Stars in front of the camera: Rules on how to be photogenic

Picture Perfect

Stars in front of the camera: Rules on how to be photogenic
Stars in front of the camera: Rules on how to be photogenic

Not everyone and everything looks as attractive through a camera lens as stars and celebrities do. Those who are fortunate enough to have a camera-friendly appearance are described as photogenic. However: Some of us might be blessed with a natural attractiveness which seems to escape the camera lens, making us look a little less than fetching in photos, on film or video. This article explains why.

As the saying goes, the camera never lies. However, that being said, there is the odd inconspicuous-looking person who really shines through a lens. The camera works its magic on these people,  transforming them into stars and enchantingly charismatic personalities. Cameramen talk about how the camera loves an actor or actress, meaning they have the gift of being photogenic.

In film and video, as well as in photography, there are a series of tried and tested rules and tricks that can have a positive influence on the people or objects a camera is pointed at:

Photogenics: Starting point

Here it’s not about “who” is in front of a camera – be it in moving or still images – but instead about “what” the camera can do for the person standing in front of it. The basic rules of image composition also apply when it comes to perceiving a subject matter as photogenic or not. They are as follows:

  • Humans or animals – essentially all living objects – are always more appealing to the camera and easier to portray than lifeless subjects. Anyone who has participated in the filming of so-called Pack-shots (shots of a product and its packaging) on commercial film shoots, could write a book about the struggles of making an inanimate object look good on film. Mind you: film and video can like no other medium (apart from photography perhaps) make static objects come to life and make a lifeless subject seem more appealing;
  • Unique, rare images and unseen visual worlds thanks to their novelty factor have a stronger impact on the viewer than images (either filmed or from archive footage) that might seem familiar;
  • Movement within the image creates dynamic and is always more appealing that the inanimate, because (as it symbolises life and liveliness) our human perception has a positive response to it;
  • Images with a clearly recognizable foreground, middle ground and background are always more visually pleasing than images without depth.

Whether it’s a living or dead object, original takes or copies, static or dynamic subject matters with or without a foreground, middle ground or background – in terms of formal requirements they are all subsequently processed by our seeing habits and the psychology of perception. With that in mind, the five principles behind image effectiveness are as follows:

Image effectiveness adheres to these 5 rules:

1. Simplicity

Simplicity, clarity and order are prerequisites for photogenic images. The moving image can outshine all other pictorial representations with its ability to tell a story across various frames and through composition and editing can break down the subject matters, not only with regard to content but also visual effectiveness.

2. Image Contrast

Contrast doesn’t only apply when it comes to the narrative structure, but also in the work of a cameraman. By differentiating between light and dark, image contrast helps to make objects appear more three-dimensional, as long as the contrast isn’t set too high and doesn’t contradict the way we naturally see.

3. Size and Shape

Close-ups – another storytelling specialty in film and video – are more effective than wide-angle, long shots. One of the reasons close-ups are so effective is because sections of the image are made up of fewer but clearer shapes that simultaneously appear larger in size.

4. Varying Focus

Varying focal length and the sharpness of details amid an out of focus surrounding helps our eyes and brain to focus more effectively. Our brain interprets this visual tool – of focusing on relevant content – as attractive.

5. Repetition in formal composition

Repetition of singular photogenic elements in an image or a scene strengthens the effect of unity in an image and thereby makes images and takes appear more appealing.

To look like the Stars

Those of us who want to look good in front of the camera can therefore rest assured: There are certain tricks of the trade that can make you attractive on film and help you determine what is photogenic – and of not, how it can be made to look more appealing.

But keep in mind that even the most gifted photographer can’t influence the face or body standing in front of them. Beauty unfortunately, isn’t always in the eye of the camera-holder.

When people call you photogenic, they’re actually trying to tell you that you look uglier than your pics. Ritu Ghatourey

If you want to find out what image effectiveness and being photogenic means for you, you can test the visual attractiveness of your own face online and for free: Researchers at the ETH University in Zurich have developed an algorithm especially for this purpose. But keep in mind, your appearance is judged through a neural network on the basis…of a photograph. And this photograph, like all visual communication, depends on the 5 aforementioned rules being taken into account.

Greeting card from Rita Hayworth for Condor Films (c)

Comment on photo: Rita Hayworth (* 1918, †1987) is regarded as one of the biggest female filmstars of all time. The actress, born as Margarita Carmen Cansino of spanish origin, was schooled by Hollywood like many other movie stars of her time, on how to look good on camera. Despite mutual interest by both Rita Hayworth and Condor Films the opportunity to work together unfortunately never came about.

© filmpuls, translated by Nina Kaelin

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Articles by the Videothink team are collaboratively-written by more than one member of the videothink publishing team.

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