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...”

12 comments

  • I take an awful picture! And when you say this to people they think Im fishing for compliments or have low self esteem, actually Im just stating the facts.

    Ive had people Ive met through online dating say "You look a lot better than your pictures", Ive had professional photographers do the sort of double take surprised look when they review a photo of me and then try and take those extra 30 shots to get something decent, it still doesnt work.

    Have to go now, those facebook photos arent going to untag themselves.

    Commenter
    Mlebournite
    Date and time
    March 29, 2012, 10:14AM
    • It's an interesting dance the whole "no, don't take my photo" thing - most of the time it's real but it can also be a cry for some extra attention and affirmation.

      Commenter
      Seva
      Date and time
      March 29, 2012, 10:31AM
      • I have taken hundreds of thousands of photos (the actual number, not an exaggeration) in and around the live music scene in Melbourne including ones of a man who put a roast chicken down his jocks on stage (surely I don't have to say who that is.)

        The all time most popular photos on my website are also the ones that have given me the most trouble with someone even coming back five years afterwards and asking for all of the photos of themselves to be taken down. This also meant removing photos of people who had passed away, but this person only cared about herself.

        Commenter
        Tim
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 29, 2012, 10:40AM
        • It's the same when people don't believe you that you have a 'better' side when having photos taken!

          Commenter
          flick
          Date and time
          March 29, 2012, 11:29AM
          • I have never taken a good picture. Every time I am asked to "smile for the camera" it comes out as a grimmace. And candid shots are not much better. The camera, it seems, just does not like me. Thanks to your article I now feel much better about the fact that I do not consider any photo of me that I have seen to be anything like how I actually look. Recently I got quite depressed about this when I had my photo taken at a reunion with an old friend. I have taken quite some time to do my hair and put on makeup, but still looked washed out and smiling awkwardly. Phew, I can relax a little now that I understand I am not alone in this perception. I just know I look better in reality and there are real reasons why this is probably true.Thanks Nicole.

            Commenter
            Judith
            Location
            Gold Coast
            Date and time
            March 29, 2012, 12:08PM
            • I lived many years in Japan. When I took photos of people (the end-of-dinner/going-home signal) I encouraged the posed shot. Sometimes eyes were closed. Once digital cameras came in - I'd always take several shots - then hand the camera to someone else so I could be part of the group/or organise a timed shot of all together. However there were friends who wandered around during the party/event - taking those pesky "candid" shots - I agree with Nicole - and a week or so later I would receive their kindly intended package of copies (when folk still printed them out rather than Facebook or attachment sending) most of which were so grotesque - self and others - that I would consign them to the recycling bins. Excellent piece Nicole - and I wonder whether Tim's five-years-later complainant was really only speaking for herself - or for others, too! Just a thought!

              Commenter
              Tokujiro
              Date and time
              March 29, 2012, 1:05PM
              • Judith, I am the same, except i look like Quasimodo in every photo. On the rare occasion I think I look good and agree to a photo, I am always disappointed when I see myself in the photo. Now I just don't get photos taken or I don't look at them.
                My brother never takes a bad photo, he is unbelievably photogenic.

                Commenter
                Rav
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                March 29, 2012, 1:38PM
                • I am spectacularly ugly and we don't need photographic evidence of that. I take photos of my children, rather than be in them.

                  Commenter
                  Old bag
                  Date and time
                  March 29, 2012, 2:15PM
                  • Anyone can look good or bad in a photo. The problem is growing up we were always teased for the bad photo.

                    I have a friend with a very beautiful face. But when I take here photo, out of 20 photos, most will be bad, some will be just ok and 1 will be absolutely stunning.

                    Commenter
                    Flingebunt
                    Location
                    Brisbane
                    Date and time
                    March 29, 2012, 3:14PM
                    • I don't believe that I'm better looking than a photo can show, I hardly look at myself in the mirror - I worked in a bar where the whole wall was a mirror, and I can safely say that I would NEVER look at myself in that mirror - for a whole 8 hour shift. People have pointed out that I still have "sleep" in my eyes mid afternoon because I don't like to look at myself, either in a mirror, or in a photo. I avoid mirrors as much as I avoid cameras. I look exactly the same in a photo as I do in a mirror. Not pretty is the nicest way to put it.

                      Commenter
                      Movin On
                      Location
                      Melbourne
                      Date and time
                      March 29, 2012, 4:05PM

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