What Does It Mean To Be Photogenic?

And how do you look your best in front of camera?

When Jason is in the studio with clients, inevitably the discussion turns to what it means to be photogenic. Most people are worried that they aren’t photogenic, some want to know if there’s a secret ‘ingredient’ and others equate looking good in photos with being good looking.

So, whilst acknowledging that beauty is culturally and generationally defined, I thought it might be interesting to touch on the science of attractiveness and the art of looking good in front of camera: 

  • Certain biometrics are associated with beauty across cultures. For instance, a symmetrical face is typically rated as highly attractive, both in real life and photographs.
  • For women, but not for men, neoteny, the retention of childlike features in adulthood, is often considered attractive in real life and in photographs. Neotenic physical traits include big eyes, delicate facial features, a high forehead and a small chin.
  • Just as a globe changes when viewed as a world map, a face is changed when viewed as a photograph. As the camera captures a 2 dimensional image, features that ‘flatten’ well are typically considered favourably in photographs. This includes wide set eyes, a straight nose, high cheeks and full lips.
  • According to the rules of composition, if you take a picture and draw lines to divide it horizontally and vertically into thirds, the points where the lines meet, is a position where a focal element should be. Faces with focal points at these intersections tend to be more appealing.
  • Slightly exaggerated facial features, including bone structure, lip shape, orbital lobes, brow shape, chin and jaw line shape are often rated favourably when photographed. Oddly enough, most models have unusually strong features, and this allows the light to look more interesting and gives a more three dimensional illusion on a flat photograph.

Jason will be the first to tell you that there’s a difference between being beautiful and being photogenic. Indeed, there are many people without the culturally accepted hallmarks of beauty, who are very photogenic, perhaps because of how their features translate in 2 dimensions, because they are confident, expressive and natural on set, because the location and lighting are good and because the photographer is skilful.

In terms of photographic skill, if composition and other fundamentals are important, good lighting is critical. Taking pictures in bright, overhead light casts ugly shadows that highlight marks on the skin and makes the eyes look sunken. Taking pictures in warm, golden light tends to smooth out facial features and gives a healthy look that most people prefer for themselves. Early morning and late afternoon light, when the sun is at a lower angle, is ideal for outdoor shoots and, when that isn’t available, we try to ‘replicate’ it with shade and scrim etc 

Jason tells the story of photographing identical twins in the studio for corporate profiles. He was unable, with the naked eye, to tell the twins apart. One was very shy and reluctant to have his photo taken whilst the other was more outgoing and relaxed about the shoot. The final photos reflected this difference and the whole office preferred the photos of the more relaxed twin. In the end, both twins selected photos of the one whom everyone agreed was more photogenic (this story always makes me wish I had a ‘photogenic’ twin who could stand in for me in photos).

If you want to know if a person is photogenic, you generally need to photograph them and hence, in the movie industry, they do screen tests. This also suggests that, despite real-life attractiveness, there is some immeasurable quality that may be unknown until the subject is in front of camera and, later, viewed in 2 dimensions.

So, putting aside the things you can’t change, like facial symmetry, if you have a photo shoot coming up, what gives you the best chance of getting photos you really like? The following are Jason’s tips:

  • Spend a little time preparing and do whatever is necessary for you to feel as positive as you can about what you are wearing for the shoot. Wash your hair, shave, pick a favourite tie, iron your shirt, choose clothes you can move in and you feel good in etc.
  • Allow plenty of time. Even when shooting professional models, photographers shoot hundreds of pictures to get just the right mix of posture, facial expression, lighting etc. Clients who lack confidence in front of the camera usually want the whole process to be over quickly but this minimises the chance of getting photos you love. After a little while, you’ll relax more and that’s often when the best photographs are taken.
  • Vary your facial expression. If you hold a smile for too long, it will look inauthentic. The main difference between a genuine smile and a fake one is that, in a genuine smile, the muscles in the lower eyelids contract, causing the lower lid to lift. The peak of the smile is what the photographer is after. Try to have fun so that you can flash a real smile and don’t hold a facial expression for too long. 
  • The relationship between the model and the photographer plays a role in the final product. Jason uses a range of techniques to help clients feel at ease, to bring a sense of fun to set and to guide you in ‘posing’. Try to throw yourself into it. This will help you to be less self conscious and more natural.
  • There are some basics of ‘posing’ that work for a lot of people, including:
  • Think chin slightly forward
  • Turn a little side on to the camera, with either your shoulders or hips
  • Bend a knee slightly
  • Cross arms or legs to add interest
  • If you’re unsure what to do with your hands, try putting one hand in a pocket 
  • If the brief allows, look off camera
  • If you’re being photographed in a group, try interacting with one another
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh heartily

As someone who, despite being married to Jason, is still shy in front of camera, I understand it’s not easy to ‘just relax’ and ‘be natural’, but, trust me, these tips help. And finally, I’ll leave you with this thought: it’s worth the time, effort and emotional toil required, because having a photo of yourself that you actually like, is priceless. 


24 June 2018


Fictional Rating: