How to Look Good in Photos


Spoiler Alert: You don't have to change a thing.

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Q: I’m getting married in six months and I’m freaking out about the photos. I’ve struggled with body image and various levels of disordered eating for most of my life, but have worked really hard to heal my relationship with my body over the past few years. While I’m proud to be in a place where I can confidently say I’m happy with my body most days, the prospect of an entire day of photography where I’m the main focus of attention is really scary. I’ve always been painfully camera-aware, and extra careful to make sure I look like my best self in photos (neck out, chin down, elongate, elongate, elongate). Part of me is worried that I’m going to spend the whole wedding day prioritizing my angles and miss the joy of it, and part of me is worried that if I don’t, I’ll end up hating all of my wedding photos. It feels like a lose/lose situation. How do I look good in photos, without spending my whole day thinking about how to look good in photos?

PHOTO PHOBIC

A: DEAR PHOTO PHOBIC,

First of all, I want to give you a giant, virtual hug of solidarity. Body image anxiety and photography seem to go hand in hand, and our current obsession with social networking and constant documentation doesn’t help. On top of that, weddings can be a huge trigger for anyone with body or food issues. I’ve met so many people with worries just like yours. I think everyone is photogenic given the right coaxing, but I completely understand those feelings.

I’ve always been a little awkward. I was a nerdy, clumsy kid and an early bloomer. I was totally freaked out by my own form, and I let some cruel words stick in my brain for way too long. I spent too many years trying desperately to change my body, doing harm to myself in the process, before finally hitting a breakthrough in my early twenties. I eventually learned to lean in to my awkwardness, because it’s part of what makes me unique, and I learned to have some love for my body and what I can do with it.

Around that time, I started spending more and more time on portrait photography, where those years of body hate and anxiety became an asset. Going through a rough time and coming out on the other side gave me a level of empathy for anyone who felt uncomfortable in their own skin, which is how lots of normal people feel being photographed.

I don’t think anyone needs to do anything to make themselves look “better.” I think real people are interesting and beautiful exactly as they are, and my husband and I built a whole business on that belief. However, over time we’ve learned some tips and tricks to help people feel better about the way they look in photos.

SEPARATE FACT FROM FICTION

I can promise you, none of what you see in any type of produced imagery, whether it’s a fashion magazine, an ad, or a styled wedding, is reality. I’ve worked in fashion photography and retouching, and I’ve seen behind the curtain. I’ve seen the way a person’s appearance can transform after styling, pro photography, beautiful lighting, and a team of retouchers. So much of what we view on a regular basis is completely fabricated. You can easily find sites devoted to laughable photoshop mistakes or quotes from celebrities critiquing the extreme ways their bodies have been distorted in photographs. This isn’t really news to anyone, but it’s easy to forget. When the comparison monster threatens to strike, this is helpful to keep in mind.

HAVE FUN

The whole point of having photographs of your daily life is to hold on to important memories. If having someone take a photo makes you anxious, don’t focus on the image or the act of being photographed. Instead, turn your attention to the moment, what you’re feeling, or the people around you. One way to help bring the focus away from anxiety and back to people is just talking. You’re likely to feel more nervous if you stay silent, so many photographers encourage telling/hearing jokes, having a normal conversation, and generally ignoring the camera. Drinking champagne and smooching your partner totally fall under this category as well.

MOVE

Engaging in any kind of activity that makes you move will go a long way to avoid that “What do I do with my hands? What do I normally do with my hands?” feeling. Movement helps your photos look more natural, and when you’re actually enjoying yourself, it shows. This is true for all types of photography, whether it’s engagement or wedding photos, headshots, or photos a friend takes on an iPhone. You don’t need to stage something elaborate just to have portraits taken, though. Movement can be simple—having a snowball fight, going for coffee, or just taking a walk.

It’s been mentioned on APW before, but the beauty of the wedding for introverted, camera-shy, or crowd-average people is that you aren’t really the center of attention. You’re just the center. Your families and friends have gathered to celebrate you and your partner, but there will be plenty of activities to divert attention away from you. Other than an hour or two of couples/family/wedding party portraits, much of the photography at a wedding is candid. Your photographer won’t be expecting you to pose or concern yourself with your “best side.” They will be waiting for you to laugh at an inside joke, cry over a toast, or dance until you start to get dizzy.

