Some people don't – and for very real reasons...
I've been taking professional photographs for about thirty years. Ever since I started, I've heard a constant comment. It is always said something like "I just don't take good pictures" or "the camera just doesn't like me." Almost invariably, when this statement is uttered, everyone within earshot gives a chuckle, or immediately starts assuring the speaker that they really do look good. Sometimes it's true, but often it's not...
Some people do not photograph well – it's that simple.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever been able to compose a list of physical features that cause someone to photograph well, or photograph poorly. Game show guru Monty Hall believed that the secret was in the size of the head. He insisted that all of the hosts of his shows had large heads. Obviously, this worked for him – his unmatched success attests to that.
Hollywood stars and starlets are very persnickety about how they are photographed. There are extreme cases, such as actor Alan Ladd. Mr. Ladd was quite short, and insisted that trenches be dug throughout the sets to make him always appear taller. When a trench wouldn't do, he had stools. Barbra Streisand goes to great lengths to ensure that only one of her profiles is photographed. Note that she will always have her escort on her right arm – to cause photographers to shoot her from the left side – her best side, according to the singing actress.
If you've looked at enough photographs, and seen enough TV and movies, you've been struck by one or two anomalies. Someone who is frightfully unattractive looks great in a photograph, or, someone who is stunningly attractive looks horrible. What causes this? Is the photographer lacking skill? Bad lighting, perhaps? Did the subject have a bad day? Of course these things could be true, but there's actually a very real, constant explanation for this phenomenon: dimensions.
We humans live in a world of three dimensions: front/back • left/right • up/down. Since we have stereo vision, we can see all three of these dimensions. Using geometry, we can see how the dimensions are arrived at. A straight line is one dimension: front back. To create the second dimension, make a line at a right angle to the first line, and do so until you have a square. This is two dimensional. Now, make squares at right angles to the first square until you have a cube – that's three dimensional. Voila!
We suspicion that there are more dimensions. Using the first three dimensions as the guide, if you took a cube and made cubes at right angles to it, ultimately you'd have a 4-D cube – sometimes called a hypercube, or "tesseract." The problem is, we can't even imagine a tesseract, much less make one. It's all theoretical. Some things in geometry are hard to grasp, but a tesseract is impossible to grasp.
One of the problems we have in understanding geometry is simply this: a two dimensional object, such as a square, has absolutely NO depth (thickness) at all. This means that it is completely invisible when looked at from the side view. But what's this all got to do with why you don't look good in photographs? Simple: people are three dimensional, and photographs are only two dimensional.
Anytime that you lose a dimension, your view is penalized, per se. If I take a head-on photograph of a cube, it appears as a square. I can do some 'tricks' to fool the viewer, such as make sure there is a shadow showing that the square is actually a cube, or taking the photo at an angle which shows at least one other side of the cube. But no matter what I do, the picture will always be a two dimensional view of a three dimensional object. Needless to say, there is a substantial difference between a square and a cube. And there is a substantial difference between seeing someone and seeing a picture of that same someone.
In people, all sorts of things affect how we perceive them. Many of these things are only present because of the third dimension. The distance between the ears and the tip of the nose, the depth of the eye sockets, the distance the nose and chin protrude from the face, and so on. None of these elements of a person's appearance are necessarily discernable in a photograph, and yet they are easily seen in person.
Some people are attractive because of the 3-D elements. Others do not depend on 3-D elements so much for their attractive appearance. And some people have such a string feature that is visible in 2-D, that any loss of 3-D is not very noticeable. Paul Newman, for example, was quite famous for his striking blue eyes. Blue is not dependant on dimension. Try to find a professional photograph of comedian/actor Jimmy Durante that did not emphasize his notoriously prominent proboscis. In a frontal view, he was just a mediocre looking fellow, but when his face was photographed to accentuate his large nose, he became quite unique.
If you or someone you know doesn't photograph well, take heart. You might try getting a digital camera and shooting picture after picture – each one showing just a modest shift of the angle of the head. Don't just change the angle side-to-side, but up and down as well. Looking slightly upward changes everything, as does looking slightly to one side. Do this in full, but not direct light – such as under your porch, or on a cloudy day. Don’t use the flash! If this doesn't achieve the desired result, try the same thing, but have a prominent light source. You can do this by pointing a light directly towards yourself, or by sitting in a darkened room, with only one light source in the room.
The techniques above will help to exaggerate the illusion of 3-D in the 2-D medium of the photograph. Do this enough, in enough positions and with enough lighting changes, and you just might be able to get back those good looks the camera's 2-D limitation has stolen from you. All the best!