Don’t Be Ugly By Accident!

August 10th, 2010 by Christian Rudder

If you're anything like me, you usually think of your pics in terms of content: Here's me smiling. Here's me looking tough. Here's me in Hawaii with that wacky turtle. And so on. Today, however, we'll analyze photography from a numerical angle—we'll discuss flash, focus, and aperture instead. We feel like people don't really think about these things when they choose a profile photo, and yet, as we shall see, their misuse can seriously mess you up.

As always, our data comes from dating site OkCupid, one of the largest, and most interesting, datasets on the web. This article aggregates 11.4 million opinions on what makes a great photo.

. . .

Our experiment:

  1. We collected 552,000 example user pictures.
  2. We paired them up and asked people to make snap judgments, like so:
  3. We collated these millions of judgments with the time of day each picture was taken, what the shutter speed was, and so on. Almost all modern cameras embed this stuff in a special header, called EXIF data.
  4. We made graphs.

Here are our findings:

1. Panasonic > Canon > Nikon.

The type and brand of camera you use has a huge effect on how good you look in your pictures. This is a plot of the most popular makes:

As you can see, the general pattern is that more complex cameras take better pictures. Interchangable lens cameras (like digital SLRs) make you look more attractive than your basic point and shoot cameras, and those in turn make you look better than your camera phone. I'm not sure what's going on with Kodak all the way to the right there. They might want to consider making sharing more difficult.

Beyond the advantages or shortcomings of any specific brand, the more-complex-is-better trend bears out at all ages:

And we also found similar numbers looking only at people who uploaded all three types of photos. Putting such a triplet together dramatically illustrates the difference:

oh, also—iPhone users have more sex.

File this under "icebreakers, MacWorld '11". Finally, statistical proof that iPhone users aren't just getting fucked by Apple:

The chart pretty much speaks for itself; I'll just say that the numbers for all three brands are for 30 year-olds, so it's not a matter of older, more experienced people preferring one phone to another. We found this data as part of our general camera-efficacy analysis: we crossed all kinds of user behaviors with the camera models and found we had data on the number of sexual partners for 9,785 people with smart phones. We dropped what we found into Excel, and voila. Here's the plot by age:

Just so you know, the names and the actual photos are removed when we do this kind of research; we just see the stats in aggregate. Everything is anonymized. Now let's leave brands and gadgets aside and look at how purely photographic phenomena can affect your precious face.

2. The flash adds 7 years.

This is another simple finding that needs little explanation.

Soft light can hide wrinkles, blemishes, devil eyes. The hard light of a flash often brings them out. As I illustrate with the dotted lines below, you can calculate the equivalent "aging" effects of a flash by counting years horizontally between the 'flash' and 'no flash' lines. For example, a 28 year-old who used a flash is as attractive as a 35 year-old who didn't. Trace the dotted lines to see what I'm talking about. Don't piss off Ming.

One thing we observed is that most flash exposures—even from SLR's—appeared to be direct flash. That's where the flash was fired directly at the subject, producing harsh shadows. If you have access to a flash that can bounce off the ceiling or walls, that could work much better.

3. Blot out all other reality.

We found that the best pictures have a very shallow depth of field, meaning that the subject is in crisp focus while the rest of the picture is blurry, like this:

I'll spare you my explanation of the optics behind this and instead let a graphic from the 10,000 word wikipedia page fill you in:

Thanks, hivemind, you genius! Basically, you get this sharp/blurry effect from having a wide-open aperture: low f numbers on your camera, like f/1.8, f/2.2, etc. For two pictures taken at the same distance, the lower f number will give you a shallower depth of field.

The widget below plots the aggregate attractiveness, by f number, of our user photos in a little color-coded array, alongside examples of each type of photo, so you can easily see how the depth of field affects things. For obvious reasons, we restricted this analysis to photos by cameras capable of a wide range of apertures.

show women show men

It's my opinion that because the photos with the low f numbers feel more intimate and personal, they get a better viewer response.

4. There are peak times of the day to take a good picture.

Below is a minute-by-minute distribution of when people are taking their pictures. This plot also does a good job of showing off the sheer number of photos we analyzed for this piece:

Of course, the most interesting thing isn't when people are taking their photos, but when they are taking their best photos:

It seems that, broadly speaking, late night and late afternoon are optimal. I can't really say why that is, but I can irresponsibly theorize that photos taken in the former bracket tend to be more provocative, those taken in the latter tend to be pleasantly lit.

As noted, the plotted timestamps are adjusted by time zone and for daylight savings, and when you overlay the path of the sun through the sky during our theoretical "day", you see peaks just after sunrise and just before sunset: evidence of the golden hour.

. . .

In conclusion, the data strongly suggest that if you're single, you (or someone you know) should learn a little bit about photography. Technique can make or break your photograph, and the right decisions can get you more dates.

It's actually not that hard. Use a decent camera. Go easy on the flash. Own the foreground. Take your picture in the afternoon. Then visit the nearest Apple store. Done.

