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. chimx2 says:

    Fascinating. From now on, no one photographs me without some sort of SLR with a very fast lens (so no flash is necessary) during the lazy/half-asleep magic hours and when I’m asleep in bed (or dead tired and totally wasted) at 3am.

  2. fjwhitecotton says:

    What three things control depth of field(i.e., what is in focus in your photo)? 1. f stop 2. focal length of lens you are taking the picture with 3. camera to subject distance. Without knowing these 3 variables, you will never know what your depth of field will be.

  3. mooskins says:

    How much did Panasonic pay you for the results to this extremely suggestive yet seemingly subjective blog entry?

  4. ryder says:

    haha look at all these people getting butthurt about the stats…. you all need to go get laid haha. i think the stats are pretty legit. im amazed at how many people are ither A) missing the point or B) so desperate for attention they gotta try n say something controversial on an easygoing / humorous topic.

    of course the people with better cameras take better pictures. chances are, the people that even spend the 800 bucks on a good camera are INTERESTED in being a better picture taker. you dont gotta be a pro. plus theres other things that the camera provide that have nothing to do with the photographer… sharpnes, vividness, etc…. and they can compensate better for crappy lighting situations than a little cameraphone can. cmon people. you guys just all need to go get laid (or smoke a blunt if you cant get laid) and chill out and be happy.

    anyway, Nice article!

  5. Draydince says:

    These days, with photshop, camera’s become less and less relevant. You could photoshop a turd to look decently attractive.

  6. Skip_G says:

    Interesting, but the real statistic I need, is “What kind of smart phone will get me the most blow jobs?”, anyone?

    Skewed sample=invalid stats.

  7. Coulditbe says:

    Let’s all just calm down for a minute here… As unscientific as all of this is, there is still an element of truth to this “study”. I personally, am not a stud muffin, however, I am a photographer and do own and use a DSLR for my own profile pics. Since having added some self portraits where I used creative lighting and a low f-stop, I’ve been receiving more winks and messages from women on OkCupid. Not only that, but I know that I am drawn more to women who have interesting/creative/professional profile pictures.
    To summarize, if you’re looking to get a date with me, you stand a much better chance if your pictures weren’t taken with a camera phone while standing in front of a mirror or with a web cam in an under lit bedroom.

    Happy hunting.
    To

  8. JHarlow says:

    Well of course iPhone users have more sex cuz they’re more likely to be idiots who are way overpayig for a stupid phone and about $120 a month for 2 lines (not including the phone price).

    So these people have money and anyone who sees someone with an iPhone perceive this person to be well off or spendy all of “daddy’s” money thinking they’re soo cool because they’re followig what the media says is trendy.

  9. EditorInChief says:

    As a former managing editor for several magazines, I have but one comment:

    ~ PAID FOR BY APPLE! ~

    (Does anyone ever take a blog seriously?)

  10. Steve says:

    I can’t get over how low ALL of the average sex partner numbers are. 6-12 at age 30? That’s kind of hard to believe, except for people who were married very young and recently divorced or people who haven’t dated very much. Those numbers are so low that the difference between them hardly seems significant. Perhaps okcupid users don’t get much sex, regardless of what phone they or their friends use?

  11. Mary Gault says:

    You didn’t address the epidemic of computer camera photos…they’re frightening. The angle is unattractive, the lighting is ghastly, everyone seems to look cocky, and I’m thinking “Poor thing…he must be wearing an ankle monitor or he’d get away from that computer & ask a friend to take his picture.”

  12. Joshabee says:

    Errr…ya know, just for the record, if I’m not mistaken, a lot of this article is sheerly extrapolated from collected data in insignificant ways simply to amuse (i.e., cell phone type in relation to the number of sexual partners someone reportedly has). It’s a special interest article focused on trying to help people look good to themselves, and to others. Everybody takes good pictures and bad pictures. The author is simply trying to describe a set of controlled variables that people are capable of controlling to look better in photographs. Don’t take it personally. Just cuz you don’t have an iPhone doesn’t mean your a social retard :/ Well…unless you actually WERE offended by this article.

