What Makes Someone Photogenic?


It took me too long to realize that I don’t take good pictures
‘Cuz I have the kind of beauty that MOVES
Ani DiFranco, “Evolve”

Two of my most gorgeous friends – one a man, one a woman – are also two of the least photogenic human beings I’ve ever encountered. And THEY KNOW IT. Years of mugging for the camera only to be confused and disappointed by the results have made both of them extremely shy of photographs. And, of course, the anxiety of anticipating every shot to be a bum shot makes both of them feel stiff and uncomfortable in front of the lens. These two people prove that it is definitely possible to be beautiful in motion, yet have a beauty that cannot be effectively captured by still photography. Another example? Mind-bogglingly talented actress Toni Colette, pictured above. This woman frequently looks stunning in her movies, and can do glamorous stunning, untamed stunning, and natural stunning with equal ease on film. And although she occasionally hits just the right smile and angle, most of her still photos just don’t do her justice. At least, in my opinion. She’s a knockout, but she’s just not terribly photogenic.

Sometimes being photogenic seems like a trait that a lucky few inherit genetically  … and yet some folks appear to improve over time. Celebrities and high-powered executives often start out looking terrified and stiff in their photos, but after a few years in front of the lens they appear more natural and poised. So can photogenocity be learned and practiced? Does it just take time and about 60 bajillion shutter clicks?

Hard to say, of course. I have certainly become more comfortable in front of the camera myself, after nearly seven years of posing for blog and media photos.* My guess is that looking great in photos can be traced back to confidence and relaxation: If cameras make you nervous, you’ll involuntarily cringe, like my two friends do. And even an infinitesimal cringe will be magnified in a still image. If you don’t mind cameras, you’ll just grin and be yourself. And in the latter case, you needn’t be drop-dead gorgeous to take drop-dead gorgeous photos. I couldn’t say how, but I think cameras can capture – and even magnify – confidence. Confidence in a photographic subject is what makes an image compelling and mesmerizing. Lack of confidence makes an image strangely upsetting, and often causes the observer feel uncomfortable in sympathy with the subject.

Of course, it can be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. If my two friends looked better in their photos, they might start to relax and feel confident in front of the lens, and their photos would improve further. But instead, they’re stuck in the negative feedback loop of posing anxiously, disliking the results, and posing even more anxiously the next time. Also just flat-out telling someone to relax and be confident? Especially when a camera is involved? Not typically very effective. A little like telling someone to think about anything besides zebras. You can do your best to fake relaxation and confidence by breathing deeply, rolling your shoulders back, and thinking of something truly funny or joyous when someone hauls out a camera. But can you fake it till you make it all the way to being wildly photogenic? I honestly don’t know. Since every phone is also a camera and every image likely to be shared across several media, many of us are hoping so.

I’m curious about your thoughts, especially since I know many of you are bloggers and photographers. In your opinion and experience, what makes someone photogenic? Is it tied directly to beauty, or confidence, or relaxation? Are YOU photogenic? Any pointers for someone who wants to look better and more natural in photos?

*My coworker Amy laughs her butt off at me when we do photos for Corset’s Instagram. I go into “pose mode” the second she holds up my phone to take a shot without even realizing it.


Image source // This post prompted some great discussion in the past so I wanted to revive and refresh it for any new readers. I’ve been struggling with professional balance lately, and will be bringing back the occasional archived post until things calm down a bit. Thanks for your understanding.

Next Post
Previous Post

22 Responses to “What Makes Someone Photogenic?”

  1. San

    This is interesting. I have never read anything about this topic before. I am not photogenic at all, but I just realise that I tense up every time someone is taking a picture of me. The best photos tend to be the ones where I don’t care, for example where I end up randomly in the picture.

  2. Eve

    I always thought it was hit or miss. My sister (younger) and my younger daughter seem to look good in all their photos, but much less so for me and my older daughter. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether we’ve posed or not. So that blows the beauty in motion theory for me.

  3. Laurel

    I think being photogenic is a combination of the planes/angles of a person’s face, how the person feels about being in front of the camera, and that it is hard to capture things like charm and charisma with a picture. Sarah Jessica Parker is my celebrity example of a non-photogenic person. She’s beautiful and full of zest on film, but doesn’t look so great in pics.

    Watching stuff like America’s Next Top Model has also shown the reverse: someone who looks better in pictures than they do in person. I think that comes down to knowing the flattering angles of your face, and working with the light. These are things that can be learned (google “how to look better in photos” for a start…) I think there’s some power in “selfies” too. No awkwardness with another person watching you pose, and you can immediately delete it if you don’t like how you look.

