters eventually makes people start to believe that they aren’t attractive unless they use a filter.

Wide-Angle Lenses and Distortion

A smartphone or point-and-shoot camera has a very wide angle lens, with a focal length somewhere between 18mm and 35mm. This allows the photographer to capture a lot of the scene in the photo. However, wide angle lenses such as these cause a significant amount of distortion of the resulting photo, and this distortion becomes worse the closer the distance to the camera. Distortion can either be flattering (when it elongates and thins the face) or unflattering (when it makes the nose appear wider). In addition, we all know how the angle at which we hold our phone to take the photo affects how attractive we look. Generally, a downward angle is more flattering and hides double-chin and makes it look like our bodies appear slimmer/smaller.

Focal lengths around 50mm and above are generally considered to give a normal view with accurate proportions. Most portrait photographers however will argue that focal lengths 70mm and above tend to produce photos without obvious distortion, while 50mm still produces some distortion at close distances. Short focal lengths (wide-angle lenses) can distort facial features when used up close, causing a bulging appearance or making facial features in the center of the frame appear larger or elongated depending on the angle. Longer focal lengths tend to compress facial features and widen the face slightly, though this is not immediately noticeable to most viewers. I have found that the “sweet spot” focal length for a portrait is 70mm – 135mm. Many photographers love wide-angle lenses for other reasons but will either avoid distortion by shooting from a distance, or will correct some of the distortion in editing.

Mirror Image

In addition to how distortion affects our appearance in a phone selfie, we are also accustomed to how we look in the mirror. After all, we have used mirrors daily for our entire lives. Our faces are not perfectly symmetrical, so seeing the reflection of what we’re used to seems a little strange and unfamiliar. The front selfie camera on a phone has the same effect as a mirror. Our mirror image is familiar and so we have subconsciously trained ourselves to prefer this flipped version of our faces. It’s easy to forget that this is not how the rest of the world sees us.

Control

When we take a selfie, we can see exactly what expression we’re making and if we’re getting our own “good side.” When someone else takes the photo, we are at their mercy. They might have captured an expression or angle that we don’t feel is as flattering. We have control over our selfies but have little to no control over a photo someone takes of us.

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As a professional photographer, one issue I have run into is that some of my clients think they don’t look like themselves in the professional photos. It can come to a shock to the average person who takes a lot of selfies and looks in the mirror every day, to see how they really look when their photo is taken with a professional camera and lens, not distorted or reversed.

 


Example 1: Phone selfie (mirror image) on the left and the flipped (corrected) version on the right. On the left is what I see in the mirror, and on the right is what others see. Even the flipped (corrected) version is distorted due to the wide-angle lens in the phone.

Example 2: Selfie on the left, taken with my phone which has a wide-angle lens. Notice my forehead, eyes, and nose all look larger. My entire face looks thin and long. The image on the right is a self-portrait using a professional camera and lens set about 5′ away on a tripod. My facial proportions are accurate to real life. Had I taken the phone selfie from a different angle or closer, the distortion of some facial features would have been more pronounced.

Example 3: Selfie on the left, taken with my phone. My forehead, nose, and eyes all look out of proportion and larger than life. The image on the right is a portrait using a professional camera and lens taken from at least 5 feet away.

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