Why some people don’t look as good in photos?

Why does some people always look good in photos,  and some people look much better in real life?

What is the myth behind being “photogenic”?

I looked dramatically different in the cover photo above, despite hair and makeup, why?

As a portrait photographer, I don’t work with models or celebrities, those face might be created for the screen (cameras). I photograph people who are not so fond of the cameras, might even be a little bit afraid of them. Firstly I want to confirm that everyone can look as good as real life in front of my camera, which has nothing to do with Photoshop.

1.The camera works differently compared to our eyes.

Faces will get distorted in the camera lenses. From a famous comparison below, you can see that when the face is squeezed into the center at a small focal length (20mm), the nose looks enormous. And at the bigger focal length (200mm), the face appears flatter.


It is believed that the 50mm lens is more accurate compared to human eyes. Note that the front camera of our phones is usually a 28mm. So in your selfie, your nose probably looks much bigger than in real life. And if your face is not in the center of the photo when you take the picture, it will get even more distorted. That explains why you might not look as good in selfies as you do in real life.


2.  We look more flattering in motion than in still.

There are just different things that draw our attention when we look at people in motion. We notice others’ subtle facial expressions, sparkling eyes and tender smiles. Something that we don’t necessary notice in real life can actually be more visible in still photos. Don’t you find Angelina more attractive in motion than in still? In motion, we can quite clearly tell that she was being little coy, but in this particular still image, she might look somewhat sad for some. Therefore, if you want your most beautiful expression to be captured, by yourself or a non-photographer friend, it could prove challenging.


3. Lighting can either ruin or rescue one photo

Our eyes are used to looking at things in 3D, and a photo is just 2D. So looking at a person in real life, our eyes are constructing the 3D image in our head and ignore certain details on the person’s face. But when the image is just 2D, a lot of not-so-flattering features become more noticeable. Good lighting can help to focus on the most flattering facial features, and bad lighting can bring out the unflattering ones.


Watch this 2 mins full video to see how my face changed under different lighting.

Usually when we look at ourselves from the mirror we are not paying attention to how the light hits our face, or how shadows fall in specific places. We are used to just looking at our facial features. But when we see a 2D image of ourselves with bad lighting, we would start to notice how much the light affects the image as a whole.

Mostly in normal situations the light is coming from above from the sun or a lamp. It casts shadows under our eyes and cheekbones, making us look older and more tired.  For balding men, the attention is only on the top of the head as it is the brightest part. It wouldn’t help even if you were Brando.


In this scene Brando had to look dramatic and devastated, so the light was shone on him from the top to create dark shadows in his eye sockets.  But the photo of Angelina above, she had rather horizontal soft light on her face, plus the tougher top light on her hair. The top light is quite normal in real life, but the horizontal light is usually not there in real life restaurants. So now you also know why movie making is so expensive and what the people in charge of that actually do.

4.  We are not trained to be models, we are not used to be in front of the camera.

Most of us are not models. Especially those who have rarely had good photo taken of them can become more and more scared of the camera. So when a camera clicks near us, we have this automatic reaction of being a bit embarrassed.  An embarrassed face has a tense mouth, tight chins and scared eyes – our worst expression. It also easily creates a double chin.

And really, it doesn’t help when an amateur photographer friend asks you just to “relax” when you don’t have the confidence in front of the camera. The command “relax” never works. And to take as many photos as it requires just to get you used to it also doesn’t help. It only makes it worse when you see more and more photos of yourself looking weird.

A good facial expression on the other hand typically happens when you are listening to someone you admire speaking. Then your eyes light up, chin comes forward and cheeks soften. Here is a portrait of my clients and their own photo in comparison.  With the chin a bit forward, the ladies immediately look much younger and slimmer.

Professional models are professionals, not because they are thin or pretty or represent a certain ethnicity. They are professionals, trained to pose their bodies and make different facial expressions in front of the camera.  And we are normal people, not trained to do that. How then can we know how to pose or smile when the camera is on us?


