Have you ever wondered why your face looks just a little different in photos than it does reflected in the mirror?
Whether you’re examining selfies or photos taken by others, there’s always something a bit off about your appearance in pictures.
The mystery hit me when I was at home one day overanalyzing my face in the mirror and deciding that I looked good enough for a selfie. I probably took about 25 photos and I hated almost every single one. All of a sudden, my nose seemed to be 10 times more crooked than normal, and it was all I could focus on. But I still looked fine in the mirror, which left me wondering why my face didn’t quite translate into my phone.
As it happens, there are a few explanations for this.
We Expect The Mirror Image
One major factor is that photos generally show us the reverse of what we see in the mirror. When you take a photo of yourself using some (but not all) apps or the front-facing camera on an iPhone, the resulting image captures your face as others see it. The same is true for non-phone cameras.
As Nolan Feeney explained in a 2014 Atlantic article, seeing ourselves in reverse can be a little weird, partly because our faces aren’t perfectly symmetrical. Certain features or distinctive marks don’t line up in photos the same way they do in the mirror, and that can throw us off. To return to my anecdote, I rarely notice the slant in my nose when I look in the mirror, but in photos, the slant goes the opposite direction, so it’s always the first thing I see.
“People have grown up [looking] in the mirror and that’s what they believe everybody sees, when it’s the reverse of that, which is really weird,” said Jay Perry, a Canadian photographer based in Hamilton, Ontario. “Mirrors are kind of lies.”
We Like Our Familiar Faces
We’re most familiar with our faces as we see them in the mirror and thus come to prefer that mirror image, according to the mere exposure theory, which states that repeatedly encountering something makes us like it more.
“Looking at yourself in the mirror becomes a firm impression. You have that familiarity. Familiarity breeds liking. You’ve established a preference for that look of your face,” Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told The Atlantic back in 2014.
New York-based photographer Michael Levy expanded on Rutledge’s point for HuffPost, noting that when we gaze in the mirror, we tend to gaze at what we consider our good side ― that is, the angle that seems most attractive to us.
“When you’re looking in the mirror, you are subconsciously turning your face, usually, to a certain angle that to you is most optimal,” said Levy. “It attracts you to yourself.”
Of course, when we see our faces in the mirror, we’re also looking at ourselves in motion as opposed to completely still, as Perry pointed out.
“You can pick so much more detail out in a still photo,” Perry said. In real life, “you’re moving constantly, you’re blurred, you’re not focusing on every single pore because you can’t.”
You also can’t zoom in to your face in the mirror the same way you can in a digital photo. (Magnifying mirrors are pretty good at putting your self-perceived imperfections on full display, but they’re not quite the same.)
It Can Be Technical, Too
Different camera lenses can change the way people look in photos. For example, Perry said that if someone wanted to look slimmer, he would choose a longer lens because “the shorter the lens, the wider it’s going to make your face.”
A person’s proximity to the camera also comes into play. Features that are closest to the lens are going to be emphasized in the photo ― like noses. And when we take selfies, we’re generally closer to the camera than we would be if someone else were taking our photo.
At the end of the day, though, the way we appear in photos is the way we look to the rest of the world. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, studies have shown that other people generally like the version of you they see, as opposed to the image of yourself you see.