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The Science Behind the Selfie (No, You Don’t Really Look Like That)

Oh, selfies.

The lure of the selfie is the enticing idea that we might be seen by the rest of the world in the same way that we see ourselves. At the right angle, in the right light, with the right expression. Not weirdly lit, from an awkward angle and snorting at a joke like the photos other people take of us. No, a selfie is a carefully composed photo, in all the best ways. Selfies have the power to make us feel great, or – on the days where we can’t find our angle – make us feel rotten.

Selfies allow us to examine and re-create our own image in a way that we feel comfortable with. In our looks-obsessed world, our appearance is a real currency, and it’s only natural that we should want to experiment with it, and make sure that we control it as much as we are able. I work with people all the time to help them create photography that shows them at their best, so I was sorry to see recent articles that talked about people wanting plastic surgery because they think their nose looks too large in selfies, and they didn’t understand that selfies are not accurate reflections of reality. So I thought I’d do a demo here and explain a little bit about how cameras distort the face, so you can stop fretting, go confidently in the direction of your dreams and live your best life, and not worry about your nose really being that big, because it for sure is not.

I have tried my best to explain this in lay terms without too much detail, but please do ask if something isn’t clear. (If you’re a techy/camera person and you want to “Well, actually…” me about anything in this article, don’t.)

All Photographs are Lies

You have to understand that as a professional portrait photographer I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a “real” photo of a person—a photo that shows the human face or form exactly as it is. (Nor would we want that, even if it did exist.) All photos are lies, distortions of the truth, and that goes double triple for selfies. Every photo in existence is altered and constrained by many factors, including the camera itself, the focal length of the lens we use, lighting and posing of the subject and the perspective from which the photo was taken. The camera doesn’t just (as a friend of mine asked me) “record what’s there.” Far from it, the camera distorts everything, all the time, and the photographer does too – that’s our job.

What a camera really “sees” is limited. A camera is not like human eyes, which can view an entire scene in stereo and use the brain to process it and take relative distance/perspective into account. Our brains are always making allowances for spatial relationships between objects. But a camera (mono-vision, just the one “eye”) can change that, making things seem out of proportion to each other. This phenomenon/technique is called forced perspective.

Ex: Yes, I know that the model’s hand is not larger than her head when she extends it toward me in real life. 

(BTW: In-camera forced perspective is how Peter Jackson made a good chunk of The Lord of the Rings and you should look that up because it’s very cool to see behind the scenes.)

So we know perspective is different in photos. Remember this – anything close to the camera is going to look larger, and anything farther from the camera is going to look smaller, and the brain won’t correct for it in a photo like it would in person.

So Why and How do Selfies Cause Distortion?

So how can we understand how a smart phone camera is distorting our face, and can we use that to our advantage/disadvantage?

First, remember it’s the distance, not the lens width – It’s a common belief that selfies are distorted because cell phone cameras use really wide angle lenses. And that’s sorta true, but not entirely true. It’s just a short-cut way to talk about the phenomenon.

See, a wide-angle lens will allow you to see a larger slice of the scene in front of you. That’s really nice for taking landscapes and capturing a lot of the scene. A longer lens will cut out the stuff on the sides, and just capture a smaller slice of the scene in front of you. If these are fixed length lenses (they can’t zoom) and you want to change how much of the scene the camera can capture, you need to physically walk toward or away from the subject. Following?

Ex: Here is a really professional and 100% scientific rendition of what a wide-angle vs not-so-wide angle lens can “see” when you take a photo. (Y’all see why I am a photographer and not a painter, I’d imagine.) The diagonal lines/pie slices show what a wide-angle lens can see of a scene, vs what a longer lens can see, when the camera is in the exact same position. So if I want just the person in the photo, I’d have to get really close to them, yes?

The reason this matters for a selfie is that when we’re taking a photo of ourselves, we usually want to fill the frame, right? Most times when you’re taking a selfie, it’s going to be of just your face, not your face and your janky pajama bottoms and and your dirty laundry pile and the cat licking itself in the background, etc. You’re going to get nice and close and focus on your bomb winged eyeliner. In fact, with a hand-held, front-facing camera you’re limited to the length of your arm, right? You’re going to be arms-length or closer.

So the problem is that when we get really close to someone to take a photo, their nose is much closer to the lens that their eyes are, right? Think about what the camera sees. It sees a nose or chin super close, and then the eyes seem much further away. So remember what we said about how things that are close to the camera are larger, and things that are farther away are smaller? You see where I am going here. This is how you make your nose and/or chin look ginormous and distorted to a wide angle lens.

Anyway, it’s how close we have to get to the subject to make them fill the frame, not the width of the lens, which makes portraits taken with a wide-angle lens more distorted. Make sense? If I took a photo of you with your cell phone camera from 12 ft away, your face would not be distorted, you could zoom in and your face would look in proportion. (But then it would also not be a very high-quality photo, probs.)

So even though I am going to show you a series of photos taken with varying focal lengths, remember that it’s not about the focal length, it’s about the distance from camera to subject. I just had to use varying focal lengths to frame the shot the same way as I kept backing away from the subject. Sense is made? Yes? Good.