NUTS AND BOLTS

If you feel solid on these first three tips, here are a few pragmatic suggestions to tweak your appearance in your photos:

  • Start with finding someone you trust: Photography is equal parts technical prowess, people skills, and empathy. So if you’re worried about how you’ll look in photos (or about obsessing over them), find someone who is going to get that, and who will honor those feelings. If having a woman behind the lens, or someone who has experience shooting body types like your own, is going to make you more comfortable, go with that. And if you’re worried about feeling like you need to spend the whole day posing, avoid someone whose portfolio has a lot of staged shots in it, and opt for a photographer who takes a more documentary approach to the day. A lot of looking good in photos is simply working with someone who understands body image issues from an empathetic place, and who is going to do things like… take out the most unflattering images before delivering a final gallery.
  • COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PHOTOGRAPHER: Talk to your photographer about your body image concerns before you’re ever in front of their camera. The last thing any photographer wants is for you to miss out on the joy of your wedding day. If you spend all your time worried about your best angles, their job gets exponentially harder, and your day gets exponentially more stressful.
  • If at all possible, set up an engagement shoot before the wedding day as a trial run: Many photographers offer it as part of their wedding package already, and it gives you a chance to feel comfortable being photographed in a low pressure setting.
  • FASHION IS YOUR FRIEND: Wear clothes that make you feel like a million bucks. There’s plenty of tips out there about what not to wear on camera, but if something makes you feel fantastic, that confidence translates like nothing else. If you aren’t sure what to wear, look for clothes that highlight features you’d like to play up. If you’re going monochromatic, break up your look with a pop of color or two using your accessories, and try to avoid clothes with big letters or logos.
  • SMILE: It’s kind of hard to pull of that brooding, serious look. I know when I try it, I just end up looking constipated or petulant, which is never what I’m going for. It’s way easier to look and feel natural if you smile, especially if you’re following tip two and just trying to have a good time.

I can’t stress enough that you don’t need to change yourself in any way just to have your photo taken. You are absolutely enough. You are beautiful. You are unique. And on your wedding day, you will be marrying someone you love, who makes you very happy. Please don’t let worries about pictures distract you from that truth.

Let’s talk! Who had similar fears about photos? Were you able to overcome them and enjoy your wedding day? Do you have any other tips for looking good in photos?

Author’s Note: For anyone who is dealing with body image issues, disordered eating, or anxiety about food, I highly, highly recommend reaching out to a trained professional for help. A great therapist helped me with my own food and body issues, as did supportive family and friends. The NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Helpline is another extremely helpful resource open to you need to talk to someone: 800-931-2237 (M-F 9am-5pm EST).

Sarah Hoppes

Sarah picked up a camera when she was eight, and she’s been documenting the world around her ever since. She co-owns Smitten Chickens, a wedding photography company dedicated to creating emotional, authentic, and inclusive imagery. A native of Ohio, she currently lives in Manhattan with her husband Chris and their four cats.

For more on Sarah, Chris, or their photography, visit www.smittenchickens.com.

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  • Marie

    My plan is to Vogue it up privately with my photographer before heading off to the chapel. Then I can be assured of some stunning posed portraits, and not care about angles the rest of the day. I figure this strategy will yield pictures with which to prove to my grandchildren that I was once a hot tamale, *and* pictures where I’m unselfconsciously giggling like a fool with my new husband. And I will cherish them all :)

  • BeccaC

    Letter Writer, your letter spoke to me because before my wedding it is exactly how I felt. I have very similar body image and eating problems and was pretty scared for all of these photos of myself. All of the advice above is spot on – especially about picking the right photographer and having an engagement session. I ended up really enjoying the engagement session by focusing on my fiance and goofing around with him like I normally do. To my surprise, the photos showed a beautiful side of me I had never seen in a photo before – a woman full of joy. For the wedding I was just so happy that the photos are so full of joy – I forgot the photographer was even there for most of the day! I truly think on your wedding day if you are happy that your photos will capture a beautiful, joyful bride!!! And really, you don’t have to share any photo that you don’t love with anyone. Best of luck, and know that you certainly aren’t alone!

