For those of you who think you never look great in photos, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that you’re probably right. You don’t look great in photos. The good news is that you probably look much better in real life – when you are your normal animated self. Research conducted at UC Davis and Harvard suggests that there is something about a static image of a face that reduces attractiveness relative to a short video clip of the same face. Researchers term the relative unattractiveness of static faces the “frozen face effect.” To demonstrate the effect, volunteers were asked to view a set of 20 short video clips of various faces. They were also shown a series of static images which were pulled from the video clips. When asked to rank all the imagery for attractiveness, faces shown in their video forms were consistently rated higher than the same face viewed as static images.
When they probed further to try to find the reason for the video preference, the researchers were unable to confirm a solid cause. It seems the root cause was not due to the extra information provided in the videos. When a series of still images of a face was presented as a group, the still images were still not deemed to be as attractive as the same images shown rapidly in video form. The video preference was consistent regardless of whether imagery was presented upside down or normally. The only weakness in the attractiveness of the video faces was discovered when the video frames were mixed up. The video clips had to be presented with frames in their normal sequence, otherwise attractiveness ratings dropped substantially.
It remains a mystery why video motion enhances feelings of attractiveness, but apparently it is hard to evoke a full appreciation of beauty with still images. The researchers concluded as much by saying:
“it may explain why photography of faces is so difficult to master and why people anecdotally believe they look worse in photographs.”
True enough. But frozen images pulled from television video clips may not represent the pinnacle of portrait photography. An interesting follow-on study might compare high quality portrait images to a short video of the portrait session. Perhaps a master photographer could close the beauty gap between stills and motion. Until then, capturing beauty in portraits remains a challenging but worthy goal.
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