Examples of Facial Distortion at Varying Distances/Focal Lengths

I had several models into the studio and I shot them at various focal lengths/distances to create the photos below. I am including here images taken at 17mm (the widest and most distorted) 50mm (closer to what the human eye sees) and 200mm (very compressed/flattened). For the 17mm shots I was about 8 inches away, for the 50mm shots I was about 4 ft away, and for the 200m shots I was about 10-12ft away. Observe how the camera distorts their features depending on the distance. (And big thanks to all my models who agreed to have some unflattering shots of themselves posted on the interwebs in illustration of this topic.)

George: See how his face is narrower in the wide-angle/close shot, but his nose looks so much larger? Also, observe the way in which his shoulders seem to slouch/curve down in the wide angle shot. Also check out the relative width of his neck to his face in the first shot vs the last shot. These are all photos of George, but which one of these is a photo of what George “really” looks like? None of them. Like I said, all photos are lies. These are all approximations of George’s appearance, that’s all.

 

Grace: Same thing here, check out the width of the face, the width of the neck, and the slope of the shoulders. The first, wide-angle photo almost gives an anime sort of appearance, when you see how large the eyes/forehead are in comparison to the chin and mouth. It’s very easy to replicate this anime effect with your cell phone camera.

I took all of these photos within 2-3 minutes of each other. Which one is what Grace “really” looks like?

Kaitlyn: Getting the point now? This is universal. The way we look in a photograph depends on a million factors other than our actual appearance. See how much larger Kaitlyn’s nose looks in the first photo vs the last, and how much thicker her neck looks in the right photo.
So which photo is “correct?” What is the right lens/distance for an accurate portrait? It’s all a matter of taste and your personal aesthetic, combined with how you want to represent the person in front of you. There’s no universal answer.

 

Here’s a short animation of 12 photos taken at focal lengths from 17-200. The difference is subtle once you get past about 50mm, but it’s extreme in the 17-50mm range.

Yikes, How do We Get Good a Good Selfie Then?

This is where being a good and knowledgeable portrait photographer comes in. Because there are some things about this type of distortion that you can definitely use to your advantage, and for sure things to look out for when you’re shooting people with different features/body types.

For example, when shooting a heavier person who wants to look less so, you can make that person’s head look larger in proportion to their body by using a wider (35 or 50 mm) lens and shooting from a slightly higher angle. (If you shoot a very slender person in the same way you will absolutely turn them into a bobblehead.) When you’re shooting someone with, say, a larger butt that they want minimized, have them angle the hips subtly backward in the frame and angle the chest and shoulders closer. They will look much more equally proportioned when shot that way.

You can use distance from your subject, camera angle, lighting and posing to dramatically change a person’s appearance, all without even opening Photoshop or any editing app.

Here are some photos of me to demonstrate:

selfie

  • I took the left image in the studio with a 60mm lens while I was testing a lighting setup. This was as far away as I could get and still use my wired trigger release, so it’s way closer than I’d shoot a client, and I am also jutting my chin slightly forward. Look at the width of my jaw. Look at the size of my glasses vs the size of my face. I do have a strong jaw, but not quite this Jay Leno level of strong.
  • I took the center image later that same day with my cell phone to show a friend my new Gryffindor scarf. Look at the width of my jaw and size of my chin there. Even though this is a wider lens, I have changed the angle and brought my forehead closer to the camera and my chin farther away, which changes their perceived size. Look at the size of my glasses vs the size of my face.
  • I  took the right hand picture last fall with an extreme downward angle to show off my awesome Vichcraft patch and accidentally took about 75 lbs off my frame by making my head look proportionally much larger. Look how much bigger my glasses look in that last photo than in the first one. Same face, same glasses.

Which one of these photos really looks like me? All of them? None of them? Hell if I know.

So What’s the Point Here?

The whole point of this post is that pictures have the power to make us feel wonderful or lousy about ourselves, and the more I work with photos the more adamant I am that they do not ever, and will not ever, reflect reality. See a crappy photo of you? Meh, that’s not really what you look like, probably. Great photo of you? Hooray! That’s probably not what you look like either. I know it’s hard but it’s good to practice releasing the power that photos have over the way you think of yourself. Let a wonderful photo bring you joy, and let a bad photo go. I’ve taken photos of the same person within seconds of each other that make them look by turns ridiculous and sublime. Did those photos change the nature or appearance of that person at all? No. They’re just photos. They’re distorted images captured at a specific moment in time, and they approximate a person’s appearance.

I do believe in the transformative quality of good photography to bring people self-confidence and joy, though. Otherwise why do what I do? I also believe that once we see the beauty in someone, it’s really hard to unsee it. You may have never noticed a person in your life, but then you see a gorgeous portrait or head shot of them and think – wow, I never realized they were so stunning! You don’t ever unlearn that, you will see that person as more attractive from then on out, because when you’re around them you will see the sparkling eyes, the strong jaw, the glowing skin, whatever it was that the successful image captured.

So, are wonderful portraits polite fictions? Maybe so, but even when people had only painted portraits they always were polite fictions. (Painters weren’t adding in acne scars and stray hairs and double chins. Not the ones who wanted to keep their heads, anyway.)

My aim with all of my clients is to capture a portrait of them that represents their best self, on their best day, as seen through the eyes of someone who loves them, and have them carry that image in their head as their idea of what they really look like. I think that’s a good way to walk through the world, and I hope that this post helps you to do the same!

Please let me know if anything I’ve talked about doesn’t make sense, and I will link you to some much more technical and drier explanations of these phenomena!


PS: Here are some final images from my shoots with George, Grace and Kaitlyn. If you’re interested in a headshot or portrait session, email me at info@oohstloustudios.com.

 

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