  • Kate M

    I have always hated how I look in photos, and was dreading that part of the wedding. But I also knew, that if we just got one shot of me that I liked I would thrilled and I only planned on framing one anyway. Our photographer was very good, and there was more than one that I liked. But more importantly, there are a ton of me having a great time, double chin and all. While I may not want to frame these, I love looking at them and the memories that they elicit. I was so happy and that is what the pictures show.

  • Amy March

    Sigh. My main take away from this is “but wait how do I hide my double chin though?” #notthepoint #thisistheproblem

    • All the points above are totally the big picture, and they will help a TON. I didn’t include specific things for YOU to do because 1. It’s kind of not your job and 2. That’s exactly the kind of triggering stuff that people dealing with this can find REALLY hard.

      That being said, here are 2 things that will help show you in your most flattering light:
      1. Whoever takes your photo should be higher up than you are when that’s possible.

      2. Whoever takes your photo should cull. (Take the bajilion photos snapped on a wedding day and get rid of the duplicates or ones that don’t represent you well, so you never even get them.)

      No one wants to see every single image of themselves ever. If you are hiring a wedding photographer and nervous about this, make sure they are culling rather than giving you everything they shot.

      I hope that’s helpful! I’m really passionate about this stuff, so if you want more tips than that, you can find me online, and I’m happy to chat.

  • Leah

    Another point to add to this conversation – I also have some serious deepseated issues about the way I look, especially in pictures. Like the LW, was terrified that I’d hate all the pictures of myself, and also terrified that I’d spend all day thinking about the camera pointed at me. I talked to my (great) photographer about this, and he was kind and supportive and reassuring. BUT. On the day of the wedding, my coping mechanism was to basically ignore completely the fact that he was there. It seemed like that might be the best way to get decent, ‘natural’ shots, and try to forget about the photo-related worries.
    And it all went fine, and there are a couple of photos of me that I absolutely love (and I did look so so happy!), but there are also a lot of photos that I’d love to have but didn’t get because I didn’t interact enough with the photographer – never grabbed a bunch of college friends and said ‘hey, take a picture of us’, etc. So I guess that’s just to add, even if you’re someone who hates the camera (me!), don’t be too afraid to take full advantage of having a pro photographer at your beck and call for a day. (also: you’re all beautiful!)

  • Nell

    So, I have an idea:

    What if we all agree to stop pretending (as a society) that your wedding day is the day that you are required to be at absolute peak physical beauty?

    My favorite pictures of me and my fiancee were taken by a random stranger on a beach when we were on vacation. We basically just turned around and smiled. I think we look beautiful cause we’re in love, and cause I’m wearing my favorite coat.

    My aunt, an artist, has a beautiful portrait that was taken of her when she was on a train (like, a boring Amtrak train) and happened to sit down next to a professional photographer who decided to snap a picture. My point is: you can’t always manufacture the pretty. Sometimes it just has to happen.

    I know plenty of people who did NOT look peak skinny/fit/blemish-free at their own weddings – and I will probably be one of them. I’m 30. I expect to live for a few more decades. If it’s all down hill from here, isn’t that a little tragic? My body is with me for a lifetime, it’s not making a one-night-only appearance at my wedding and then retiring.

    Anyway, I wish that was the message we all got about body image and weddings.

    • SarahG

      YAS. Thank you. I had weird hair due to a bangs incident for my wedding, and I totally spent way too much time before the wedding worrying about it and not being my most gorgeous in every single possible way. Such a waste of brain space.

  • macrain

    I was terrified to get our photos back, and when we got them I mentally picked myself apart in the photos I didn’t like. I was pretty upset at some of the family photos I knew would get framed and put up, even though in the back of my mind I knew I was being really hard on myself. I’m happy to say that those voices have quieted down since then- it was almost like I had to just get it out of my system and then I could move on. I think this is especially hard because it’s not so acceptable to talk about- I’m not even sure I shared my true feelings with my husband. I just pretended to love everything.
    When I first saw this photo, I wasn’t so happy- my hair had been pulled back at that point, my makeup pretty much was gone, and my dress is all bunched up in weird places. It hasn’t been until some time has passed that I have appreciated this moment a bit more. I raged so hard at my reception that I felt like I had been hit by a bus the next day, and I would never take that back.

    • Leah

      Wow, if this is a pic you don’t like, I’d love to see the ones that you DO like – you look amazing, and this party looks like so much fun!

