It's not you, it's your photos

Updated: Apr 15

Dating apps keep getting blame for reducing complex individuals to their appearance. I understand how it can be frustrating for many people: after all, you may be a kind, intelligent and hardworking individual, but what's the point? According to the internet, 99% of success on dating apps depends on appearance, and you're just not that attractive, so may as well give up.

The fundamental mistake I find in this train of thought is believing your photo is a faithful record of the entirety of your appearance. Nothing could be further from the truth! The same person could get either a wonderful picture, or an absolute garbage one, depending on the photographer. From personal experience, putting some work into getting the best photos pays off extremely well. Compared to, let's say, exercising – another common dating advice – taking good photos is much quicker and cheaper, but has an enormous effect on match rate, making it a low-hanging fruit for you to pick. Don't let your dating profile be limited by the quality of your photos!

(Sidenote: yes, I am aware that many photography genres and styles deliberately break conventions to achieve a certain effect. In this post I'm talking specifically about "genre" of dating profile photos, with the quality of a photo being determined simply as how effective it is at getting good matches)

As a photographer and an admin on a dating advice Discord server, I get frequent requests for tips on how to make a good dating app photo gallery. My advice would always stay the same: get someone with a camera to hang out and do photos for you, be it a friend or a local Instagram photographer. But there's a more nuanced question here: how to recognize your dating app photos are not good enough?

One obvious answer would be Photofeeler: a straightforward and easy to use site where people rate each other's photos on multiple metrics. If you upload your photo and it gets average marks, it probably means you need to put more work in your dating photos. But what exactly is the work needed?

I'm probably not going to explain basics of photography here. If you know them, you can take good photos for other people, but learning photography just so you can have some good photos of yourself strikes me as very inefficient. Instead, I'm going to point out some common mistakes men's dating photos have – and if you notice your photos have those too, you may need to improve. Don't be upset if you find your photos are bad! All of the following photos are mine, and I was once bad, too.

1. Be the subject of your own photo

I get that if you're not a photographer, most of your photos are actually of something else – tourist attractions, exotic animals, burning buildings – with you on a foreground. That's not going to work as a good dating photo though. In photography, the term subject loosely represents the object of primary interest in the photo, the place where viewer's eyes are going to look at first. Sure, take photos in cool locations – but make sure you are the most salient feature of the shot. Don't look like you were photobombing your own travel picture.

2. Focus on the eyes

When shooting photos, you probably noticed that some parts of the photo are sharp and the others are blurry. To oversimplify, the sharpest part of the photo is called the focal point. You can change the focal point by adjusting focus on your camera, either manually with a ring or by tapping the touchscreen, or automatically with eye and face detection. In a portrait photo, the focal point should be on the eyes of the person. Ensure you don't miss the focus: either by setting your camera in the continuous autofocus mode with eye detection, or by adding light if it's too dark for the autofocus to function.

3. Clean your lens

Blooming lights and decreased contrast are the signs your camera lens is due for some cleaning. Use glasses cleaning spray and a microfiber cloth – or, in a pinch, breath on your lens and wipe it with the side of your t-shirt. You can see the typical "dirty lens" look on two photos below.

4. Don't face the edge of the photo

Composition tip: when looking to the side, leave some open space in the direction you're looking and moving. This is less of a concern with portrait orientation photos where you will tend to occupy the center of the photo. However, landscape orientation photos require you to pay attention where you look – if you're at the left side of the photo, you should look in the direction of the right side of the photo, and vice versa.

5. Crop the open space above your head

Too much headroom above your head makes you look shorter on the photo. The ideal amount, I would say, is 5-10% of the photo should be the headroom – or about a fist's width when taking a portrait from the waist up.

6. Slightly squinch your eyes

Eyes are the windows to the soul, and it's not recommended to leave your windows wide open. A man with wide open puppy eyes looks naïve and childish, whereas the squinch projects genuine happiness (with a smile) or mysterious badassery (without). I recommend practicing slightly squinching your lower eyelid in front on the mirror to get a better idea how well you can control your appearance.

7. Touch the roof of your mouth with the back of your tongue.

Flexing your tongue will help accentuate the jawline and keep the chin from hanging down. Try to remember to do this when taking photos from the side. Slightly rotating the head towards the camera to hide the chin will help too.

8. Set your lens aperture to be as wide as it can get

Aperture is a hole in the middle of the lens that can change its size, through which light enters the camera.

  • Wider aperture such as f/2.8 makes out-of-focus parts of the image blurrier

  • Narrower aperture like f/8 makes background and foreground details sharper

It's not a hard rule, but if you're not a skilled photographer, it becomes much easier to take portrait photos at apertures of f/1.8 or above: the background turns into a pleasant blurry mush of colors and bokeh balls and is much less of a consideration. With this setting, you could take appealing photos even at your grandma's house. Be careful though - when taking group photos, this can cause some people to become blurry. Consult with your doctor first.

9. Walk back, then zoom in

Focal length of the camera lens is basically its "zoom" level.

  • Wide lenses, such as the default option on your smartphone, would have a focal length of 24mm or less

  • Telephoto lenses with a focal length of 300mm or more are often used by wildlife and sports photographers

Taking portrait photos with a wide lens is tricky and requires skill to look good. Because so many background details fill the frame, it requires careful thought and sense of style to make it look appealing. This genre of photos is often called "environmental portrait" and it is not very easy for the newcomers. Besides, many inexperienced shooters tend to come closer to the model to compensate for the "zoomed out" look, and it distorts the face, because the nose is now twice as close to the camera as the ears are. What I would recommend instead is to create bigger distance between the photographer and the subject, and then zoom in closer by choosing a lens with a 50mm focal length or larger. This makes background details larger and blurrier, and allows the viewer to focus on subject's face. And it just looks more "cinematic" and not like a smartphone snapshot.

I hope I could be helpful here and inspire you to improve things that are under your control. I suggest you take a look at all your dating app photos and see if they can be better. Good match rate depends heavily on your photos, and if you're not happy with your dating app experience, photo quality would be the first thing to work on. Personally, I got an unbelievable boost in my online dating life once I updated my photo gallery – I hope, one day you will too!

Post your photos below and I'll give you my feedback. Honorable mention to whoever posts the photo breaking the most rules.

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