Why do you hate seeing yourself in photos (and what can you do about it)?

One of the first things I hear when I mention I’m a commercial photographer, covering corporate headshots and personal branding photography is one of two things, “Oh, I hate having my photo taken” and “you will never get a good photograph of me”. It is generally the first thing someone says when they walk in with fear and trepidation to have their headshot taken and see my camera. Now I understand, completely and thought it might be useful if I explained the science behind this feeling! 

Unless you’re a seasoned and regularly ‘papped’ individual, there are bound to be times when you’ve looked at a picture captured of yourself and winced. In fact, even those with the most polished appearance will never be truly confident in pictures they see of themselves.   More frustratingly, and confusingly, everyone else around you, and usually the one who took the photograph, adamantly reassures you that ‘you look great! What on earth are you talking about?’ as you rush for the ‘delete’ button.  

So why is it that the human condition just doesn’t like to see itself on screen or in print?  

On reflection….. 

One of the main reasons for that sharp intake of breath when you see pictures of yourself is the natural asymmetry of the human face.  What this means is that as we are so used to seeing ourselves in reflection, the images captured by a camera reverse the asymmetry so that we see ourselves as less recognisable, signposting the differences between the left and the right.  

Ironically, asymmetry is totally normal, and most people do not notice it in others. It used to be assumed (through the traditional means of capturing faces with paintings) that the more symmetrical a face, the more ‘beautiful’ that individual was. In fact, modern studies actually suggest that asymmetry is a sign of natural beauty, allowing faces to tell a story, and depict true character and distinction.  

When we see our faces in an image, it jars our brain. Simply, we’re used to seeing ourselves in a reflection, which is reversed and unsettling.  

It’s probably in your head…. 

As much as so many people don’t like to hear it when looking at pictures of themselves, the projection of their appearance is actually their perception of it. The mere exposure effect phenomenon goes a long way to explaining why so often we dislike images of ourselves. 

Simply, we like what we like. We’re funny creatures who don’t like straying from the familiar.  

The mere exposure effect is a phenomenon whereby people are attracted to what they are familiar with. From the foods we choose to order at a restaurant to aesthetics for our home, we naturally gravitate to familiarity first. Which is why our brains prefer to see images of ourselves in a reflection than in print or on screen. 

New angles and lighting 

Your standard bedroom mirror doesn’t tend to change in angle and the lighting that serves it tends to remain constant. So when you’re captured on camera, whether it’s in natural light, a studio or on location, it’s bound to differ from your comfort zone where you would traditionally get ready.  

Anyone who has tried clothes on in different high street changing rooms will vouch for the fact that lighting can have an insane impact on how good or bad you perceive your reflection to be.  High street stores continue to invest millions in providing that perfect flattering hue of light on the mirror. Some with more success than others (I’ve had a few moments of doubt when out shopping myself|).  The same principle applies to photography lighting.  

Any professional photographer worth their salt will be able to recommend and supply the perfect lighting for a flattering end result.  Lighting that emits a clean, soft, homely glow tends to render the most user-friendly results, I find this is best using natural light and will always steer a headshot towards a window or area where it can be used.  

Angles also play a big part in why we often dislike pictures of ourselves.  How often do you study your face in the mirror from anything other than a chosen stance, and usually front on?  When we’re candidly captured from the side, we’ll see unfamiliar angles and structures that may even seem unrecognisable. Again, it’s this jarring effect that makes us sit back and immediately feel less comfortable with the image.  

Say ‘cheese!’ 

For so many of us, there’s nothing worse than performing a staged smile or expression. Again, it’s an unnatural process. How many times would you look at yourself in the mirror and paint a smile on your face for your final inspection? Many people prefer images of themselves that capture them behaving naturally, often unaware of the photographer’s presence (the candid approach behind the C in Simply C!) There are certain shots where this is unavoidable, such as corporate headshots. So it may help to look down or around right before the ‘click’, to prevent you sitting still with a frozen expression on your face and mimic a more natural appearance and stance.  

The self-image battle 

We live in a visually-driven society, the insurmountable rise of social media puts additional pressure on those young and old to be picture perfect in line with society’s expectations. We have immediate and constant access to filtered, augmented and staged images that give a false depiction of what real beauty is.  This causes so many of us to feel insecure and self-conscious that we don’t meet the standards set by our idols and peers.  

The images that we see, as photographs of others, not only set unrealistic expectations because of how they have been altered or staged, but also mess further with our own jarred perception of how we look in a mirror versus how a camera captures our features.  The perfect storm for a negative self-image. It all stems from self-esteem and a culture that hinges on images, not inner beauty. Thankfully, the rise of ‘unfiltered’ social channels such as ‘BeReal’ could indicate that the next generation are pushing back, which could prove crucial in accepting the human appearance as coming in all shapes, tones and sizes, all with their merits.  

Playing lens distortion as an advantage 

The lens’ focal length and distances or angles from the camera can have a dramatic impact on the end resulting headshot. Lens distortion and position of the camera and shot can highlight certain features, mask others and bring certain qualities or ‘flaws’ to life. Played right and that lens distortion element plus a good camera angle combined with effective lighting (please chose natural light) can work extremely favourably. Played wrong and it can create a really disheartening result. 

Prepping for a professional shoot – how I help clients 

“Cherry recently completed our team’s headshots and made us feel incredibly at ease – which is always a big ask when having your portrait taken! The photos captured our staff authentically and they couldn’t wait to use them”. Inspire

It’s natural to feel apprehensive about having professional headshots taken, particularly if you feel like there’s nowhere to hide. Which is why I strive to put clients at ease by helping them to relax their shoulders and face, loosen up and chill! Easing tension from the body and neck will help to capture any style of headshot either lifestyle or a more formal white background most effectively.  

Making time for plenty of breaks in longer personal branding photoshoots is important, as tension can build through each series of poses (if poses are required!). Depending on the brief, it may be necessary to have to sit in a certain position with a face at a certain angle, but where possible I will advise clients about more appropriate approaches which could be less formal and intimidating.  

Get to know me first.  It’s Simply vital.  If you are comfortable with me and how I work and communicate, we’ll build trust pretty quickly, which will lead to the best end result.  So if you’re looking for a commercial photographer who will not only capture you in your best light, but help you to love the pictures that we produce together, you’ve come to the right place.  

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