  13. Whitney says:

    Thanks for the article, I thoroughly enjoyed the eyecandy ;)

  14. James says:

    “For example, a 28 year-old who used a flash is as attractive as a 35 year-old who didn’t.”

    Am I the only one who’s offened by your bald assumption that younger equals more attractive?

  15. shane says:

    I agree with the post that said the time and date info should be included on profile images. We should know , if the data is available, when profile photos were taken. As an alternative is there a good program that would allow us to extract the information ? I’d like to take a photo of someone I’m interested in and pull the time and date info. Without a doubt profile photos make or break online dating!

  16. D.S. says:

    This data looks infested by hidden variables.
    Clearly, photo attractiveness is a function of photographic ability, and to a lesser degree, camera quality is also related to photographic ability (people who buy expensive cameras are usually more serious about photography–hence skilled). The hidden variable here is ability.
    It would probably be more accurate to say that people who tend to have many sex partners, are more likely influenced by the marketing for iPhones than for Androids–not visa versa. The hidden variable here is social (not political) conservatism/libralism.

  17. Bleh says:

    I wonder what percentage of iPhones are owned by spoiled, needy, fashion floozies getting them with their parents’ money, or as gifts. The majority of those 18 year olds certainly.

  18. Warren says:

    shane, if it was taken at night you can map the stars to a particular date. but otherwise no, software cannot add information. there are also legal issues if it is unwillingly extracted from the file. and not all cameras timestamp like that.
    they could make a rule though, to write the date in the photo somewhere

    The main thing to consider, people, is that people cannot tell the difference between a beautiful photograph and a beautiful person, or that the difference is insubstantial. people will see a beautiful photo and pay attention too it, thus more likely to respond to this person, and be admiring them already ;)

  19. Scott says:

    First, I’m a photographer and have worked with fashion models, brides, corporate headshots, babies, pets, and more.

    Of course DSLR photos are going to look better.

    I had a potential “somebody” on here complain about a cel phone camera pic I sent them, said that it looked nothing like my profile pics, I looked older than I claimed to be, and that they weren’t interested anymore.

    I wrote back and politely pointed out the fact that all of her photos were professionally taken be a photog with an DSLR, and that the one cel phone cam shot she sent looked nothing like her profile pics either – and this is perfectly normal, and she was being somewhat shallow by expecting “spur of the moment” photographs with a 5MP camera to compare to the 20+ MP photos in my profile from a DSLR.

    DSLR’s with DOF and good lenses make all the difference in the world. Feel free to write me for tips – DSLR’s are within the price range of anyone these days.

    The biggest, easiest tip to better photos (OKCupid should have consulted a photog on this) – is to put as much distance between you and the camera as your lens allows. Don’t hold a cel phone camera up to your face and shoot. The wide field of view will distort facial features – not complimentary. Get a friend to hold the camera, have them back off a bit, zoom in to 80MM or more, then shoot the picture. Rinse and repeat until you like what you see. Crop if needed, but you’ll look much better in the end.

    The second best tip is to wait for what photogs call the “golden hour” (OKCupid got this right). An hour or so before sunset is the best lighting for outdoor photos. The sunlight is softened by travelling through more of the atmosphere, and the colors are much warmer. Avoid mid-day shots. Avoid morning shots because who looks good first thing in the morning?

    Ignore the rule about having people facing the sun, that you read about with low-end camera instructions. Turn about 3/4′s away from the sun. If possible, use the camera’s exposure adjustment to make sure you (the subject) is exposed correctly, and let the background “blow out” and go mostly white. Let the natural, subtle shadows softly enhance your facial features (at a good 80MM or higher zoom distance of course!) Use a low f-stop (f/2.8 is great) to blur out the surroundings, and it’ll be a fantastic photo.

    Enjoy, and happy searching.

