Do you know how to take a good selfie? Often times your selfie or profile picture becomes your first impression.

But there is nothing worse than trying to look natural in an unnatural photo shoot. I want to give you some great ideas on how to take a good selfie that optimizes and highlights your best self.

It might sound silly, but the pictures you put on your profiles, your website and your social media send cues to others about who you are and what you stand for.

You want your pictures to be:

  • True to Reality
  • Flattering
  • Authentic
  • Positive

That is exactly what I’m going to teach you how to do in this post…and, as always, we are going to do it using science!

Research has found that people develop their first impression of you within one second of seeing your photo! Here’s what’s crazy:

Different photos of you send different messages.

Princeton University researcher Dr. Alexander Todorov found that different images of the same person can create drastically different first impressions. The researchers took slightly different pictures of the same person and asked participants to rate them for various characteristics, such as intelligence, trustworthiness and attractiveness. Each pose got different ratings. The question is:

What is your profile picture saying?

1. Know Your Angles

Where should the camera be when taking a picture? In other words, when you are holding your camera to take a selfie or you give your phone to someone else to take a picture how high should you hold the camera? Should it be above you? Below you? Straight on? There is a science to the angles of your shots. Farhod P. Karimov at the University of Brussels found that camera angles greatly affect your impression of the person.

weak selfie

When someone is viewed from above they are seen as weaker and in need of protection. This makes sense from an evolutionary stand point. Adults see children from above–and they typically need to be taken care of. Check out these mugshots above of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. I am not sure if they were coached to angle their chins down and look up through their lashes, but the angle of this shot makes you perceive them as more innocent and less guilty. Subconsciously, the angle of the mug shot makes you want to be more lenient on them.

confident selfie

The opposite happens when you see someone from below. They tend to look more self-confident, more sociable and more attractive. Why? As children we admired adults. They took care of us and had everything figured out.

  • Action Tip: Take control of the messages your picture is sending out to the world by thinking about the angle of your camera.

2. To Front or Not to Front?

Fronting is a body language term that describes where your body is facing. If you are fronting with someone you are aiming your torso, head and toes towards that person. This is a nonverbal sign of respect. When you view someone straight on in a picture, Karimov found you see them as more trustworthy, open-minded and sympathetic. This makes sense because your brain can take in their entire body and get a full mental snapshot.

trustworthy selfie

You will notice that President Obama’s campaign uses pictures like the ones on the left. He is fronting, viewed slightly from below and has a big smile. His competitors put out pictures like on the right. In those shots he is viewed from above (needs help and is weak) and he is not fronting.

President Obama selfie

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3. Smile Right…or not at all

Do you look fake in your picture? Inauthentic? Too posed? This all comes down to the microexpression.

A microexpression is a brief involuntary facial expression that happens when someone feels an intense emotion. There are 7 universal facial expressions that people make across cultures. Here is a grid of the microexpressions that have been discovered…you can also see our full face tutorial:

microexpressions chart

Let’s talk about the universal expression for happiness. The only true indicator of happiness is when the muscles along the sides of the eyes are activated and pulled up (crows feet). However, only 1 in 10 people can consciously activate that muscle. This is why when people are smiling during holiday cards or photo shoots they smile, but it doesn’t look real. It is because the smile isn’t reaching their eyes. Here is the difference:

Fake Happiness vs. Real Happiness:

fake happiness versus real happiness

Notice the crow’s feet on the sides of the eyes? It’s when those upper cheeks are engaged. Showing true happiness is essential for making a picture feel genuine, warm and real. Take photos when you are doing something that actually makes you feel good. Think about personal passions or people you care about to bring out that true happiness and make sure your smile reaches your eyes.

I sat down with Diane Cleverly one of our Certified Body Language Trainers and founder of Concierge Conversations.  Diane embarked on a fascinating study looking at selfies and smiles. 

The Google Arts and Culture App (for Android here, iOS here) inspired a large number of people to post selfies to find which work of art they most resembled, this was a great opportunity to parse differences between the types of smiles that people make for the “selfie smartphone.”

There are two different types of smiles:

  • The Duchenne smile is the smile that spreads up into the muscles around the eyes. This smile often is associated with positive emotions and can activate a positive emotional feedback loop in the person smiling. We can recognize this smile by noticing the little wrinkles or “crows feet” around the eyes and the cheek “apples.” It’s the kind of smile that makes us want to smile back.
  • The “Pan Am” smile: named for the flight attendants who flashed this smile to passengers boarding airlines. This smile occurs only in the lower half of the face. This smile is not as often associated with positive emotion.