    • Eenie

      I think sometimes joy, energy, and happiness can’t look posed and perfect. This looks so real and beautiful! It tells the story of your wedding not just a pretty picture.

      • macrain

        Thanks. :)

    • Eh

      Having our engagement shoot was really important because my husband needed to learn the type of directions he would be given on our wedding day. He is not good with taking directions so this gave him a chance to practice. There are pictures from our engagement shoot I like but most are posed and staged photos and they aren’t “us” so they look fake (there is a picture of my husband with a funny look on his face that I love because that is him, and then all of the pictures of us walking and talking I love because they look less staged). Our wedding pictures are totally different. I still don’t like the posed photos. I know that family pictures are important but they are not my favourite (we do have some of them printed). There are some staged pictures of us that I do like but they are more artsy than our engagement shoot. And then I love all of the “real” pictures of us. They have life and emotion.

      I sent all of our relative prints. We sent them our favourite pictures. One of my aunts complained that none of the pictures she got were just of our faces (she got a full body shot where we were generally facing the camera). Then I realized that we didn’t really like any of the ones that were just our faces so we didn’t print that many.

    • Anon

      Wow I’m late to this but I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. We just did our engagement session and when we got the photo proofs back I was so angry at myself for looking badly in a few photos. I have a gummy smile and I couldn’t stop criticizing myself. I realize I was being unreasonable and hard on myself too and I kept that feeling inside because the photos we ended up choosing were so beautiful. We look so happy and in love and after forgetting about those few bad photos when I saw how beautiful I can be even with a gummy smile, that negative feeling was gone.

  • friedpod

    We all know this kind of obsession is cruel and unfair and political as fuq, but as a former bulimic and gymorexic (who only gave that shit up because of chronic illness) I understand it.

    I swear: anyone worrying about this can rest easy in the fact that they will never know which angle is correct because a good photographer is chillin somewhere that you don’t notice. You just won’t even know how to angle your face. They’re also focused on giving you beautiful pictures so 1. if they DO dropbox you a double chin one, it’s because there’s something special in that photo that you will love and 2. they probably won’t overdo it with the double chins.

    Trust that you will look like your happiest self that day, whether it’s Beautiful (whatever that means) or not.

  • Elizabeth

    I recently read Susan Sontag’s On Photography and she talks a lot about how photography has changed the way we think about beauty. I couldn’t find the exact quote but she says something about how these days, whether or not a person is considered beautiful depends on how they look in photographs instead of real life. The idea that that was not always the case was revelatory for me. I am beautiful as a person who exists in the world. The fact that how I’m represented in an image does not usually register as beautiful to me does not mean that the image is the standard.

    But here is another relevant quote I did find:

    Most people are anxious when they’re about to be photographed: not
    because they fear, as primitives do, being violated but because they
    fear the camera’s disapproval. People want the idealized image: a
    photograph of themselves looking their “best.” They feel rebuked when
    the camera doesn’t return an image of themselves as more attractive than
    they really are. But few are lucky enough to be “photogenic”—that is,
    to look better in photographs (even when not made-up or flattered by
    special lighting) than in real life. That photographs are often praised
    for their candor, their honesty, indicates that most photographs, of
    course, are not candid.

    • Cleo

      don’t want to create an account to upvote, so am upvoting via comment. I love everything you’ve said/quoted here :)

    • Jess

      That is insightful and loaded. I often look at pictures of myself and simply don’t see the person I feel like I am, which kind of makes me spiral into questioning myself.

      I’m trying to figure it out – there was some talk about the selfie challenge a long while back, and I’m kind of trying to get used to the way I look in pictures. I look at candid shots of me and I don’t feel like I show up in those either.

      I feel like I’m split between this person in an image and the self that I feel when I’m at my best, and the photograph isn’t a fair way to judge myself.

  • LizStanton

    Dear photo-phobic:

    Are you inside my brain?

    Sincerely,
    Liz

  • laurasmash

    If I had one takeaway about wedding photography from my years of reading APW, I think it would be that the photos are about happy, not pretty. I even included a photo in my album that I don’t look that great in because I want to remember the amazing face my sister was making while giving her toast. The photos I was more disappointed in were the ones where I don’t look as happy in the photo as I felt IRL.

