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Do You Look Different in Pictures Than in Real Life? Yes, and Here’s How

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Why do I look different in pictures? What do I look like to others?

Myth: “The photo I used was just what I really look like”

You’ve been misled.

You’ve been told that the camera doesn’t lie. (Myth.)

That photos show you just the way you are. (Myth.)

That pics = proof. (Myth.)

That bad pictures are the most “real.” (Myth.)

I’m not saying this to be “nice.” I’m saying it because it’s the reason we built Photofeeler in the first place.

Look, I don’t know you. You could be a fitness model or look like the bottom of a garbage can. But most of us tend to fall somewhere near average. And, for us, the difference between a bad and good picture can be genuinely consequential to our professional and dating lives.

Dating pics of the same person rated on Photofeeler
One man’s dating pics rated on Photofeeler

Often, a new user will come to Photofeeler thinking, “This website can tell me how attractive I am! I want to know this about me!” But this is not what Photofeeler does.

What if the pictures you’re currently using, say on dating apps, aren’t as attractive as you are in real life?

Read on to learn 5 ways that pictures skew reality.

#1 Camera distortion warps your proportions

Camera distortion makes you look different in pictures than in real life
As illustrated by photographer Stephen Eastwood
Camera distortion makes you look different in pictures than in real life
As illustrated on Daniel’s Visionarium

Ever suspect that your forehead or nose looked larger in a particular picture than in real life?

More than likely, you were correct.

Camera distortion is ubiquitous in social media pictures — especially selfies.

The most common cause of camera distortion is that the subject is too close to the lens.

Most photographers say that the type of lens used also has a lot to do with it, and wide-angle lenses (like the ones in our camera phones) are big offenders.

#2 Going from 3D to 2D creates optical illusions

Real life is 3D. A picture is 2D.

This difference can have major implications.

For instance, when you’re standing in front of someone, you get a 3D sense of their size. Without that extra dimension, in photos, a human arm can look way smaller or larger than it really is.

For this reason, professional models learn to manipulate their body shape by moving parts of themselves closer or farther from the lens.

Additionally, because a sharp bone structure doesn’t flatten out as much in the transition to 2D, angular faces are generally more photogenic than softer ones.

All in all, it’s helpful to understand that natural photogenicness is correlated with (but not the same as) attractiveness.

Why do I look different in pictures? What do I look like to others? Why do I look so bad in pictures? Why do I look ugly in pictures?
Left: model, Lily Cole. Right: world’s highest-paid supermodel, Gisele Bundchen.

Being attractive in person doesn’t automatically equal photogenic. And being naturally photogenic doesn’t automatically equal attractive in person.

Photographers have long been known to note the difference between the on-camera and off-camera appearances of famous models. (Kate Moss, for example, has been rumored to look quite ordinary in the flesh. Not that I can personally confirm or deny.)

#3 Most pictures are disappointing because your brain is like Photoshop

Our eyes (with help from our brain) automatically adjust to darkness and brightness.

Our cameras are not as amazing. They can be adjusted to focus on highlights or shadows, but never both at once.

As a result, sometimes we get these dark, creepy, or washed-out pictures that cause us to question, “Was that what I really looked like at the party?”

The answer is no, it’s not.

Why do I look different in pictures? What do I look like to others? Why do I look so bad in pictures? Why do I look ugly in pictures?

Another quirk of how we see in real life is about focus.

We automatically “edit out” unimportant, periphery details while zooming in on small windows of vision at a time.

What results is that pictures look cluttered, distracting, and crappy compared to what we had seen through our own two eyes.

Why do I look different in pictures? What do I look like to others? Why do I look so bad in pictures? Why do I look ugly in pictures?
via Flickr

And, if we’re not careful to notice the difference, we’re apt to use pictures with details that are unflattering to us.

#4 Movement matters a lot in person but not at all in photos

Photos are static and people are not.

Because we’re always in motion, the way a face moves is as important to our perception of a person as their facial features themselves.

Haven’t we all met someone for the first time after seeing them in a picture and thought, “That’s not at all what I expected”? Even when their physical features were presented accurately? It was the lack of movement at play.

But you miss all of this in photos. And if the way a face moves is attractive, sadly, that particular quality won’t ever be captured in photos.

The way a face moves is as important to our perception of a person as their facial features themselves
via GIPHY

Additionally, people often have awkward expressions in pictures that no one would have noticed in real life. That’s because we remember a cumulative average of facial expressions rather than each specific movement.

Sometimes we get photos that look much worse than we do in real life because we don't perceive every tiny movement of the face in real life

As a consequence, sometimes we get photos of ourselves that are much worse than what we really look like!

Remember the Beyonce Super Bowl pictures debacle of 2013, anyone?

via GIPHY

#5 Each photo exaggerates a specific story

Even more ways we humans are not visually static:

• We don’t stay in one setting 24/7
• We wear different clothes in different situations
• We behave differently at different times and in different situations
• Our mental and emotional states change by the second

Given this, showing the truth of who you are — even in a strictly physical sense — is impossible to do in one picture.

Every photo exaggerates a specific story about what you look like and who you are
via GIPHY

A “fair” description of what someone looks like might only be given after an extended in-person interaction.

A Princeton study confirmed this. They found that different photos of the same person are perceived as if they are completely different people.

Why is this? Because we go too far with assumptions based on a photo. If a guy’s wearing a white t-shirt in his only OkCupid picture, women will assume that’s his signature look. They’ll imagine he’s always wearing that t-shirt and making that same facial expression at every moment.

Logically, we all know this can’t be true, but subconsciously this is how our mind works.

So if you’re making a crazy face in your picture? Yeah, people will probably assume you’re 100% crazy.

Why do I look different in pictures? What do I look like to others? Why do I look so bad in pictures? Why do I look ugly in pictures?

Or if you look solemn and serious, they’re likely to assume that you’re never any fun.

Why do I look different in pictures? What do I look like to others? Why do I look so bad in pictures? Why do I look ugly in pictures?

Granted, our friends and family don’t see pictures of us this way because they know who we really are. They are just as blinded by bias as we are.

When you’re choosing a picture to use for a profile, you’ve got to imagine what certain settings, poses, facial expressions, etc., might be communicating to a stranger about who you are — given that they know nothing else about you.

Remember: it’s a picture, not you as a person

Why do I look different in pictures? What do I look like to others? Why do I look so bad in pictures? Why do I look ugly in pictures?

No one picture can tell the whole story of who you are or even what you look like.

The way you look and the way you look in a particular picture are different matters.

When an average-looking guy’s photo receives a 2% Attractiveness Rank on Photofeeler, that guy might wish he were more attractive. But the truth is he’s already in the top 50th percentile of physical attractiveness in real life. He’s just taking bad pics.

Turns out, when someone swipes on your Tinder profile, they’re liking or rejecting the idea of you that they got from your pics. That’s not nearly the same as judging you in real life, as a new set of pics can easily result in 10x the matches.

Photofeeler is a tool for testing profile pics, as seen in Time, Forbes, The Today Show, and more. Know for certain how you’re coming across in your business, social, and dating pictures. It’s free to use here.