Diane surveyed 352 selfies taken for the GAC app and found that, while the same small number of both men and women displayed Duchenne or authentic smiles (roughly 1 in 5), significantly more women (p<0.001) favored using a Pan Am smile for the app over a neutral expression, compared to men (34% to 17%). That means that one-third of the women chose to use a smile not associated with positive emotion, but rather with politeness! (Bogodistov and Dost, 2018)

Bottom Line: If you are going to smile, smile real! Don’t feel like smiling? Don’t fake it! Just stick to neutral.

4. Beware Contempt

The other microexpression you have to know about is contempt. Contempt is a one sided mouth raise or smirk. This is a smirk:

It is the universal sign for disdain or hatred. It is the ultimate negative facial expression. Be sure you NEVER have a smirk in your selfies unless you want to tell the world to back away. The smirk grates on us. Celebrities that frequently employ the smirk rub us wrong. When politicians do it, their ratings plummet.

5. Avoid Fear

Fear is the last microexpression I will reference in this post. Fear is when we raise our eyebrows and eyelids as wide as they will go and open our mouth to scream or take in a quick breath. It looks like this:

Sometimes depending on the flash or lighting people can show a small microexpression of fear in their photos! When someone’s eyelids are just slightly wide so you can see a bit of the upper whites of their eyes we think of them as low confident, fearful and anxious–not the signal you want to send out! Notice in these photos:

fear expression

Go look at your photos right now and make sure you aren’t showing:

  • Fake Happiness
  • Contempt
  • Fear

6. Expand!

If you want to show confidence, power and charisma in your photos you have to know these rules:

  • The more physical space someone takes up with their body, the more confident they appear.
  • Strong body language is when the forehead and chest are pointed up and shoulders are rolled back.
  • Powerful, confident people aren’t afraid to open up their body especially their torso and chest so that they are free of barriers—uncrossed arms and legs.

I did a body language shoot with the amazingly talented Maggie Kirkland of Honeysuckle Photography. In these pictures you can see the more physical space I take up, the more I have my body open with my chest and head up, the more confident I look:

confidence

By the way…do you need photo shoot ideas? We have a list you can use for your next photo shoot right here.

7. Professional vs. Casual

Depending on the level of professionalism you want in your shots you can use nonverbal cues differently.

Flirty, Fun, Casual:

  • More movement
  • Open mouth
  • Gazing away from the camera

Professional, Serious, Direct:

  • Fronting
  • Eye Contact
  • Less Movement

professional versus casual photos

The image on the left is more fun with more movement, more expressiveness and looking off to the side.  The image on the right is more professional with a still pose and straight on gazing.

8. Colors

The colors you wear and use in your photos send all kinds of signals. This is called color psychology. Here is a video describing the different colors and what they mean:

9. Video Selfies

Don’t forget that all of these tips can be used in videos. Whether that’s videos on your Instagram or Vine or on your website. Where you position the camera and your body cues matter even more in videos and video selfies!

10. Test Your Photo

If you need a dating profile picture, business headshot or website photo that a lot of important people are going to see, be sure to get feedback on it. Ask people you know and trust like friends and family and try to get feedback from people you are trying to reach.

Or use PhotoFeeler. PhotoFeeler is a free profile photo testing tool that helps people choose better profile photos by cluing them into what their photos really are saying.

We gave this tool a little spin ourselves. Here’s the three photos of me and how they ranked:

photofeeler

With the current votes, the second photo has scored highest in all three areas!

So, what’s your impression saying? How smart, likable, fun and trustworthy are your photos compared to the average? Let’s find out!

How it works:

  1. Upload your photo
  2. Vote on other people’s photos (or buy vote credits)
  3. Wait for the results

This is super helpful if you are trying to decide which photo is best–and in which situation.  

How to Take a Selfie with Glasses:

Do you wear glasses? Then we have some special selfie tips for you! Try these:

  • Use the rule of thirds. This is an essential and one of the most common photography techniques. Applied to a person or object, it instantly improves the composition and balance of the image. Take your selfie with your eyes situated 1/3 down from the top and off to one side of the frame.

rule of thirds, selfie, perfect selfie, glasses

  • Think about depth of field. This is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in sharp focus on a photograph. Basically, it’s the cool feature where the subject is sharp and the background is blurry. Focus on your face, not the environment.

depth of field, glasses, perfect selfie, selfie

  • Crop and edit. Eliminate distractions in the background, by cropping the photo to accentuate your face, your best feature!

crop, selfie, perfect selfie, glasses selfie

  • Find the light. If any of you have watched even one episode of America’s Next Top Model, you won’t be able to forget Tyra Bank’s constant coaching of ‘finding the light.’ A glasses wearer’s worst enemy is glare. Master the glare and maximize the light by tilting your head down and away from the light or by using backlighting.

find the light, selfie, perfect selfie, glasses selfie

How to Make Your Profile Picture More Attractive:

If you aren’t in a business environment, then you might want to use your profile photo for online dating. We have some specific ideas for you!

