Your selfie is your first impression. Do you know how to take a good selfie that optimizes and highlights your best impression? 

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!

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. The Real Smile

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.

You’ll notice celebrities who don’t smile with their full face come across as more fake and irritating:

fake happiness versus real happiness

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. See anyone familiar:


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


fear expression

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

  • Fake Happiness
  • Contempt
  • Fear

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6. Expansion

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 Hudson 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:


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:

You can also grab our free downloadable color guide right here!

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. Get Feedback

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.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

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

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