  4. LinB

    I think the quality of being photogenic has more to do with underlying physical characteristics than with any amount of confidence or relaxation. Some people just do not photograph well. There is something about the planes of their face, or the way their skin and hair and eyes absorb and/or reflect light, that makes photographs portray them differently than you experience them in person. I do not photograph well. The evidence of my mirror proves that I look quite a bit different than in a photo. I can see there the dimensionality in my face and body, which are oddly flattened out in photographs. My daughter? The camera loves her! It matters not how disheveled she looks to me in person; in photos she looks as if a professional stylist had just finished with her.

    • Shawna McComber

      That is exactly what I feel about myself too! I lose definition and get sort of washed out and shapeless in both face and body, though I know I don’t really look like that. The best photos of me will have the right combination of a flattering light and angle, and while that may be true of most people I think perhaps it has to do with having more or fewer options in good lighting and angles.

  5. Janel Messenger

    I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, but I think you’re right that some have a beautiful motion. I typically have the opposite problem: I take a great photo and have the grace of a charging water buffalo. e’hem

  6. Mrs. Eccentric

    i’ve been fortunate enough to take a number of undergraduate art practice and history courses, as well as being an amateur photographer and model (i’m the cheapest and most available person to practice photography on).

    Being photogenic has mostly to do with your physical characteristics, but training, practice and charisma can improve a person’s looks on camera. I tend to look bad in still photos and traditional film motion cameras but look wonderful on video. I’ll take me in a 7-11 security camera over a hasselblad shoot any day!

    Here’s some generalizations: still box cameras love high contrast, ‘cool’ emotional content and acute angles; video loves lower contrast, ‘hot’ emotions and curves. I’m not using ‘curvy’ as a euphemism for ‘fat’ here, i mean are your physical lines more straight and angular or more curvy however big you are. I’m a curvy, overly emotional low contrast gal and looked completely OTT frazzled in most snapshots for decades. Friends and families said much what you’ve said to your friends – you look so much better in real life!

    I came of age in the 1970’s so video cameras were just starting to come about, a few glimpses of myself in no kidding 7-11 security cams gave me a clue that it was more about the medium than me. This gave me the impetus to try to learn how to pose and present myself to the camera, and i’ve found that you can really change how you come across not by ‘confidence and relaxation’ but by learning how the camera interacts with your body and how to present your body to the camera in way that emphasizes what the camera likes. I have to say this is a big concern for people out there, my own blogpost on posing for curvy ladies is the most popular one by an order of magnitude.

    The bottom line is that the camera is not the human eye. steph

  7. oohlookasquirrel

    I used to take pretty good pictures, but I noticed a complete change after I had Bell’s Palsy a few years ago. Half of my face stopped working, so pictures of me looked awful for a couple months. Since then, I have been worried about my face looking asymmetrical in photographs, and my lack of confidence shows. My face has not been unusually asymmetrical for years, but the confidence problems persist and recent photos just aren’t as good as they used to be, even though I know my face is probably fine. It’s tricky!

  8. PolarSamovar

    Two things that I’ve seen work well: one is that if I’m holding or touching an animal, I unconsciously relax and smile a genuine smile instead of a camera smile. In all the best pictures of me, I’m holding a dog, cat, piglet, bird, etc. Even with the animal cropped out (that is, not stealing the show with their cuteness), I look more photogenic than normal.

    The other thing has to do with the photographer. My friend is a professional photographer, and she is great at distracting her subjects with patter, jokes, and instructions such that she’s able to catch genuine smiles and relaxed posture. I’ve also noticed that if the photographer really loves their subject, that can shine through in a photo; you can see the beauty the photographer is looking at when they gaze upon their beloved. It may sound cheesy, but it’s sweet to see.

  9. HzlStone

    Some physical characteristics just don’t come over well in photos. I’m a red-head, with skin that is practically translucent so you see many of my veins. Plus I have what is called ‘high colour’, so any colour I do have is a reddish-flush. It’s not an issue In Real Life; decent foundation makes everything fine. But put a flash on my skin and I look like a tomato. Not good. Really not good.

    I used to volunteer at a seaman’s centre and the mostly Filipino sailors would often ask to have their photo taken with me.The appalled look on their faces when they saw what I looked like in the resulting picture was embarrassing on multiple levels ;-(

    My work headshot was colour balanced for me, and it’s one of the few photos of me I actually like.