We decided to do an experiment to figure out what makes a good profile picture. Using photos from the dating website HotorNot.com, we coded hundreds of pictures, looking for patterns between the highest-rated and lowest-rated photos.

Here’s what we found:

Don’t Hide

Want to show you’re available and open to a relationship? Then be open and show yourself. Photos with hats and glasses were a total buzz kill for the hot factor. Sunglasses were especially detrimental. This is most likely because we use eye gaze to build connection. When we make eye contact with someone (even in a picture), our body produces the hormone oxytocin, which makes us feel connected to someone. When people rating photos can’t see the person’s eyes, they don’t get the hormonal boost necessary for connection.

  • Funny Note: While hats and glasses weren’t great, headphones didn’t seem to affect ratings at all.

Woman sunglasses

Sunglasses cover the eyes

Woman hat

A hat blocks connection

Context Matters

Think your hotness is only about you? Think again! The hottest photos also tended to have some kind of background story—hiking, beach trip, travel, cooking, driving. Photos that included some kind of activity added to the hotness of both men and women.

  • Trophies: We also counted what we call ‘trophies.’ These are objects that people put on display in their photo in addition to themselves. Men’s favorite objects were guitars, cars, motorcycles and guns. Although none of these impacted hotness scores. Sorry guys, not all women are impressed by a guitar.

Man Guitar

Wishful Thinking: A guitar doesn’t help

To Smile or Not to Smile?

The biggest question we get around profile pictures is whether to smile. The answer might surprise you:

  • For women’s photos, closed mouth smiles were worst. The lowest-ranking women used the closed mouth smile. The highest-ranking women had either a full smile or a neutral face. So, if you’re going to smile, go big.

hot or not, experiment, profile picture, attractiveness

The closed mouth smile doesn’t work

Woman neutral expression

A neutral face is better than a closed smile

hot or not, experiment, profile picture, attractiveness

…or a full smile

  • Surprisingly, for men’s photos, neutral faces tended to do best. High-ranking men had serious or still faces (often looking off into the sunset) and seemed to do better than low-ranking men, who smiled wide.

man neutral expression

Neutral faces worked best for men

Get Handsy

Ever wondered if you should show your hands in your picture? If you’re a woman, the answer is YES! Half of the high-ranking women had their hands visible in their photo, while only a third of the low-ranking women did. Hands are our nonverbal trust indicators. It seems that when men are rating women on attractiveness, they also are factoring in trustworthiness, and visible hands are a positive indicator of trust.

Woman showing hands

Visible hands on women indicate trust

The Monroe Gaze

Marilyn Monroe was famous for her flirty head tilt and sultry stare. Our coder noticed that many of the high-ranking women used the Monroe Gaze in their photos. This seems to be a hallmark of ‘hot’ women. A Monroe Gaze is when a woman tilts her head, looks up through her lashes, hoods her eyes, pouts her lips and sometimes exposes her neck. This is a very flirtatious gesture because it looks very similar to what a woman does when she is experiencing physical pleasure. Exposing her neck also releases pheromones.

hot or not, experiment, profile picture, attractiveness

Notice the slight neck exposure, pouty lips and hooded lashes?

Remember Lola Bunny?

Notice how, even in action, she shows the Monroe Gaze—tilted head, low eyes, exposed neck:

Or how about Jessica Rabbit? Who almost rests in the Monroe Gaze during her scenes:

Why We Don’t Like Pictures of Ourselves?

I recently made my way down to the DMV to get my driver’s license renewed. Since I’ll be carrying this photo ID around with me for the next eight years, I wanted to make sure my hair looked nice, my makeup was done, and that I looked “picture perfect.”

I was feeling pretty good about myself, until the camera flashed and I got a look at my picture. I cringed, “I look like that?”

Whether it’s a group picture, passport photo, or candid shot a friend took of you, we’ve all had similar reactions to our own pictures. But why is that?

Thankfully, science comes to the rescue to explain why our pictures don’t look like we expect.

Your profile picture can make or break your online connections.  Research has found people make their first impression of you within one-tenth of a second of seeing your photo!

Choosing the right profile picture matters because different photos of you send different messages. Princeton University Professor Alexander Todorov found that changing your profile picture drastically can change the first impression people have of you. In his study, he took slightly different pictures of the same person and asked participants to rate them for various characteristics, such as intelligence, trustworthiness, and attractiveness. He found even slight variations in the pictures could change people’s perceptions of all of those traits.