5.  We don’t believe we can be beautiful in the camera

Most of us are also very self-critical and hate feeling embarrassed in front of others. We might force a traditional smile when we are in front of the camera in social events or family gatherings for the sake of creating a memory.  But unless it’s a selfie, we feel like we don’t have any control over the photos and we stop trying.  Many of us have had professional portraits taken when we were in school. Then when we get married we might take some photos but they’re more wedding shots instead of portraits. Some occasional CV photos organized by the company with a five-minute slot to get one picture where you don’t blink. And then in some cases, few years before we die if we are lucky enough to remember to do that.  We still have our kids’ portraits taken though, but not of ourselves anymore.  If we get married around 30, and we take the last official portrait for our funeral at the age 80, that means approximately 50 years of no professional photos taken.

After years without having a decent photo taken, we might just give up on the idea that we can be as beautiful in photos as in a mirror.  Therefore we don’t go to a photographer to have our portrait taken, and we even feel less worthy somehow. Whenever we see other people having beautiful photos, we automatically go: “not me, she is beautiful and I am not. I don’t look good in photos. It’s just makeup and Photoshop and it is all fake”, etc. etc. Not to mention the impossible beauty standards set by the media all around and the pressure they put on us. So we don’t take the chance to go to a photographer to let ourselves be seen, not to even mention to play and express ourselves.  We are also afraid to be judged by the camera or the photographer behind it. Why take the risk? “I won’t look beautiful anyway”, we tell ourselves.

At some point, your children could be looking for a portrait of you. What would they find?

Will they find something classy and beautiful which will never go out of style like this?  Maybe images where you’re represented in different phases of your life?




6.  Some photographers are too technical and don’t connect,  relax, or guide us enough

Photography is quite technical. How to use camera, light, editing software and such are all very technical subjects, and can affect the photos a lot. But when shooting a portrait, the importance of technicality should never be emphasized more than connecting and relaxing the client. Some photographers have a beautiful portfolio of beautiful models who know how to pose and express themselves with vague directions. So the photographer can focus on the technical aspect of the photo.  But if they need to photograph someone who is nervous in front of the camera, or someone who has little self-confidence, the photos are not as good.

A lot of photographers charge by the hour, even 30 minute slots.  30 minutes is normally barely enough for us to get used to a totally new environment even if the photographer tries to relax and connect with us. The chance to have great photos then is slim, and the responsibility ironically enough lays heavily on our own ability to relax.

Giving direction is also essential to taking great photos of normal people.  It should never be vague like: relax, a bit more smile, be more cheerful, be more powerful, be more energetic. Most of us don’t even know where to put our hands standing in front of the camera.  So it should be the responsibility of the photographer to pose us, to guide our facial expressions in a detailed way to help us express what we want to see from the images. Some poses actually feel quite awkward for us, but because of the distortion of the camera lens, it might actually look as natural as if seen through plain human eyes. Great photographers communicate with us before and during the shoot, which always takes time.


It is not your job to be photogenic, it is a photographer’s job to connect, relax and guide you, so you look as beautiful as in real life.

I am a portrait photographer located near the famous beautiful White Church in Helsinki, Finland. And I provide a full day of all-inclusive portrait experience, especially for those who are afraid of being in front of the camera. The full day shoot includes confidence coaching, professional hair, makeup in the morning, five outfit changes, using gowns and dresses from the studio wardrobe, and a fully guided shoot of 3-4 hours in the afternoon. I promise to connect with you, relax you and make you feel good from the inside so the experience is truly enjoyable.

I won’t charge by the hour but by the end result. You buy what you love when you see the best photos from the session, selected and edited by me.

I don’t photograph on Mondays or Sundays. So you can pop by the studio on Monday or Sunday 3-7pm to see my portfolio, have a chat with me and see if I can help you to create beautiful images that you will cherish for a lifetime.

And I would love to be challenged by someone who is determined that no good photos can be taken of him or her.

Shanshan Gong

Portrait Photographer and Law of attraction coach

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