Ever see a picture of yourself that ruins your day? A distractingly, disturbingly bad photo, lit like you’re telling a scary story by a campfire, angled like the paparazzi chasing a troubled 20-something superstar in 2007 that—worst of all!—your friends and loved ones assure you is actually totally fine? A truly bad pic can be confidence-deflating; sure, looks aren’t everything, but unless you’re a summer camp counselor posing for a “goofy” group shot, you probably want to look “good” when you’re being photographed.
Fold in social media, especially this summer’s “holy shit, we’re actually going places and seeing people again!” social media, and you’ve got a recipe for feeling insecure over a snapshot of a fun moment where you don’t feel like you’re looking your best. So: Are you secretly ugly? Do your friends actually hate you and want to see you embarrass yourself on the ‘gram? Are you doomed to look bad in pictures for the rest of your life?
Fortunately, the answer is none of the above—but here’s why you might be freaking out anyway.
Your brain is tricking you into disliking what you see
First things first, let’s put some blame where it’s squarely due: Science! More specifically, two psychological phenomena are in play when it comes to the difference between what you see in the mirror and what you see on your phone screen: self-enhancement bias and the mere-exposure hypothesis. (It’s no coincidence that both of these also help explain why the inverted-face filter is so fucking unsettling.)
Self-enhancement bias is basically what it sounds like: We think we’re a smidge hotter than we actually are. According to a 2008 study, participants consistently chose flatteringly manipulated photos of themselves when asked to ID the “real” image, while strangers accurately chose unmanipulated photos of the same individuals. The mere exposure hypothesis has a different effect: we’re more comfortable with and favorable towards things we see frequently. Because we don’t see ourselves from all angles, in all situations (the way a friend or partner snapping a quick pic of us might), we’re more likely to find photos that deviate from our usual selfie or mirror pose to be jarring and unpleasant. Thanks a lot, brain! But, speaking of poses…
You’re not a professional
Lest we forget, there’s an entire field of people who pose for photos in order to pay their bills! Modeling is a job—a competitive one, too—which means that what might read as just “standing around and looking hot” is actually the result of a set of learned skills.
Caroline Guntert, a 26-year-old model who’s been taking gigs (both paid and for friends) since she was a child, said it’s taken her years of practice to learn the angles and poses that work best for her. “For me, what helps is I pretend to be tying a knot in a cherry stem in my mouth,” Guntert told VICE. “It gives me a sultry look—it makes me feel sexier and more serious.” While her specific technique might not be right for you, the gist is that if you put in time, you can find a pose or a trick that gets results you like. “Once I started looking at myself in the mirror and practicing in the mirror [over the past year], that's when my pictures became better,” she said.
Also, for what it’s worth, it’s not like models love every photo they’re in either. “I often find that the clients or the people that I work for select the images that they like, and to me it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they picked that picture,’” she said. “But you’ve got to remember they know what they want, and they thought it was good.” The same could be said for what your friends throw into their IG carousel—even if it’s not your favorite photo, remember there’s something there that someone else finds beautiful.
Your cameraperson isn’t hyping you up enough
According to David Suh, a 27-year-old photographer who runs a pro-bono posing school via his 3 million follower TikTok account, the intent behind the lens (or iPhone X) is an even bigger factor in producing a “good” photo. “To be able to show someone that they're beautiful without even saying it—like, I don’t have to say a single word—is a simple joy, and a big driver of what I do,” Suh told VICE.
If you have ever watched a professional photographer work, you know they are doing a substantial amount of coaching, from “chin slightly up and turned toward me, elbow back, left foot slightly forward” to “you’re a leopard prowling in the jungle.” Conceptualizing and communicating the kind of artistic vision we see in professional photos is a whole skill that your boyfriend, bless his heart, doesn’t and probably will never have.
Suh said he regularly receives questions from women who want to know how to make their boyfriends take better pictures of them—a vibe that transcends gender that you can feel through an over-posed “date night” photo or a series of less-than-stellar beach shots. He said that if you’re dealing with a reluctant or less-than-experienced photographer he has one suggestion: turn them into a “human tripod.”
“You have to turn the phone around so the screen is facing you and not the photographer,” he said. “It's almost like you’re taking a selfie, but instead there's someone holding it for you over there, so you can kind of get more sort of like full body shots or half body shots. That's a good compromise for the stereotypical boyfriend who doesn’t like taking photos—the girlfriend would know what to do because she’s used to taking selfies and she knows her angles, and the boyfriend would be into it because they could be done with the photoshoot thing faster.”
Commit to looking hot
One of the biggest mistakes Suh said he sees people make is, to be blunt, half-assing it. “I see a lot of people pose halfway, especially if they’re taking pictures outside—they’ll jut their shoulder out halfway or only partially ‘work the hip,’” he said. “Posing is like singing or dancing. You can work the techniques of it, but if you’re not feeling the music then it feels lifeless even if you’re doing the routine right.”
Of course, not every photo that “feels” good to you is going to look exactly how you want it to—see every photo of every drunk person ever taken—but if you’re feeling comfortable and confident that’s going to come through on camera.
Basically, don’t think of every photo you see of yourself as some kind of definitive tribunal on What You Look Like. Not only is it untrue, it’s going to stress out you and whoever else is involved in trying to obtain hot photos of you! Ham it up, have fun, experiment and you might be surprised by how much more you like what you see.
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.