374 Responses to “Don’t Be Ugly By Accident!”

  1. Voice of Truth says:

    Hmmmmmm

    I wonder HOW MUCH Apple and Panasonic paid for this “BLOG POST”?

  2. Wes M says:

    You guys are truly Social Scientists.

    I just love reading researches like this! The problem with such data is that it’s usually noisy with side factors. I.e. “I will vote NO because I don’t like red blouses”. However such data can still be very useful!

  3. T Voll says:

    This is really neat, although there are similar statistical issues as in the other oktrends research. First being the self-selection of the sample, but also things such as: how many of the more professional photos have EXIF stripped on purpose as part of RAW conversion?

    Also, the article doesn’t try to make or not make the point, so I figured I’d suggest that perhaps “the more complex the camera the better the picture” also has factors such as “the more complex the camera, the more serious the photographer, and the better his skills, selection of lighting, posing and location?”

    I’d also be curious if the quality of the photos posted correlates with any other things in a profile. It seems to me (oddly) that quite often people don’t go through extra lengths to get good photos of themselves, although they are appreciative if someone does take such of them.

    Still, in the end, as a photo enthusiast, this is a clear validation of getting better results with the right equipment and basic photographic skills.

  4. jesikrumlov says:

    Good Lord this is too much to think about . Just put of the most flattering pics of yourself you have that are fairly recent. If you actually meet someone from an online dating site – you better look like your photo. As for the jag off that won’t message you because they don’t find you attractive enough – tough titty for them! That said chemistry is there or it isn’t.

  5. LRD says:

    Please try to follow my line of reasoning. It’s late, and I’m writing this as I go…

    DSLRs (ca. $1k to $3k AND UP) cost a lot more than cell phone cameras (usually included free with the cell phone, also “free” with service commitment.) Besides professionals who need the former for their work, it is people with money who are going to buy and use the SLRs. We all know that people with more money are on average more intelligent (can actually work an SLR to their advantage), are more successful at dating, etc… What I am trying to say here is that I think that people HAVE SLRs and use them because they are generally more “successful” (at least from society’s point of view) at life (including dating), and can take better pictures of themselves, who tend to look better than average, anyway. In turn, they make themselves look even better than average because they have been able to afford and operate the more complex technology that yields better results. Another case of the rich (statistically more intelligent and better looking) get richer while the “poor” get poorer. Unfortunately.

    It’s easy to confuse cause and effect, and misjudge the dependence of variables in these analyses.

    Also, might I say that people who take shots that are unfocused, from far away, or with an “unrevealing” camera…probably did so because they KNOW they are not the best looking. Or at least maybe vice-versa. If your best asset were your looks, you’d probably hire someone to take headshots (probably with one of those miraculous DSLRs!) that proved to the world that you were not only beautiful to begin with, but also entirely sans wrinkle, scar, discoloroation, sun damage, etc…

    Man, to be rich, successful, good looking, AND technologically inclined to operate an expensive toy such as a professional-grade camera! Could you imagine your children? And their children? How advantaged they’d be? They could use the Hubble Telescope to show the world how muc better they are! :)

    Hehe.

    Please don’t take this too seriously. I really meant this is as an analysis of facts as I see them, when talking about statistical samples.

    Just my take with reason-based extrapolation to ad a little humor.

  6. cv says:

    TL;DR – take profile pictures at 6.30 AM with a Panasonic Micro 4/3 without flash at f/1.2 or f/1.8 and own an iPhone

  7. Arnulfo Valadao says:

    I am always invstigating online for ideas that can help me. Thx!

  8. IntellectualKink says:

    Here’s a postulation: Have you considered that there may be a connection between people who were ugly, Therefore not photogenic? Wouldn’t that mean these people don’t need higher quality for cameras or wouldn’t take as many pictures? Or perhaps other people just don’t want to take photos of them for artistic purposes?

    In that context wouldn’t it mean that the people who were uglier have to take photos of themselves with whatever they can use nearby?

  9. Denver Food Photographer says:

    Certainly an interesting article, although I have to say that the smaller the aperture the more likely you’re dealing with a pro photographer… => better picture.

  10. pcbear281 says:

    Many years ago, I participated in a one-session study. Photos of people were shown to me. I had to rate them on their honesty just by looks. I found myself rating smiling people more honest and unsmiling ones.

    Personal note: I have realized that when meeting a person for the first time, I tend to “make” them better looking in my mind. The next time I meet them, I “see” some imperfections. I don’t why this is so. Don’t know if anyone has studied this.

  11. Andrew says:

    About Apple v Blackbery V Droid. I think Droid owners tend be more “nerdy” and thus be less likely to get it on. Blackberries were made for business people, most with busy schedules, also reducing the number of partners.

  12. johnny says:

    shit I’m ugly cuz I dont have a good camera and im a dumb ass cuz I didnt understand any of this shit. fml =( what do I do?