    Scott
    (dssmith1969)

  20. SR says:

    @ Rich says:
    August 12, 2010 at 2:54 am

    The moral of the story is that people shoul groom/look at their best and use a decent cam. The statistics are just funny to read (with a pinch of salt), lot of sweet graphs (useless but sweet). I’m an owner of a good dslr (and know how to use it) but take my profile pics with my phone. I look good enough without the sunlight and DSLR <–arrogant :P (with a pinch of salt)

  21. J says:

    Why do I get the feeling that the Cupid dweebs writing this article were nothing short of thrilled that iPhone users had the most sex? Maybe because they love the socialist mentality of Apple and hate the libertarian mentality of Android.

  22. T guy says:

    This is about the age to attractiveness chart which they used to talk about the flash… It is probably artificially skewed because younger people are on dating sites more than older people. If the population was even, older people may be considered more attractive. Older generally means uglier, but I’m sure that older people find older people more attractive than younger people find older people. I do, anyway.

  23. Scott says:

    Ok, I have been into graphic design for quite a while, have four years experience and it’s partially what got me into Photography. I’m no expert in the field of Photography, I know the fair basics about it. I think this article is quite wide off the mark for several reasons.

    You don’t need to know about blurring the background using a camera, in fact I use Photoshop. Does a flash make a person look older? No, it doesn’t, what it does do however is it actually loses detail in the picture. A person using a digital camera, if they know how to fix the proper lighting for it, without using flash etc, can take some pretty good photographs. If a person doesn’t know how to use it the same, it may turn out different.

    I think it’s also important to note, the woman with the 3 different pictures example, those pictures were taken from different moments and angles, that’s why the third one perhaps looks some what better than the first or second. Nothing to do with the fact that it was a better camera.

    This thing about iPhones lol I can’t stop laughing at how ridiculous this is. I don’t own an iPhone but I can safely tell you, it’s PRETTY damn popular, I mean I look around me and a LOT of people possess this phone, for the simple fact it has applications such as Facebook etc. Are you saying that they have more sex than those with other phones? To be honest, I couldn’t care less, what I seek isn’t sex but a loving person.

    And by the way, I do own a Panasonic camera, it’s a good digital Camera, won’t be as great as what you get from £300 proper professional camera’s, but it’s pretty damn powerful for 14.5 mega pixel. It’s I suppose how you use it.

    There’s too many flaws within this article I’m afraid and bares nothing. In fact, people don’t judge you by the quality of your photo, they judge you by perhaps more so your actions or how you dress or what you maybe doing.

  24. Helen Luna says:

    The research is well intentioned because it tries to bring people to take better photographs overall. Photographers think this is basic knowledge, obvious points, and they are, but I bear in mind the average guy/girl hates to take pictures and most of the time they just point and shoot without thinking at all. So, the idea here is to convince them with rationality, facts, that they should dedicate a bit more into photographing. It’s all for a better looking world. I too don’t like to see ugly pictures, ever!

    I think the whole iPhone thing was unnecessary and had nothing to do with photography…

    Another thing to add is that not all pictures have enough EXIF data to be read. Edited pictures don’t keep their original data so this leaves the research impaired as it can only count on the original pictures submitted.

  25. Remek Trzaska says:

    lovely tongue-in-cheek entertainment. useful general portraiture tips, though

  26. Max says:

    I think the biggest factor is: you have to CARE about your shot. Bothering to choose the setting, the grooming and the equipment IS therefore important. It also seems to me like low quality digicams tend to strengthen the blue, generating a sort of “cold” ambiance. flash and neon do that too.

    A “blurry abstract background” on the other hand makes the subject stand out. It pulls the attention of the viewer to where it belongs. “travel”-photos (with sharp landscapes, and a quite low “screen occupation” of the subject) always seem sort of empty. They may be beautiful, but they should not be used as a profile pic.

    iPhone: I’m an Apple-hater too, so: no (further) comment. :p

  27. Paul says:

    This point must have been made several times already: it’s not that DSLRs take better pictures, but rather that a person that owns a DSLR has a higher chance of knowing a few basics about taking a picture. I’m not sure how this point was missed by the author.

    The rest of the article is very interesting, however. Keep it up!