The challenge is how do you make sure you choose the right profile picture?

Simple answer: you need to enlist the help of others. Here’s why:

Our Pictures Don’t Look Like Us

An interesting new study found that the pictures we choose to represent ourselves aren’t accurate depictions of what we look like. In fact, strangers are better at choosing pictures that “look like us” than we are.

Dr. David White conducted a study where participants downloaded 10 pictures of themselves from their Facebook page and ranked them from most to worst “likeness.” Then he had a group of strangers try matching up the pictures to a short webcam video of each person.

The strangers ended up picking a different set of “good likeness” pictures for each participant than the participants chose themselves — with seven percent more accurate identification.

Dr. White stated,

“It seems counter-intuitive that strangers who saw the photo of someone’s face for less than a minute were more reliable at judging likeness.”

But this makes sense: Even though we see our own faces everyday, multiple times a day, our existing memory representations of ourselves actually interfere with our ability to choose images that accurately portray our current, true appearance.

Your Face is the Wrong Way Around

Our existing memory representations of ourselves see ourselves in the mirror. So, we tend to choose and like pictures of ourselves where our features are reversed in that way. Enter: selfies. We’re used to seeing ourselves in the mirror. So, when that image is reversed, it doesn’t look quite right.

This is known as the mere-exposure effect–the more familiar we are with something, the more we like it. We are unfamiliar with seeing ourselves head-on, the way friends or strangers view us. So, we don’t like the way we look.

We all know ourselves to look a certain way: our hair is parted on the right, our left eye squints just a bit when we smile, and we have a beauty mark on our left cheek. When we see a picture of ourselves from the opposite perspective, none of our features are where we’re expecting them to be. It makes us feel uncomfortable–the picture is us, but it doesn’t look like us.

You’re Not as Attractive as You Think You Are

Okay, I know this sounds harsh, but let’s go to the science. A joint study between researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia had participants come to a lab and have their picture taken with a neutral expression. They then made several copies of the pictures and edited them to make the participants look more or less attractive. A few weeks later, the participants came back to the lab and were asked which one of their photos was the original, unedited one. The majority of the participants believed that an enhanced picture was their original, indicating that people see themselves as more attractive than they really are.

Interestingly, this effect was not the same when participants judged strangers’ photos. In that case, the majority of people chose the unedited photo, or a photo that was edited negatively, as the stranger’s original picture.

Seeing yourself as more attractive than you actually are isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives you confidence that makes your appearance and presence more attractive in ways that natural good looks can’t do. Research shows that people can pick up on your confidence in your photos and perceive you as more attractive, likeable, and competent as a result.

Strangers Have a Different Vision of Attractiveness

Not only do people view themselves as more attractive, they are also unable to judge their own attractiveness. An Australian study had participants submit twelve headshots and decide which ones made them look the most and least of the following traits:

  • Attractive
  • Trustworthy
  • Dominant
  • Competent
  • Confident

They then had the participants rate each other’s pictures on the same characteristics. After comparing the results, researchers found there was almost no overlap between what individuals thought were their best pictures and what others thought, revealing that what we think of as attractive can vary.

There are two ways you can overcome this cognitive quirk and identify your best profile pictures:

1) Get feedback from other people. Before uploading a new profile picture, pick three or four options and ask other people which one they like most. If you are choosing a profile picture for LinkedIn or an online dating site, tell the individuals that you’re going for a professional/attractive look so they know how to judge you.

Pro tip: This strategy will be much more effective if you choose acquaintances or strangers, not friends, to judge your pictures. Your friends think you are an awesome person and are around you frequently, which causes them to have a favorable bias toward you, similar to the one you have toward yourself. They also likely know what looks make you feel the best — not the most professional, attractive, competent etc.– and may feel inclined to say they like the photo that they know you like the best even if it is not the most ideal one.

Acquaintances and strangers on the other hand, typically don’t have a favorable bias toward you and they don’t know you well enough to be aware of your preferences.

2) The easiest way to get stranger feedback is to use the website Photofeeler. Upload your photos and strangers will rate on different traits depending on if you plan on using them for online dating, professional, or social sites. Photofeeler’s algorithms automatically normalize your scores to give you statistically significant results for all the traits you are seeking feedback on.

Alternatively, you could ask co-workers you’re not close with, mutual friends, and other people you don’t know well for opinions that may not be as uniform but are still better than your own.

Want more out of your selfies? Other articles in this series you might like:

About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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