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January 17, 2013 at 12:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Image Distortion: Why We Look Different in Photos

By Claire Franklin More Blogs by This Author

I have heard countless women say something to the effect of, I always look so much fatter in photographs than in the mirror. I hope I dont really look that big, and if I do, I need to lose a ton of weight. I'm guilty of this as well; I've often looked in the mirror at home and thought I looked okay, only to see pictures of myself from that very same day and thought, Oh, no, the enormous and blotchy-skinned woman in that photo cant possibly be me.

What is it about photographs that make so many of us squirm and cringe? And why do we often feel that our mirror reflections are vastly different from the way we look in photographs? The answers to these questions are complex, but they are also scientific, which means that the disparity is not all in your head.

The phenomenon of looking fatter in photographs than you do to the eye can be explained in several ways.

Single Vs. Double Point of View

As professor Michael Richmond explained, "I can come up with one reason which certainly must contribute to the effect: the fact that a camera has but a single point of view, while a human sees things with two eyes."

Being about seven or eight cm apart, our brain must take the images perceived by both eyes and fuse them together. This process is responsible for both our depth and width perception. A camera offers only one perspective.

"Intuitive Reversal"

Of course, the camera is not the only guilty party in this conspiracy to distort images. Mirrors are in fact equally guilty, but in different ways.

Our mirror image is the version of our self we're most used to seeing, and yet it is in fact, a lie. Mirrors reverse images on a perpendicular (right angle) axis - as gizmodo explains it, like pushing in the features of a rubber Halloween mask. This doesn't bother us due to an effect called "intuitive reversal," but it does build an image of our appearance in our heads that is intrinsically wrong.


"[Above] is a long version of what the face looks like with lenses from a 35MM full frame DSLR, 24x36mm chip, at various focal lengths accounting for framing with distance (moving closer or further to the subject)...moving in closer allows for you to cheat perspective at times, as there is no reference to go by, but in general if their is a reference like a nose, ears, eyes, forehead, there is perspective that alters and the viewer can see it, it may be what you want, or it may not, you choose how to use it and for what purpose." Features closest to the camera will appear larger than they really are, while features farthest from the camera will appear smaller than they really are. Source: Stephen Eastwood

On top of this is the problem of perspective.

When we're looking into a mirror, normally we're standing very close. Like those perspective drawings you did in middle school art classes, this means the parts of our body closest to our eyes, our face and chest seem larger than they normally would and our lower half, smaller. A photograph on the other hand, usually offers no such effect.

Self Delusion

Let's be honest for a moment and think about the act of looking into a mirror. We stand close, we pose, tilt our head to hide less attractive traits, suck in our tummies, adopt our most attractive facial expressions. It's something everyone does and nothing to be ashamed of, but it's a very controlled image, not the one a photographer sees. It can be strange to see our self outside of this most flattering light in a photograph.

Happiness with your photographed self is supported by comfort with your own natural appearance. The next time you look in a mirror, be aware of this inclination to pose, and instead try looking a natural as possible. Relax, breathe deep and become familiar with this clearer, more honest view of yourself.


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