Monday 8 February 2010

Photogenic? My theory

If you have been reading this blog for a little while, you will know that I love taking portraits. A lot. There is something almost magical about capturing a human face in a split second of his or her life.

By the way the photos in this post have no necessary relation to photogenic debate. I just thought that a very long post without any photos would be boring!

What I don't like so much is that people this side of the Atlantic always say: "I am not photogenic" to begin with, regardless of whether is true or not. It is so much of an occurrence, that when someone admits that they are photogenic the impression is that the person is quite vain. But trust me, nothing further from the truth. I have been called photogenic more times than I can recall. When we are calling someone photogenic we are implying that the photo image of that person is equal or better looking than the real version of that same person. I have assumed that it is my case, I look better in photos than in real life, which unless you are a printed media model -obviously not my case- is not something necessarily good. People get disappointed when they meet you in real life!

Because of all that I have developed my own theory about it, to me there are two types of photo-genie, the natural and the trained one - people who are just simply used to how they look under different light and make the most out of their features.

Until a few months ago I truly believed that naturally unphotogenic people did not really exist. I was proved wrong watching an episode of America's Next Top Model. I was watching it as someone recommended the series as it shows how real pros take photos -lighting, giving directions models and so on, and yes, I learnt quite a lot. One of those things that I learnt was that really beautiful women not necessarily translate that well in an still photo, whether some less traditional good looking ones translated really well in a photo. And, as I kept shooting portraits of people I encountered a couple of those naturally unphotogenic, so I realized that they do actually exist. And the same goes with the naturally photogenic which usually means that no matter what light, angle they look always really good on a photo.

However, most -and by most I mean 75% of the people I have taken photos of- are neither naturally photogenic nor unphotogenic.

Most just say upfront that they are unphotogenic because they are not comfortable on how they look in photos. Seeing yourself in pictures is actually similar to hearing our own voice on a recorded tape. How many of us have gone: "Is that how I sound? It is a horrible voice! I don't sound like that!" Well, as we know we actually sound very differently from what we think. Up to certain extent, the same happens with our facial features.

My theory is that most of us are told since we are little that we should not look on the mirror for too long, only vain people do that. And while I agree that vain people do, not looking ourselves enough on a mirror it means that we do not get to know our faces well with their good and bad features, so we fill the knowledge voids with our imagination, creating an image of our faces that is not the real one, the one everyone else sees including the camera.

Long time ago, before I was seriously into photography, one very pretty friend of mine used to complain repeatedly that she was not photogenic. I took some photos of her and the photos turn up OK, but she still complained about not being photogenic. So another friend told her:
"Frankly, if you think that you look better than you look in this photo, you are wrong! You look exactly like you do in this photo, if anything you look worse in real life!"
Of course, my friend was deeply embarrassed, and from that point on never complained again about her lack of photogenic features, at least to us.

We need to consider that we tend to look ourselves only in one or two mirrors that are around our houses, and we only look in them because we just need to check that our hair and face look decent enough to face the world. The thing is that we get to know how our face looks on that one mirror and how the light reflects on it, so we kind of domesticate the mirror. Weird, eh? Well, not so much. We trained unconsciously to look ourselves in that mirror, adopting an expression and an angle that is the most flattering with the light available, that way, we are not scarred for the rest of the day on how bad we look. Remember, most of us do that unconsciously, we are not aware that we do that.

Another example to illustrate this point. Have you ever look yourselves during the day in the car's mirror out of necessity and have you been hugely disappointed on how you look? The reason is simple. In a car the light comes from all directions, there is not really much you can do to hide any features that we do not like, unlike in the house mirror where we can do it.

Sometimes, you will get photos taken by a true pro and he or she will look for the better way to capture you by changing light, angle and giving you the right directions. However, most of times you are going to be captured in family snapshots or in enthusiastic amateur photographs like myself that do not know or are afraid of giving you directions.

There is little one can do about how natural photogenic one is - unless one considers cosmetic surgery but that is a another issue! However we ca do something about the one, the trained one.

What I propose to do is to get a mobile mirror - a handheld one that you can easily move from room to room, as different room means different light. And use that mirror to learn the features in your face and how they look in different lights as you never know the light that you are going to be photographed in.

Practice smiling: natural smile, try to smile the mouth but without moving any eyes muscles, and smizing -smiling only with the eyes like the models do, they never smile as it creates wrinkles, real or temporary. See which one you like better and remember which muscles you are moving in order to achieve that look.

Discover which features of your face you would like to enhance and which ones to hide. For instance, in my case, one of them is the gap between my front teeth, hence my smile with the mouth close. That you don't like your nose, frontal portrait, you think you have a too rounded face, profile or semi profile portrait.

All this long post is so that next time that someone takes a photo of you, you look exactly how you thought you would look. And avoid the embarrassment that my friend had to endure after complaining repeatedly that she was not photogenic.

NOTE: this photogenic issue has little to do with actual beauty. Being pretty does not equal to being photogenic and vice-versa. It is just how light reflect on our features.


Rustyhammer said...

Interesting post. My son took a photo of me (in the car and without me knowing) and I only saw it when I uploaded the camera to the pc. It was hideous. I have the most awful expression. My friends say I am photogenic. I'm unsure, but what I do know is photos contain memories, usually good, and show how we change. Photogenic or not, its still lovely to have those memories.

Paula Pascual said...

Well, we can do little about the past. We can change however the future. I def agree that no matter what we look like, photos that have good memories should be kept. BUt, this is a recommendation for future photos that you are happier with the results, so that you look great in photos that bring back good memories .

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