In the age of selfies and video calls, many of us have been startled by how different our faces can appear on camera compared to what we see in the mirror.

The phenomenon is not just a trick of the light but is rooted in the science of optics.

Two primary factors—perspective distortion and lens compression—play pivotal roles in altering facial proportions in photographs and videos.

Understanding these concepts can help demystify the discrepancies between our real-life appearance and our on-camera look.

Selfie by Cottonbro studio

What is Perspective Distortion?

Perspective distortion occurs when the camera is positioned very close to the subject.

This is often the case with selfies, where the camera (typically a smartphone held at arm's length) captures the face from a short distance.

Proximity Effect

When the camera is close, parts of the face that are nearer to the lens appear disproportionately larger than those further away.

For instance, the nose, being the closest feature, can look bigger, while the ears and the sides of the face, being farther back, can appear smaller.

This effect can make the face seem distorted, with exaggerated features that don’t align with our usual perception.

Field of View

The field of view refers to how much of the scene (or face) the camera captures. A wide-angle lens, which is common in smartphones, can capture a broad field but at the cost of increased perspective distortion.

This makes the central features (nose and eyes) appear larger, while peripheral features (cheeks and ears) seem compressed.

Woman holding fairy lights by Matheus Bertelli

Related post: When is the best time to shoot outdoor portraits?

What is the Role of Lens Compression?

Lens compression, on the other hand, is a term used to describe how the focal length of a lens affects the perceived distance between objects in the frame. Here's how different lenses alter facial proportions:

Wide-Angle Lenses

These lenses have short focal lengths and are often used in smartphones and action cameras.

While they are excellent for capturing wide scenes, they tend to distort facial features when used for close-up shots.

As mentioned, wide-angle lenses increase perspective distortion, making the nose look larger and the face appear more rounded.

Telephoto Lenses

With longer focal lengths, telephoto lenses are commonly used in portrait photography.

These lenses have the opposite effect of wide-angle lenses; they compress the space within the frame, reducing the apparent distances between objects.

This "compression" effect can make facial features appear more proportionate and flattering, as it minimizes the size differential between the nose and other features.

DSLR with telephoto lens

Practical Examples and Tips

To illustrate the impact of these phenomena, consider the following practical scenarios:

Selfies with a Smartphone

Most smartphones use wide-angle lenses for their front cameras. When taking a selfie, holding the phone too close to your face exaggerates perspective distortion, leading to an unflattering representation with a larger nose and smaller ears.

To mitigate this, try using a selfie stick or extend your arm further out. This increases the distance between your face and the camera, reducing distortion.

Portrait Photography

Professional photographers often use lenses with focal lengths between 85mm and 135mm for portraits.

These lenses provide a flattering compression effect, ensuring that facial features are proportionately represented.

When taking portraits, standing further back and using a zoom lens can help achieve a more natural look.

What is the Science Behind the Scenes?

Understanding why facial proportions look different on camera also involves a bit of technical insight into how cameras work:

Sensor Size

The size of a camera’s sensor can influence the field of view and the extent of distortion.

Smaller sensors, like those in smartphones, often require wider-angle lenses to achieve the same field of view as larger sensors, like those in DSLR cameras.

This inherently increases the potential for perspective distortion in close-up shots.

Camera aperture large opening

Aperture and Depth of Field

While not directly related to distortion, the aperture (opening of the lens) and depth of field (range of distance in focus) can affect the perceived sharpness and blur of a photograph.

Wider apertures (lower f-numbers) create a shallow depth of field, which can blur the background and draw more attention to the subject's face.

This can subtly influence how we perceive facial proportions by emphasizing certain features over others.

Woman with black off shoulder dress by Leah Newhouse

The Psychological Impact of Facial Distortion and Compression

It's also important to consider the psychological impact of seeing ourselves differently on camera:


We are accustomed to seeing our reflection in mirrors, which provides a reversed image of ourselves.

Photos and videos show us as others see us, which can be jarring due to this unfamiliar perspective.

This reversal can make facial features appear different, contributing to the perception of altered proportions.

Image Consciousness

In an era dominated by visual media, there's an increased awareness and scrutiny of one's appearance.

Understanding the technical reasons behind facial distortion can alleviate some of the anxiety associated with not looking "right" on camera.

Man smoking by Julia Sakelli

Understand Facial Proportions and Its Workaround

The way our facial proportions appear on camera is influenced by a combination of perspective distortion and lens compression, rooted in the fundamental principles of optics.

By recognizing the effects of camera distance and lens type, we can better understand and mitigate the discrepancies between our real-life appearance and our on-camera look.

Whether you're taking a selfie, participating in a video call, or having a professional portrait taken, being mindful of these factors can help ensure you present your best face forward.

Aim Orallo