  10. Leslie Le

    I’m quite photogenic, yet I never have people tell me I’m beautiful in person. I’ve always been photogenic. I don’t think it’s inherited, though, as the rest of my family is not.

  11. Trystan L. Bass

    I wish I was photogenic! I’ve read all kinds of pro photographers’ tips on posing, where your chin / shoulders / arms / hips / feet should be, where the light should be, where the camera should be, blah blah blah, & still, 98% of the photos of me are dissatisfying. I know about 2 photographers who can take good pix of me, & it comes down to their excellent posing skills & camera skills. The pose is a huge part of it — getting an attractive, natural but not boring look is HARD! Most cameras these days will do the basics & get a decent shot, so it’s usually about the person in front of the camera.

  12. Cynthia

    Definitely taking a blog photo every day (ish) has made me less terrified of cameras and hence a bit more photogenic. When I was a kid I hated cameras because my mom always complained about me “always making a face” in pictures. I didn’t know how to be still and hold a pose, and the pressure only made it worse. I think you can learn how to angle your head and how to stand when you know cameras are on you, and whatnot.

  13. jan.4987

    I think confidence, or something similar, must be it, because there are so many truly amazing pictures that were taken back before people were used to cameras; that lack of self-consciousness is what allows the camera to capture a little of the soul, and the soul (or whatever you’d like to call it; I’m atheist but have never found a better word for that) is what makes us beautiful.

    Personally I do have the problem mentioned downthread; I have next to no pigment in my skin, so unless the person taking the picture knows what they’re doing or happens to catch me when the light is just right I’ll just be an overexposed blob. Having my picture taken next to someone with very dark skin would probably take some heavy-duty specialist equipment if we were both to come out looking ok!

  14. Shawna McComber

    I am not photogenic at all. My son is but thinks he looks terrible. I usually think that photos emphasise my flaws which are not noticeable when you interact with the live me because my personality distracts from them. I am definitely someone who does not look good from all angles or who can be caught making funny expressions. I am often very animated in conversation so candid photos of me usually involve a freeze frame of me making a very peculiar face. I speak with my hands and with contorted facial expressions. Maybe I should stop that.

  15. Maricel Edwards

    I may just have to steal this topic and write about it extensively on my blog, it resonates that much with me! I began my blog ostensibly to make sense of and create order out of my extensive closet, but the subconscious reason was to help me overcome my fear of the camera. It’s been over a year since my blog’s inception and I’m comfortable enough to take photos of myself – am rather pleased with 80% of the shots I take – but I’m still leery and stiff when others take photos of me. And you can definitely see the difference. As Laurel said, there is power in the selfie indeed.

  16. bubu2

    I agree with the poster that video can be more forgiving if you are curvy or fair (I am both) whereas a still camera loves contrasts and lines — I discovered this in high school when I took a photography class and photographed two friends with sharp features, paler skin and dark hair and was amazed at how stunning they looked on film. That said, I have learned that for me, the key is turning: straight on my hourglass hips look huge, but at an angle my curves work to my advantage. Also, always standing straighter and contracting the abs to improve posture — what can feel unnatural in posture really helps the end result. I also realized that you can’t be talking when being photographed or the mouth will always look weird — but also that a giant grin looks kind of obnoxious, so I try to temper it. I still have still not found my best facial expression for photos, as if I don’t smile I tend to look really sad (I’m not, but that’s the way my face works), but I don’t like the big grin either.

    Most important thing for me, however, was getting over my self-consciousness, and that did not happen until I had kids. Then I realized how much I treasured pictures of my mother and father when they were young parents, and I decided I needed to put my ego aside and appear in pictures as a gift to my future grown children. It’s also handy to pull a kid in front of you if you’re not feeling great about the body that day!

  17. Venusian*Glow

    The tip that helped me get much better photos is to stick (stretch) your forehead forward a bit (this creates a very flattering jawline) and squint your eyes a bit. Google for the video by Peter Hurley for a demonstration. It really makes a huge difference!

  18. 33

    some are blessed being photogenic. Most of us it is a studied art. I am learning about making me looking good on photos. Being relaxed and happy from within certain helps. Camera is so good at capturing the unbecoming emotions.
    Lighting, distance, angle, outfit, hair….everything makes a difference.
    If I am not born photogenic, I am going to study and learn how to make my photos look passable no matter who’s behind the camera or using what kind of camera.
    There’s no excuse with digital format. I can take 200+ shots and delete them all.