Why Do I Look So Bad in Pictures? How You Really Look

  • by Matt Phelps

Don't Worry, Nobody is as Critical of Your Appearance as You Are!


Have you ever checked yourself out in a mirror and thought:

"Dang, I look good, better commemorate this moment with a selfie" — then, after snapping said selfie, you examined the photo to have the horrifying realization that you look like something that was dredged out of the lake?

Of course you have.

We all have. 

Sometimes, it even feels like you don’t recognize the person in the photo.

Your nose looks longer, your face rounder, and your eyes seem… emotionless.

Where is that beautiful golden god that you saw in the mirror just moments ago?

Is that even you?!

Even if you are so disgusted by the way you look in pictures that you have begun to completely avoid being photographed, just know that it’s a common phenomenon experienced by almost everyone at least once or twice.

Not only that — it’s such a common occurrence that some of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds have studied in order to get to the root of the issue.

But why do you look — or think you look — so bad in pictures?


mirror vs photo

Me in the mirror vs me in a photo




The You in the Mirror... Isn't the Real You

Before you have an existential crisis, the reflection you see in the mirror is you — you are you — but it’s not how you appear to others. 

Even the least vain of us spend a substantial amount of time in front of the mirror: styling our hair, picking an outfit, and even catching a glimpse in a window as we walk by.

Over time, we grow accustomed to the way we appear in our reflection, convinced that is how we look all of the time, but since it is only a reflection, the image is inverted, or flipped. 

However, a camera does not invert images — your appearance is no longer flipped.

When you become comfortable with the way you look in the mirror, seeing a different “version” of yourself can be extremely unsettling and met with disdain.

This is referred to as the mere-exposure effect, a theory that asserts that people tend to prefer things or people — in this case, your reflected appearance — that are more familiar to them. 

Since it is unlikely that your face is perfectly symmetrical, the differences between each side of your face are flipped in a photograph or selfie.

To you, it appears that your face has been distorted, and you hate it.

To make matters worse, you probably think you’re more attractive than you are. 

This is referred to as self-enhancement bias, which is “the tendency to describe oneself more positively than a normative criterion would predict.”

Most people self-enhance frequently, overestimating ourselves and believing that they are above average in a number of ways — including attractiveness.

A study done by Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch tested the self-enhancement bias on how attractive we think we are versus how attractive we really are.

During the study, participants were shown pictures of themselves, either edited to look more or less attractive (by traditional standards) than they really were.

The study participants immediately identified themselves with the portraits that were positively enhanced, but not with the ones that their faces were edited badly.

However, this self-enhancement bias only extended to the subjects’ own faces and their friend’s faces, but did not extend to others. 

While there is nothing wrong with being confident, you may be unknowingly inflating your own self-image.

Moral of this selfie story: you don’t look bad in pictures.

You just don’t know what you look like.


Mirror vs photo

We are used to seeing our face "flipped" by the mirror




The Camera Doesn't Always Capture Your Best Side

If you are not a professional model who is trained in the art of looking good in pictures, you can’t expect to look perfect in every single selfie, much less a photograph taken by someone else — and that’s okay!

Unfortunately, even the most expensive cameras aren’t able to capture images in the same way our eyes do.

Instead, they do their best to translate the three dimensional images that come through the lens, compressing it into a two dimensional format.

This results in a bit of distortion, but how you take a photo (or are photographed) plays an even bigger part.

First of all, lighting has the ability to make or break a photo.

Shadows cast on your face can warp your features or a bright flash can blow them out completely.

Even natural light can be too harsh, especially when the sun is high in the sky. If you don’t have the help of a professional lighting team and photographer, you can always post up by a window in your own home or experiment with lamp placement for the most flattering selfie light.

Second, not all camera lenses are designed for portraits and many will make you look bad.

Camera lenses are measured by their focal millimeters, and each length is used for a different purpose.

For example, a 5.2mm fisheye lens may look great in a Busta Rhymes music video, but it’s going to make your regular-ole portraits look mighty strange. 

Portrait photography is taken on a number of different lenses, with the most popular being 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

However, these lengths portray the face in wildly different ways (you can see a comparison of them here) and you may prefer the way you look using one lens versus another.

Perhaps you would look best being shot with a 35mm lens, but your photographer friend only shoots with a 85mm — of course you would think you look bad in photos!

Even if you’re unhappy with the outcome, you promise you don’t look quite as bad in pictures as you think you do.

Unless, of course, you have an extreme self-enhancement bias, in which case… good luck. 


Camera angle makes me look bad

Different lens and different distances completely change how you look




Thank you for reading my answer to why you think you look so bad in pictures. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends - thanks!


  Jesper Marklund Jesper Marklund

   Content Writer at STEEL



P.S Not 100% satisfied with your smile? You may have a canted smile👇

Canted Smile – What it is & How to Fix it


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