The struggle to find a good photo is probably one of the most common 'first world' problems that most millennials, Gen Z, and hell, even boomers face. After all, it is the age of digital media, where we have more filters than friends!
But why is it that so many of us struggle with finding a photo of ourselves that we like? Why exactly do we think we look bad in our photos?
Well, apparently, keeping aside social and psychological challenges (that are unique to individuals) it all comes down to your mirror version vs. your camera version.
According to a response by professional photographer Kim Ayers on this Quora thread, people are not used to seeing the camera version of their faces, because they've grown up watching the mirror version.
Quite simply, your face is the wrong way round. As a portrait photographer, I've found about 90% of people will say they hate having their photo taken and are the least photogenic person in their family (if not the world). What I discovered was when I flip the image of someone on my computer, most people prefer it. We have spent our lives seeing our faces in the mirror, and we have become used to seeing our faces that way round. So when we reverse that image, it doesn't look right. No one has a perfectly symmetrical face... when you see your face in reverse to how you expect it to be, it's you, but not you. And that makes you feel uncomfortable.
- Kim Ayers
Simply put, we are more used to our reflections and 'seeing our faces that way round'. When the camera serves the opposite version, it feels odd and we end up believing that we are unphotogenic.
Most of us are more far more comfortable with what's familiar. So when you look at a family photo, or group shot, everyone else looks as you expect them to - the way you see them every day. But you don't. Your face is the wrong way round to what you are expecting. So you think you are the unphotogenic one. Meanwhile, everyone else is thinking exactly the same thing. So when you say to your sister - "you look great, but I look awful in this" - she thinks you're crazy, because to her you look fine and she thinks she's the odd looking one. Find a photo of yourself and hold it up in the mirror - look at its reflection. And if it looks better to you that way round, it will look fine to everyone else the normal way round.
- Kim Ayers
Photographer Edith Leigh also talked about this on her blog, and mentioned the 'mere exposure effect', a term coined by Psychologist Robert Zajonc, while also citing a study from the 70s that backs Ayers' explanation.
We like what we’re used to seeing, so it makes sense that we prefer the image we see of ourselves all the time – the flipped image in the mirror. When we see an un-flipped image – such as a photograph – it looks off-kilter and a little strange to us. Funnily enough though – everybody else in the world prefers the non-flipped image of you. A study from the 70s (Mita, Demer and Knight) showed people two images of themselves. One image of their actual face and a mirror image of their face. They found that people always preferred the mirror image of themselves. But the study also found that friends and family of the person always preferred the true image of a person.
In addition to Ayers' response, several people also shared other reasons - from the difference in how the camera views us vs. how we view ourselves ('two eyes vs. one camera lens'), to the kind of camera being used, to random expressions, and of course, the never-ending debate about camera lighting and favourable posture.
So just remember, you're beautiful - you're just not familiar with your own beauty!