The net effect is an illusion of size, both width and height. Subtle, sure, but it's there.


Telephoto lenses are usually seen as more flattering, giving the impression that the subject is flattened, and slightly compressing the width of your foremost features, like your nose or breasts. So you might want to think twice before fleeing the pesky paparazzi and their fancy zoom lenses; it's the tourist with the pocket cam whose snaps will make you look fat on the Internet.

Lens distortion isn't the only way a camera can screw with your visage. Flash illuminates subjects harshly, turning elegant faces normally accented by soft shadows into a flat, shadowless, cadaveric horror shows.


Whether these effects are annoying or used to advantage, they mean that what you see in photos is different than what you see in the mirror.

It's the Mirror

I don't mean to imply that the camera is the only liar, here, because mirrors are just as guilty. For one, they flip your image. The You you're most familiar with, then, is actually an exact opposite of how you look to others. Granted, it's an intuitive reversal, so it doesn't bother us when we see it, but it implants a self-image that's intrinsically wrong.


On top of that, there's the problem of perspective. People stand close to mirrors, but see their whole selves. This provides a reasonable perspective, but a unique one: it's the perspective of a person standing near to you, eyes proportionately closer to your head than to your feet. This is the perspective of a partner in conversation, not a photographer. Looking a certain way from three feet away doesn't mean you'll look the same from 15.

It's you

The physics of lenses and mirrors offer solutions to specific problems, i.e. OH MY GOD SO THAT'S WHY MY WONDERFUL BUTT LOOKS SO FAT ON FILM! However, these explanations don't speak to a more relatable weirdness about photography. It's a feeling of uncanniness. It's a sense that something about the photographed self seems unquantifiably different than the mirrored self. It's in your head.


Think about the act of looking on a mirror. It's incredibly limited You pretty much need to be facing forward, or else you can't see. You will always be looking slightly down at the rest of your body. You will pose for yourself, to achieve the most flattering look. You will hide fat behind folds of clothes, or minimize a strange facial feature with a tilt of the head.

Other people, including photographers, don't see this version of you. They see a version that you are rarely privy to, and that can seem wildly foreign to our ingrained sensibilities. As Slate explains, it's a bit like how people hate their own voices on tape, doubly so because we know that those foreign, goofball intonations represent that way that everyone else hears us. In photos, we see ourselves in various states of motion, in different contortions and from uncaring, neutral perspectives. Lenses may distort, sure, but in a powerful way, these uncomfortable photographs are closer to reality than our carefully images in the mirror.