  28. ironartj says:

    Come on folks, did you never take statistics in school? This is a great article that uses the power of a large number of samples to draw statistically significant conclusions; that may or may not be valid from a common sense standpoint. We proved in class that storks deliver babies; statistically valid, but wrong. But the photo stuff is photography 101 and stuff everyone that has ever learned anything about a camera already knows. The rest is yours to use as you see fit,a statistical amusement. I thoroughly enjoyed the article.

  29. darkdaughta says:

    What about just looking like myself on purpose? I mean…people are so wrapped up in seeming attractive that they end up creating someone who doesn’t even exist. Besides pics of me where I am clearly in costume or wearing some kind of fun make-up, I want to try and look like I do real time so that there are no nasty surprises when someone meets me for the first time. Why not write an article about getting a photographer who knows how to let you shine through?

  30. avsouth says:

    Very fascinating. What I found most interesting was the bit about cameras. As an amateur photographer myself, I definitely get the range of what camera brand does what. No surprises that a camera phone is going to look awful, and that a SLR will look great.

    On the same topic, however, in the “Best Face” app, my best picture was a self-portrait taken with the Kodak Easyshare, which is rated horribly low. Conversely, some pictures I’ve has taken of me with a Nikon SLR performed with much lower results.

  31. Kati says:

    I guess our camera’s broken since even tho I groom myself, try to take a lot of pics in gd lighting and own a gd camera, I still look like an ass (in my opinion). The camera just doesnt love everybody and well, I kinda dont care. U get the general idea of how I look like, so if u think because my pics are messy or my flaws stand out u want to skip talking to me, I feel the same, buddy!

    And to Steve at 4:55pm, we’re not all bed hoppers! Its an AVERAGE. I’m 24 and had sex with 4 ppl this year. Oh wait, I dont own an iPhone, my photos are messy and my face ugly! Now I get it.. :D

  32. Sidni says:

    I’ve always thought ( experienced , actually ) that the after noon photos well waists your skin , early morning or nights if you have enough light or the right equipment are batter .

  33. TheBeege says:

    Alas, I just purchased an android phone. Am I doomed? Interesting article. I now know what my next big purchase and time investments are. Thanks OKCupid!

  34. JB says:

    So does that mean that iPhone users have more STDs? Gross.

  35. Gottapic says:

    Gotta say some people are just photogenic. I’ve taken pics of girls standing next to me. I had to do a double take at them upon looking at pix. In the pic they were gorgeous. In real life not so much. Another thing, when I see a blurry picture or just face shots or distant shots, I know they’re hiding something. Lastly and importantly, I don’t think I photo so well. That’s fine with me. I’d rather she be pleasantly suprised than disappointed. I’d rather meet a girl who looks better in person, than a deceiving glamor shot. If she’s fat and presents herself as average, I’m blowing out of there quick.

  36. Nelson1963 says:

    Is the difference the camera or the type of people who would buy or own said camera.

  37. okjorr says:

    Data show that photo attractiveness is negative if you are older than 44, no matter how good a camera you use. In this age range you simply cannot look ugly ‘by accident’.

  38. Daniel says:

    to the poster who was astonished at the “low” average number of sex partners at age 30:

    6-12 is not low.

    Perhaps you don’t understand what average means?

    Or maybe you’re just a slut and as a result have unrealistic expectations…

  39. JW says:

    This study seems to have forgotten about “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”

    Conclusion of study: people with iPhones have more *sexual partners*
    Theory 1: having an iPhone results in you getting more sex
    Theory 2: having an iPhone results in you sleeping with more people (not the same as theory 1… this says sex one with 10 people > sex 100 times with 1 person)
    Theory 3: the people who sleep around the most are the ones who shell out more for iPhones.

    The question is which is the cause, and which is the effect: better phone -> more sex, or being the kind of person who sleeps around -> better phone (or, having lots of money -> getting more sex & -> having a better phone)

  40. Matt says:

    Just because there’s a picture of X in their profile, that was taken using an iPhone, does it mean they own one?
    I find the assumption that “cameraphone pictures of people are taken using the camera of their own phone” to be unsafe..

    Significant numbers of pictures in your sample will e.g. taken by iPhone owning friend-of-X, approved by X as nice, and be bluetoothed to X’s phone and posted on X’s profile. Assumption that X owns an iPhone is faulty

  41. The Best says:

    I have the second cheapest tracfone you get two years ago, is that why I can’t get laid.

