Around 2013, plastic surgeons like Boris Paskhover started to notice a bizarre trend in their doctor’s offices. More and more young patients—under 40, as young as 20—were asking for nose jobs. In Paskhover’s office in New York, new patients would plop down, hand over their phone, and complain about how their schnoz looked in selfies. In turn, Paskhover would hand them a mirror and tell them to take a look. “This is what you really look like,” he says.
Selfies, particularly up-close ones taken at certain angles in front of the face, tend to distort the nose. It’s almost like the side view mirrors on your car—objects on camera may appear larger than they are. And it’s not just Paskhover noticing the trend; a poll of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons showed that 42 percent of surgeons have seen patients specifically looking to up their selfie game.
As Paskhover continued to see cases in his office, he became fascinated with what happens when people take up-close selfies—and he wanted to find a more scientific way to explain it to his patients. So he and colleagues at Rutgers University and Stanford University created a mathematical model to show how a camera’s distance from a face changes perceived nose size.
They started with data from a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health survey, one that has measured Americans’ heads for the past three decades to fit respirator masks. They used that info to build male and female heads of average width and nasal projection, measuring how wide the nose appeared to be relative to the face’s width from ear to ear—the so-called bizygomatic breadth—at a number of camera distances.
Their findings? At 12 inches, or about the distance of a selfie, the lens distorts the face and makes the nose—or whatever is closest to the camera—appear 30 percent larger. At a normal portrait distance of about five feet, however, features don’t get distorted, they reported in the medical journal JAMA Plastic Surgery in March.
“Selfies have changed the way we view ourselves,” Paskhover says. “We’re getting closer to people’s faces than we ever did, and it’s changing our viewing habits in a hypercritical way.”
As any experienced selfie taker can attest, the best pics are all about the #angles. Until recently, however, little evidence supported popular tricks for better selfies beyond taking thousands of photos and learning. But several new studies, including Paskhover’s, point to the research behind putting your best face forward.
Stick Your Chin Into It
In general, whatever feature is closest to a smartphone camera will be exaggerated. As every good professional photographer knows, lens distortion occurs when you stand close to your subject with a wide-angle or zoom lens (hint: think of the funky optics that occur with fish-eye lenses and door peepholes), which deals with the geometry of focal length and distance to the subject. Instead of taking a selfie head-on, which focuses on your nose sticking out from your face, move the camera or your head to the side about 10 to 15 degrees. If you want to appear to have a chiseled jawline, Paskhover says, lift your chin a little to push it out in front of your nose. “It’ll make your jawline appear larger and stronger,” he says.
On the other hand, you can lean forward into a picture to emphasize high cheekbones and bigger eyes. By shifting your nose and ears into the same parallel plane, it’ll remove them as the more protruding focal point and push the cheeks closest to the camera. For a longer, slimmer neck, emphasize that focal length distortion by pushing your shoulders down and extending your head away from your neck, says Ashley Carman, a tech reporter at The Verge who co-hosts a podcast about technology, which featured selfies in the most recent episode. “To emphasize that nice angle on your face, tilt your head or put your hand under it to frame your face,” she says.
To the Left, To the Left
If you want to show your best side, consider offering your left cheek. Historically, people posing for portraits—from classic paintings to recent photos—tend to put their left side forward as their “best side.” Selfies are no different, says Annukka Lindell, a psychologist at La Trobe University in Australia. Lindell and others studied the 10 most recent selfies for 200 people on Instagram and found that we really do prefer the left side in photos. But do our viewers feel the same way? Lindell is studying that now to understand if left or right cheeks garner more likes and comments. “People really do have a ‘best side’ (or at least they think they do!),” she says. “But whether this is reinforced by perceivers’ positive feedback isn’t yet known.”
Look Up (For the Most Part)
Researchers and professional photographers also suggest positioning the camera above eye level, especially if the camera is close. But don’t take it to MySpace levels—just a few degrees is fine. “This is always going to be more flattering, as opposed to shooting from a low perspective,” says Larissa Cleveland, a San Francisco-based professional photographer who shoots fine art weddings and editorials. A 2017 study from Germany backs this up. Researchers asked 172 participants to rate the perceived attractiveness, helpfulness, sympathy, dominance, and intelligence of 14 3-D faces shot at different angles. Shooting from above—at 30 degrees or less—significantly increased attractiveness, and shooting from below was associated with higher body weight.
Consider the Purpose
Selfie stances also differ by platform, researchers have noticed in the past year. Although the general principles regarding distortion remain the same, the psychology behind #angles may differ. On Tinder, for instance, men tend to tilt their cameras from below to appear taller and more powerful, and women tend to hold their cameras from above, which makes them look shorter and more submissive. “On dating apps, selfies are often the first picture you see of someone, and Tinder users are very focused on appearance and attracting mates,” says Jennifer Rokaya Sedgewick, a psychologist at the University of Saskatchewan who published this Tinder-tilting research in the journal Frontiers of Psychology last April. “Women and men portray themselves using different camera angles, which may not be the most attractive to the perceiver,” she says. “We’re learning more about the ways people perceive others on those apps.”
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