Why we hate having our photos taken

Candid photos ... annoying or 'charmingly unguarded'?

Candid photos ... annoying or 'charmingly unguarded'?

See that photo up there in the top left-hand corner of me? I’m not its biggest fan simply because whenever I see it I get the uncanny feeling that it doesn’t quite look like the ‘me’ I have in my head. And when I flick through my boyfriend’s camera on holidays I sometimes do a secret photo edit to get rid of unflattering pics (he has a real penchant for taking snaps of me mid-chew, I guess I have very pretty molars.) Then last week at karaoke the bouncer took one look at my ID and said “You had a big night before this was taken!” Actually I spent half an hour doing my face (I even used a hairdryer – I usually prefer waiting five hours for my hair to air dry that’s how mane maintenance lazy I am) because I knew that dumb card would last for five years and I wanted to repeat the glory of my super-flattering ’06 drivers licence triumph. How was I to know that my newly-local RTA favours lighting that turns all pale people into zombified versions of themselves?

Now before you’re all like “Poor woman, she certainly has self-esteem issues”, as one friend said to my complaints, I would like to point out that isn’t this really the opposite problem? I believe I look better than the photos – that’s high self esteem, suckers! And from talking to friends it seems not liking most photographs of yourself is fairly universal. I don’t know anyone who declares “I photograph great!”, but I know plenty of people who cover their faces as if you’re about to splash acid on them when a camera is pointed their way. Luckily science is here to back me up that there are quite a few reasons that we look better in reality – or sometimes just our mind’s eye – than when reduced to 2D.

We spend all our time viewing ourselves in mirrors. But when we see a photograph that mental image is flipped which explains that creeping “That’s not me!” feeling of a bad snap. 

The first problem is that we spend all our time viewing ourselves in mirrors. But when we see a photograph that mental image is flipped which explains that creeping “That’s not me!” feeling of a bad snap. Psychologically we like things that are familiar (known as the mere-exposure effect) so research has found that if you were shown a normal and mirror image picture of yourself, you would prefer the mirrored one while your friend would prefer the normal one – you both choose what you are used to seeing.

If you’ve ever had a YouTube clip suddenly freeze mid-stream you’ll know another reason why photographs can be unflattering. People in motion paused can be really unattractive – mouths gaping, double chins flaring, eyes manically bulging. So those annoying amateur photographers who prefer “candids” (code word for super ugly photos) might sometimes come across a charming unguarded moment but usually end up capturing something slightly grotesque.


Another thing I learnt working on magazine photo shoots is that when it comes to make-up what appears in real life like a drag queen at Mardi Gras reads on camera as the lightest touch of blush and a lick of lip gloss. So while going make-up free or for a “natural” look (you know, the type that requires eight separate cosmetic products) does look beautiful in reality in pictures it can wash you out.

And lastly comes the piece of research I simply refuse to believe (so cover your eyes if you are feeling emotionally fragile) – we consider ourselves more attractive than we truly are. One study took pictures of college students then a few weeks later asked them to pick their face out of eleven possibilities – the real one and the rest showing the original morphed to varying degrees either to a good looking composite face or an unattractive face suffering from craniofacial syndrome. The rather surprising result was that participants were more likely to pick a hot version of their face than even their actual face. Huh. At least that kind of disproves ideas that the media is making us all feel ugly. Hooray for strong self-esteem?

And so I don’t leave us on that sour note, photographer Akila Berjaoui says that it’s damn hard business to get a fantastic picture – even of models – so it’s probably not worth sweating over the lousy ones. “People aren't aware that it can often take 30 or more shots until you get one great shot where the subject looks comfortable, confident and relaxed.” So next time someone tags a horrible photo of you on Facebook just hit untag, take a deep breath and say “Only 29 more to go...”