  13. Patrick says:

    While the type of camera used is important, I believe you should look your best and be in appropriate lighting if you really want to be seen. This way even you have a oneGig camera users will have a good idea of what you look like. If you’re taking a picture Give an accurate discription of yourself. Get on the scale, get mearured, give your actually ethnicity remember we’re all hypocrites, Guy dig hot chicks and chicks need to know a guy is hot, (oktrends).

  14. Tom says:

    Conclusion: “more complex cameras take better pictures.”

    The reporting of this result, without adjusting for photographer skill, is astounding! Of course the photos taken with expensive SLR cameras were found to be better photos. Who typically uses good cameras? Skilled photographers!

  15. busBousakam says:

    Great blog, amazing article. Certainly you check here again and tell about it to friends Thank you! “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.” – Dorothy Parker

  16. Katja says:

    @Tom, perhaps, but I noticed that even as a complete amateur, taking my first class in photography, I was able to totally ace assignments with a proper Nikon dSLR. The pictures were much better quality than with any other camera I tried before (which were point’n’shoots). I think it’s to do with being able to adjust the settings to suit the circumstances, which – for some reason – all the “auto” programs fail to do in cheaper digital cams. Not to mention – proper optics.

  17. Timtaro says:

    I would totally love to have a DSLR camera. Seriously!! The zoom capabilities of DSLR cameras can focus up to 100x optical zoom!! And you can focus so well on one subject/object, and make everything else not matter in the picture. Most point and shoot cameras don’t have that focal option. I have a 35mm SLR… but it cost money to produce the film to photographs and possibly have them digitally scanned for you.

    But what I think really matters, is that you find a good location for taking photographs. Whether it is of yourself, your subject, or just taking pictures of nature/life, it’s seriously about mood & location.

  18. Sarah says:

    OMG…puhleez. Whi funded this ? Nikon and iPhone ? Just take a good pic with whateva and get on with it. You’re going to meet soon after contact or not – take it from there. f-stops, aperture, and iPhones ? Gimme a break

  19. Inquisitive says:

    For the iphone=more sex theory, I think it’s more like people who have a lot of sex buy iphones. I say this because usually people who buy iphones are extremely social and they would want a popular phone in order to socialize optimally. If that makes sense. People who buy androids or blackberrys buy them for either business or they’re satisfied with the fact that these phones fulfill personal needs. Socializing is just as fine on android and blackberry without all the little specs that apple exaggerates in order for marketing to incredibly social people. Hey, it’s working.

    And I hope you people realize that this is just my opinion which is no more correct than whatever anyone else says about why sexually active people buy iphones. In any case, if you show me accurate data then awesome.

  20. Dude says:

    Number of partners is not the same as number of times having sex. Person “A” may have had 12 partners but only had intercourse with each of them twice, while Person “B” may have had two partners but fucked them constantly.

  21. MadRooster says:

    I know what’s going on with Kodak… I had an Easyshare, because it was cheap, and it was a TURD for taking portraits! It was especially bad for washing out or flattening photos, and the only way I ever got it to take a decent figurative shot, was to use many mcGuyverish tricks, like taping over the lens, setting it to night mode, and using many lamps. To add to my frustration with this $100 paperweight, the camera took about 45 seconds to boot, so if you happened to see a flying squirrel battling a UFO, piloted by a can of cheez wiz, you’d just have to try and make a drawing, since that would be faster than attempting to take a photo.

  22. MadRooster says:

    Hrm, another factor you may not have taken into account, when making the camera brand comparison chart. dSLRs and interchangeable lens cameras are EXPENSIVE. Therefore, it stands to reason that the owners of schmancy cameras are people who actually care about photography, and who know what they’re doing, more so than the average cameraphone user. Furthermore, it also makes sense that a person who takes greater care in their appearance will also take greater care in their photography, which could skew the numbers further. To top it all off, you illustrated in another article, the correlation between income and interested partners, which could also play a role in skewing upwards, those who can afford to buy a $1000 camera.

  23. Brett_cgb says:

    I wonder how flash pictures fare against natural (daylight), artificial (indoor), and poor color balance (just plain wrong, like lit by computer screen).

  24. Vanity says:

    One aspect of this article is complete BOLOGNA. IPHONES TAKE ABSOLUTELY HORRID PHOTOS & USUALLY DISTORT ONE’S FACE DRASTICALLY. I am the owner of an iPhone. When I had other camera phones, I would usually take my pics with the camera facing ME & just snap the picture & have a lovely photo. With the shitty ass IPHONE however, I have to take all my damn pics in the MIRROR because the camera is sooooo terrible. And YES, it is the CAMERA, for all you smart asses out there. Nevermind how horrible the front facing camera is. Everyone I know with this phone hates the crappy camera so I have no clue how it landed a high spot on that chart. Even my mother who is freaking STUNNING, anyone who sees her almost breaks their necks, even SHE can barely manage to take a good pic with this stupid phone. & she’s always been photogenic. Point is, the camera sucks. The rest of this article however is inarguably fascinating & very logical. People don’t know how much goes into GOOD pictures. Why do you think models are photographed in perfect lighting set up by highly paid professionals & have their pictures taken with expensiveeeee equipment just to later be photoshopped??