    • SO true. One of the photos I included in our album is a close up shot of my face while I stuffed my hand written vows into my husband’s suit like a pocket square. It’s a beautiful photo, technically speaking. But I didn’t really want to share it with anyone at first, because I was self conscious about my acne and the unflattering face I was making. But it was a very real moment, and I had very real, very obvious emotion on my face. Every time I look at it, I’m taken back to that moment, and I feel something. If someone came in and direction me, and told me how to move so my face looked “better,” I wouldn’t have the same emotional response to that photo.

    • notquitecece

      YES. I am *so* glad to have the photo that shows just how hard I’m ugly-crying during my brother’s speech. And to have the insane dancing shot that shows my crazy arms and sweat-shiny face. I would have said beforehand that I was worried about photos being unflattering, but now some of my favorites are the weird ones!

    • TeaforTwo

      Yes! I would add two other things:

      1. In the weeks after you get your wedding photos, you will look at every single one. After that, you’ll frame a few favourites, and there will probably be 3-5 images that you actually see with any regularity. These will be the ones you remember.

      2. You first see your wedding photos a few weeks or months after your wedding, but you have them taken with a much longer view. Wedding photos are meant to document your wedding, not serve as a modelling portfolio. When I look at my parents’ and grandparents’ wedding photos, I am not judging their beauty – I’m taken aback by how overjoyed they look, how YOUNG everyone looks, how hilarious/awesome the hairstyles are, and how much my cousins and I have grown up to look exactly like our parents did. I am definitely not thinking about double chins.

      The photos are for 35 years from now, maybe when your daughter is planning her wedding and wants to see photos of yours. 35 years from now, the photos will look incredible, because you will only see how happy and in love you look. (And you will also look 35 years younger.)

  • Kelly

    Lots of good advice here. I’d also just like to share that for our wedding we had specific conversations with our photographer about focusing on all of the other people who were attending a celebratory event, not just us. Having a professional photographer was a great opportunity to get good pictures of reunited friends and family and kind of saw photography as a gift to our guests (we shared all of our pro photos with everyone, and they could download them or order prints). We encouraged family and friend groups to get photos together and stressed to our photographers that we wanted lots of pictures of our people. Obviously there were still lots of pictures of us, but some of my most favorite photos don’t have us in them at all, and the shift in priority definitely helped take the pressure off.

  • Ashlah

    Maybe this isn’t/won’t be the case for everyone, but once posed photos were out of the way, I hardly noticed our photographer all day. Whether it was because I was too immersed in the joy of the day, or because she was a secret photography ninja, I wasn’t really able to be self-conscious about how I looked because I hardly knew I was being photographed.

  • jubeee

    I feel this so much. I am getting married in 5 months and I have always had boy image issues. On top of that I have crooked teeth and am really sensitive about my smile. The weird thing is I think I am pretty attractive but when I look at what the camera brings out, I feel like I look like a troll. The entire idea of a photo shoot just really stresses me out.

  • Former Bride

    I’ve seen “get engagement photography” as common advice for getting more comfortable with your photographer. While I absolutely agree that doing this helped us be more comfortable, since we were able to meet our photographer, I would like to throw this out there: We hated our engagement photos, but LOVED our photographer and wedding photos. For us, getting engagement photos was about meeting and working with our photographer prior to the day, not the photos themselves. They are overly posed and awkward. But, we knew that on the actual day, we’d have more to do that would help her take the journalistic types of photos we knew she was known for. I think it’s important to know that yes, sometimes bad engagement photos mean the photographer is a bad fit, but sometimes it just means that it’s a practice round, the way that when you go to the salon, your practice hair never looks as good as your day-of hair. If you think this might be your situation, I would recommend talking to your photographer about your expectations, and any think you liked/ didn’t like after that engagement shoot. A good photographer will validate your feelings / thoughts, and let you know if something isn’t realistic.

  • I think this is the best Q&A I’ve ever seen. No dismissing of her worries or concerns, but embracing it and giving good, solid, practical tips for overcoming her anxiety. Thank you APW, for never failing to amaze me.

  • Anna Gibbon

    So many things here are true. Couldn’t agree more that photography is about more than technical prowess. Personal skills are key, they need to make you feel relaxed and comfortable. For me, Stephen Rooney was great, it wasn’t about waiting around for the beautiful photo, he would catch the beautiful moments when you’re not even thinking about it. You can find him at http://www.stevenrooneyphotography.com/