How not to hate having your photo taken

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I have spoken to a lot of people recently about getting their photograph taken, you know, it seems to be the thing when your business is all about capturing the essence of a person in a visual format.  It usually starts with a chat about who we would want a photograph of, often a parent, a child, the family.  When the conversation turns to taking a contemporary portrait of themselves I often hear, “oh no, I hate having my photo taken.”

Argh, these are probably the words that all photographers hate hearing, but it is so common, so much so that sometimes I wonder if people just say it because it is an expected answer among women. So, this has got me thinking about why that is and if by knowing what causes this reaction could it help people start to believe that having a photo taken is not such a bad thing***

Amelia McLeod Photography: The Art of Looking Sideways

I approached this problem in the most logical manner I could think of – after all, this is how my brain works.  Is there a logical reason, that is, has science proven a theory about this? Secondly, I thought about when photos get taken, and by whom - does this affect our views on how we photograph? Thirdly, what does society tell us? So, let me break this down for you...

The Scientific Explanation:

In 1977 as study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled ‘Reversed Facial Images and the Mere-Exposure Hypothesis’.  It is a pretty dry read with lots of science talks, but it breaks down like this:

This was a difficult image to edit - the image on the left is an exact copy of the image on the right, but I fell into the "uncanny valley".  I'm sure that the image on the left is larger than that on the right, but I measured it and it's not.  I guess my brain thinks the left one is right, and everyone else I know would think the original on the right it correct!

This was a difficult image to edit - the image on the left is an exact copy of the image on the right, but I fell into the "uncanny valley".  I'm sure that the image on the left is larger than that on the right, but I measured it and it's not.  I guess my brain thinks the left one is right, and everyone else I know would think the original on the right it correct!

Pretty much what we perceive in the world we pull from memory.  That is, the more we are exposed to something, the more our memory influences how we perceive that object to look.  “So,” I hear you ask, “I look at myself all the time, I remember how I look, and it’s not like that photo.”  But that’s the kicker isn’t it.  I mean, we do look at ourselves all the time – in a mirror about an arm’s length away from your own face.  This is our ‘mere-exposure’.  When we look at a photo or ourselves is does not match what our memory perceives.

This means that we fall into what I have heard termed the “uncanny valley”.  This is the state where things seem not quite right, or not quite real (a bit like ‘The Twilight Zone’ – cue music).  When you look at a photo of yourself it looks almost right, but not quite.  You notice wrinkles where your memory says you don’t have one.  You notice that one eye is higher than the other (in fact you have always known this, but didn’t note it on a daily basis because you were so used to seeing it, and it was the other one in the mirror).  Or you didn’t think that the dimple in your cheek was so deep (again, yep it is, just on the other side where you remember it being). 

So, all of the also explains why the people around you more often than not think that it is a wonderful photo of you despite your protestations to the contrary.  If you showed them a reversed image of the photo (i.e. a mirror image that you are used to looking at) they would suddenly fall into the “uncanny valley” because their memory perceives a different image.

The daily photographer:

This image is terrible - it's blurry, it's overexposed and my arm looks ginormous to me!  But I keep it because I remember the day, it was hot and we were wine tasting with our friends.  It is still a great memory. 

This image is terrible - it's blurry, it's overexposed and my arm looks ginormous to me!  But I keep it because I remember the day, it was hot and we were wine tasting with our friends.  It is still a great memory. 

Secondly, I thought about when we usually get our photographs taken.  These days it could be anytime, anywhere, by anyone!  When I was growing up we always knew where the camera was: most families usually only had one, and since we were usually fighting over it we knew where it was and when it was in use – mainly birthdays and family holidays.  Back then most photos were posed for, we waited for someone to swallow their food and we’d all huddle together in a group, or stretch out our arms to indicate the majesty of the world around us.

Today, however, everyone has a camera, usually on our phones, and it gets pulled out when we least expect it.  I have seen countless photos of me with a fork entering my mouth, of me pulling a terrible face, of me at a weird angle and in weird lighting so that I looked like some hunchback gargoyle that should be perched on a gothic church somewhere! Just because someone has a phone, err, camera, does not mean they know how to find the light, move the arm to make it appear smaller, focus on our faces and not our shoes or even expose the image correctly (all of which can be done, so keep an eye out for that blog…).

Society dictates:

On top of our ‘mere-exposure’ to our mirror image, and the fact that uncle John just loves getting blurry photos of us sticking out our stomachs to emphasise a story we were telling (at least that is what the story is…) there is the pressure of society dictates.  You know the ones – all of us should be size 10, have legs for miles, no grey hair, no wrinkles, and by jimbies, no cellulite or bags under our eyes!  Sometimes it is amazing we can make it through the day! 

The truth is, we all know deep down that this is not the ‘normal’ and that real people have these things.  Some of us are not blessed with height, or long legs or a body that doesn’t have a pot-belly, hips or one eyebrow higher than the other.  We know this, but our self-image is often associated with the images we see in magazines and in the movies.

Not to mention the small voice in the back or our heads that says if we do mind having our photo taken, then perhaps we are a narcissist.  We know this isn’t true, really, but there has been a lot of talk about it with the rise of the ‘selfie’.  Take it from a self-titled ‘selfie queen’ (I have recently started a 365-day project taking one selfie a day, check it out at my personal Instagram account), you do not have to be a narcissist (in fact, for me it all started with the lack of other people to practice my skills on) to be comfortable in front of the camera and looking at the final photo. 

How to not hate having your photo taken:

So yes, we’ve all had that moment when you see an unflattering photograph of yourself and in the tiniest moment you feel like your whole world has deflated with the perceived self-image you had of yourself up to that point. We know that this a many factored reaction, including neurological.

This is my theory on how you can learn not to hate having your photo taken.  Remember that the photo you hate is a just snapshot in time.  But when love ones around us look at it they don’t just see that frozen still-life.  They see your smile, your personality, the essence of you.

1. Get photographed a lot in all different situations.  We all know that someone will take at least 100 photos with a digital camera to get 1 good one.  This is a definite advantage of digital imaging. So, next time you feel like diving behind the sofa when someone says, “smile”, why don’t you sit stay where you are armed with the scientific knowledge that it isn’t going to “look like you” (well, not to you anyway) but will represent you instead.  Think of this as facing your fears.

2. Look at the photographs.  This can help with the “uncanny valley” I mentioned earlier.  The more you get used to looking at yourself the way others see you, the less strange and ‘un-real’ it becomes.

3. Relax.  This comes with practice, or a really good photographer.  It is truly amazing how we hold tension in our bodies.  Like me, for instance, I hold it all in my neck and shoulders – this is what makes it look like I have no neck and results in the hunchback photo I mentioned before.

4. Get a professional photo taken with someone, like me for example (hee, hee.  Had to put that in somewhere didn’t I).  The truth is a professional photographer works with ordinary people every day.  We know how to angle your arms and legs to make them less dominate in an image.  We know how to get you to face the light that is most flattering -to smooth out the wrinkles rather that show every imperfection of your skin.  We know how to show you the most beautiful you; the one that captures your natural embodiment in the moment.

So maybe if you try these 4 simple steps you can learn not to hate having your photo taken.  Even it you don't love the end result you will be comfortable enough to know that it is simply a representation of you.

Love Out, Amelia xo

***I know, appreciate and acknowledge that for some cultures taking a photograph of a living person is taboo.  This is always to be respected.  Some people also have genuine medical conditions which cause severe anxiety and discomfort.  These are not to be ignored or made light of.