News flash: Good photos make you look more attractive!

Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer notices a blog entry by Christian Rudder over at OKCupid.com. OKCupid is, apparently, a very hot (as in popular) dating service, which, of course, I’ve never heard of before today.

Anyway, Rudder’s post (to which Johnston refers) gives the results of an ambitious statistical analysis that the folks at OKCupid did, in the hope of answering the question, “What sort of photograph makes people look most attractive?”

The results of the study look interesting at first, until you start to think about them.

For example, the study concludes that “flash adds 7 years” to your apparent age. Except that this isn’t quite what the data indicate. The flash photos analyzed by the study very largely involved on-camera flash. That isn’t surprising. It’s the use of the on-camera flash that causes the EXIF info embedded in the photo file to record that the flash did fire. But as nearly everybody knows, on-camera flash gives the subject that “deer in the headlights” look, which is why serious photographers don’t use on-camera flash, not unless they have no alternative whatsoever. We use off-camera flash often controlled by radio triggers. In that case the EXIF doesn’t record that flash was used, and if the photographers know what they’re doing, the use of flash won’t be obvious from the photos, either.

Here’s another example of the study’s weakness. It notes that, by a large margin, Panasonic micro-4/3 cameras took the largest percentage of photos that made their subjects attractive. Here’s the list of the six cameras taking the most “attractive” photos, in descending order:

  1. Panasonic micro 4/3
  2. Leica point and shoot
  3. Canon DSLR
  4. Pentax DSLR
  5. Nikon DSLR
  6. Sony DSLR

And at that point, the list is largely done with DSLRs and starts listing point and shoots. Mike Johnston wonders about the appearance of Panasonic and Leica at the top of the list:

A fairly mystifying and seemingly arbitrary finding, in my view—the only explanation I can think of is that only people who are relatively “in the know” about photography would care to own Micro 4/3 cameras at this point in history—but there it is in the chart. That explanation also might account for the high showing of the second-place camera type, “Leica point-and-shoots,” which scored the highest in the p/s category, also by a large margin.

I think Johnston’s explanation of Panasonic and Leica’s placement in the list is right, but I think his point could be extrapolated across the board. Generally speaking the study suggests that DSLRs take photos that make you look more attractive. Is that really true? If you hand somebody whose only camera is a cell phone and whose experience taking photos is limited to shots taken with that cell phone, will they take a better photo if you hand them a Panasonic GF-1 or a Pentax K20D? This is like asking, if you give the 100 monkeys computers with word processing software, rather than typewriters, will they write Hamlet faster? Answer: Not likely.

There are advantages to shooting with DSLRs! But people who own DSLRs (or Panasonic micro-4/3 cameras) are a self-selecting group of photo enthusiasts, people who care enough about photography to spend money on it for good equipment, and who therefore probably have a better idea how to take a good picture with any equipment. This might explain why Pentax is in the list ahead of Nikon. I love my Pentax bodies and lenses but I don’t for a minute think that using Pentax equipment actually makes my subjects look more attractive than they would if I were shooting with Nikon. It’s just that Pentax, kind of like Leica and Panasonic, is a niche market populated by people willing to be different. It’s a self selecting group of folks who really care about photography.

So the unsurprising lesson of the report is, “If you want a good photo of yourself, get it taken by somebody who knows what they’re doing with a camera.” I photograph my clients with my Pentax DSLRs and outstanding lenses, but I dare say I could take a pretty good photo for a dating service—one that would make the person look attractive—using my little Panasonic LX3 (which is identical to the Leica point and shoot that ranks #2 in the listing) or even the 8MP camera built into my Droid Incredible smart phone. What the study is unable to measure at all is the experience, skill or talent of the person taking the photos.

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