  42. crazy_larry says:

    First in the examples you presented of the differences in ones photo with the three different cameras it’s misleading. Shooting a photo under ghastly florescent light with any of the cameras is going to give you less than optimum results. The camera phone might have given much better results had the photo also been taken outside as the other two were.

    Secondly, you didn’t touch on this but if you are shooting a photo of your face with a wide angle lens/setting of your face it will have a tendency to distort your nose. Making it bigger looking than it is.

  43. Chris Stolarski says:

    Hmm. Isn’t it likely that people who purchase more sophisticated cameras have more invested (not only in the equipment) but in the aesthetics of photography itself? That is, isn’t it possible that people who buy better cameras take better pictures, not because the camera necessarily allows for better picture taking, but because they simply know how to take a better (or in this case, more flattering) photo?

  44. Alex says:

    Hey, thanks for putting this out here. I had a fun time reading it and I love seeing data from large samples put into order, such a blast! Of course, I had to make the mistake, as I always do, of starting to read the comments… When will users learn that you don’t sound smarter by saying stupid things?

  45. Igor says:

    thats bull. i know someone who has a P.O.S phone and yet “i cant go to buy a pack of smokes without running into 9 people shes ****ed”.

  46. Mesa_AZ says:

    Informative article. Well done.

    My conclusion: Better cameras are used by people with more photographic knowledge and experience — which may be more important than the actual camera used.

  47. wdn says:

    there’s no “accidental” ugliness here. it’s all 100% real and permanent.

  48. rachel says:

    while the basic data in this article is difficult to argue with, i think the main thing when it comes to attractive profile pics is knowing how to most effectively use your gear, whether its an iphone or a DSLR. i think i have some ability to say this because definitively because i am a freelance pro photographer with a really nice canon DSLR, but I am also highly skilled at milking the opportunities of the iphone and my point and shoot canon. so really – i think this data means that yes, “better cameras generally make better, more attractive images” but that’s also not accounting for people’s individual experience as photographers. for someone who doesn’t know how to use a DSLR, the picture will probably be improperly exposed and then considered bad.But then again, most ppl who actually own a DSLR probably know how to use it well because it was an investment. And most point and shoots are so easy to use on auto that anyone can get a good pic out of them. Alternatively, camera phones are super hard to adjust in many ways, thus most people will probably not have alot of luck making themselves attractive. because i am experienced, and have a good eye, i can get what i want out of what gear i have. and that’s not a brag – its just the product of being passionate about photography since i was 13, so that’s 14 years going strong. just a thought! AND – if anyone would like to give any comments on MY comment, my user name is CeruleanFantasm, and I don’t think any of my profile pics were taken with my DSLR.

  49. Steve says:

    J:
    “the socialist mentality of Apple and hate the libertarian mentality of Android.”

    ???

    You either fail economics or software (or both). Apple is extremely proprietary, which means very pro-capitalism and anti-socialism. Open source software (no ownership, available to everyone) is the socialist concept. Apple is as far from that as you can get.

  50. Steve says:

    Daniel:
    “to the poster who was astonished at the “low” average number of sex partners at age 30:
    6-12 is not low.”

    It’s not? Think about that for a second. Even if a person didn’t lose their virginity until 18 (later than average), if they’ve only had 6-12 sex partners by age 30, that’s one person every 1-2 *years*. Remember that this is a sample of people who are on okcupid, meaning most are actively looking. Do people really spend a YEAR or TWO on this site to find one partner? On average? That’s insane.

    Like I said, if a person was married or in a very long-term relationship for much of that time, it would make sense. Otherwise, you would have to have no game whatsoever to have not had that many in college, let alone by age 30.

    If hooking up more than once a year makes me a “slut”, then I’m quite happy to accept that label! :)

    I’m just saying that talking about the difference between 6 or 12 partners by age 30 is like talking about the difference between a baseball player who bats .150 and one who bats .175. Both are so low that it doesn’t even matter if one is slightly higher than the other.