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How to Get a Good Profile Picture According to Science

A woman who learned how to get a good profile photo taking a selfie of herself in a coffee shop.

Profile pictures, we seem them every day, we stress and fret and even admire our own. They’re elusive little beings, those profile pictures, a thumbnail that marks our very existence in a sad, weird, yet culturally relevant way. If you’re wondering how to get a good profile picture, there’s a lot to think about.

Because, let’s face it, we live in the digital age, and our profile picture is a sheer representation of who we are. Some prefer the selfie profile picture. Others find the selfie narcissistic, and prefer a profile picture with a group of friends or family. Some use pictures others have taken of them. Some even keep the same picture up for years and years and clearly don’t care that their profile picture is way out of date.

To put things in perspective, Psychological Science found that after looking at a photo for 40 milliseconds most people are able to draw conclusions about the person in the photo. WHEW. That’s quick. So in the digital age how do we get a good profile picture, one that’s like-worthy and expresses who we are? Something not too thirsty, attention-getting, or even obviously constructed? Something that is the perfect mix of sexy, professional, cute, and presentable? I’ve looked into the basics of photography, science, and my personal experience as a photographer to help show you the way.

So here it is, how to get a good profile picture…

The basics
Digital Photography School outlines four simple steps for constructing a good profile picture. Focus on the lighting, not the background, and while you’re at it, aim for a clear, clean background. Sure, a large cathedral or city street can be interesting, but if the sun isn’t shadowing you face in all the right ways it’s not going to work out for you. Also, watch the anglewhile the straight-forward method is the most popular, angling your body 45-degrees away from the camera can thin you out a bit. Try different poses, like a hand on the hip, or shifting your body. Even a slight tilt in the hips can add a world of difference.

The research
Researchers at the Department of Psychology at University of York analyzed 1,000 images of faces and certain facial tics that make a good first impression. They compiled 65 features that could affect perception and grouped them into three categories.

1. Approachability – “Does this person want to help or harm me?”

2. Dominance – “Can this person help or harm me?”

3. Youthful-attractiveness – “Might this person be a good romantic partner or a rival?”

After concluding their research, they found strange correlations and correspondence between the three different groups and it all seemed to be centered around the eyes and mouth. For approachability, the mouth was the key feature, with smiling being a large factor in how approachable a person was. For attraction, eyes were key (eyes are the window to the soul). And for dominance it was all about the eyebrows, which adds a whole new meaning to #eyebrowsonfleek.

While the chart can seem confusing, it seems that the real science behind an approachable and “attractive” face is a good smile, eyes widened or at least happy, and getting your eyebrows waxed once a month (ok, I made that up but let’s not let things get too crazy).

The data
Photofeeler, a tool that allows you to get feedback on your profile photo, shared their discoveries from 60,000 ratings. Their basic advice included:

– Don’t cover or block your eyes, sunglasses and hats make you seem unapproachable.

– Define your jawline, it helps with likeability, influence, and competence. (AKA, it makes you seem smart and successful.)

– Don’t hide your teeth when you smile (ok, mom).

– Dark colors and formal dress receive more positive feedback and add a more professional, put together vibe.

– Headshots and full body shots don’t perform well, so keep it halfsies and at least show your shoulder line.

– ‘Squinch’ your eyes, as wide eyes may appear vulnerable and even fearful. A slight squinch to the eye makes you seem more confident and hey, not vulnerable.

Back to the basics
Of course, other important photography basics include the rule of thirds. In which, you assume the square of your picture is a grid with three horizontal lines and three vertical lines, at the intersection of where these lines meet is where you want to place your subject. While the rule of thirds sounds initially confusing, the whole premise is, don’t place yourself or your subject in the middle. A properly framed picture will have dimension to it.

Another is to find good light, I’ve found that shooting selfies during the day, facing the sun, can add a nice youthful glow to my face. Another secret of photography is shooting during golden hour, i.e, the time of day when the sun begins to set. During the summer this would be around 6-7 and around 5-6 in the fall. Also, try different angles and different backgrounds, always be aware of your background and make sure nothing (like that dirty laundry basket or box of tampons) appears in the shot. This can happen all too often with mirror pics. So please, don’t take your picture in the mirror.

The big picture
Right now you’re probably saying, Emory, how do you even know all of this…without science? Well, aside from writing, I’m also a photographer. From that experience I can tell you that sometimes science doesn’t know it all. I’ve taken thousands of photos of people, and some that I thought were magnificently beautiful, they told me to “delete immediately.” Deep down, it comes down to what you feel good with.

If you don’t feel comfortable with a large, almost ‘fake’ smile (because some research told you to smile wide and squint your eyes) go for a grin. If you’d prefer to have a friend in your profile picture, then don’t crop them. If you’re all about those Snapchat filters, and aren’t scared to promote a shameless selfie to the world go for it. The best pictures I’ve ever captured of people were simply natural, unforced, and sometimes candid. In those moments, they weren’t trying to appear a certain way. Instead, who they truly were was radiated through the camera, and that’s what made it a beautiful picture.

I guess you could say, like all people, all profile pictures are not created equal. While science can give you some helpful tips and feedback, I think the best one here is, stay true to you. A profile picture that radiates ‘you’ and is a representation of who you are and what you want to share will be the most genuine and the most well received.

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