Why does the camera add “pounds” to your face?

Most people know that awful morning-after feeling — not the one that comes from too many cocktails, but the one that comes when you see the pictures from last night posted on social media. Why is it so hard to look good in photographs? Good news: You can blame the technology. The way cameras are designed has the tendency to make you look weird, but there are ways to get around it.

The primary reason you might look wider in photographs comes down to the limitations of the camera itself. Most people see the world with binocular vision — that is, they’ve got two eyes that each capture their own slightly different perspective of a scene. The brain stitches those perspectives together to create a three-dimensional impression of the world. A camera, on the other hand, has monocular vision. It’s stuck with the one eye it’s got — the lens — and can’t get as complete a picture as the human visual system can.

Light, shadow, and perspective can certainly help create the illusion of depth in a photo, but it’s not the real thing. And when something looks flatter, it looks wider, too — thus why carefully contoured makeup or a well-trimmed beard can instantly make your face look thinner. Flash amplifies the problem.

You probably don’t even notice how your vision makes the objects in front of you slimmer than they are in pictures. If you took a physical photograph and bent the center away from you, objects in the center would appear narrower. That’s exactly what happens with your vision. Rochester Institute of Technology physics professor Michael Richmond demonstrated this phenomenon by stitching together two images of a coffee cup taken from the perspective of each eye. The final image is a little distorted, but clearly narrower than the original one taken with a head-on perspective.

Another reason the camera adds weight comes from something called barrel distortion. That’s the slight “fisheye” effect that wide-angle and telephoto lenses give to an image. It’s good when you need to take in more of a scene, but if there’s a person at the center of that scene, they’re going to look wider than they are in reality. Different camera lenses — and different smartphone cameras, by extension — produce different amounts of this distortion.

Okay, so cameras are made to be unflattering. Is there any chance of fighting back? There sure is! With a few posing tricks, you can use the camera’s limitations to your advantage and get a svelte, flattering photo that’ll get oodles of likes.

  • Angle everything. Photographer Peter Hurley recommends sticking your neck forward (like a strutting chicken) to sharpen your jawline. It might feel weird, but this video proves how much it can transform a headshot. You should also stand at an angle to the camera. Remember, flat means wide, so you want to create the illusion of depth as much as possible. Angles make that happen.
  • Adjust your mouth. They say the best smile is your natural smile, but for those of us who have flashed the grin we were born with only to have the photographer assume we were joking (true story), some adjustments are in order. Relax your face and open your mouth slightly so your lower lip matches the curve of your upper teeth, then “squinch” your eyes. Stick your tongue to the roof of your mouth to tighten the area beneath your jaw. If you’d rather not show your teeth, do what the Victorians did: say “prunes!”
  • If it bends, bend it. Put a soft bend in your elbows, bend the knee closest to the camera (or cross your ankles, if that’s your thing), pop a hip back. This creates the impression of space and makes everything look narrower.
    Don’t make yourself front and center. Objects closest to the lens look the largest. That means that in order to look your best in a group picture, you should avoid being the closest person to the camera. Stand slightly behind the person next to you, even if that means sacrificing your BFF to the wide-angle lens demons.
  • Let someone else choose the photo. You might detest it, but think about it this way: If you want to choose a photo where you look good to other people, not just yourself, you should trust what other people think. And anyway, it’s science: A 2017 study found that the pictures people think are the best of themselves rank the worst among strangers.

Happy photo taking!

Check out my related post: Why is flash photography banned in museums and galleries?

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