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Stop using filters, you’re not a Disney character


I was chatting to a friend who told me a story about how her much younger cousin had escaped on holiday to somewhere tropical as an antidote to this whole pandemic thing. Sounds pretty idyllic, I said. Except apparently, the entire trip was (according to the cousin) “a disaster” because the girl’s poor boyfriend was so terrible at taking photos that she didn’t end up with a “single good photo” of herself for her social media. The photos were so bad apparently, that even a beauty filter couldn’t save them!

Like the holiday, that relationship is probably doomed, and not because of inferior photography skills. That’s apparently where we are at now as a species, with a large number of people obsessing over their looks and not wanting to post anything but perfect-looking, heavily enhanced and filtered images.

The effect of social media and these filters on young people has been widely reported, with an internal report by Meta being leaked that they were fully aware of the negative impacts on mental health. And it’s not just independent apps or filters inside social media. The iPhone XS was launched with skin smoothing filters as the default camera mode, and most smartphones since then have followed suit, particularly those made by Chinese or Taiwanese brands.

Photographer Anna Gunn noticed this when she unboxed and tried out her new Poco F3 phone. “Photos are programmed with beauty mode,” she writes. “The more this is allowed and normalised the [more the] world view on women’s beauty becomes distorted.

And it’s not just skin smoothing we are talking about, as Anna mentions. Removing wrinkles is one thing, but altering the size and shape of features is definitely going another step. And let’s not even get started on the fact that some phones come with skin-lightening features, surely a complete no-no in today’s all-skin-tones-are-beautiful mindset? Again this could be simply a symptom of different cultural attitudes towards beauty and variations in what is considered acceptable around the world in terms of retouching. I personally have noticed a difference between my European and American clients in the amount of enhancement they expect.

Instagram’s in-app filters at work

But none of us it seems is immune from this slight feeling of inadequacy once you’ve used these filters. “Even I, as a 40-year-old mum, am like – oh god my real-life nose is a bit ugly, and my lips are getting thin…” a friend told me after using the inbuilt Instagram facial enhancement filters.

It’s not just people identifying as women who get filtered, often it’s the default setting. Here’s our Editor-in-Chief looking very smooth-skinned after applying the setting on his phone!

TikTok-er Chanelle Venes (who is naturally beautiful and certainly needs no digital enhancing) told me that although she is generally happy with how she looks in real life, she uses the filters because she thinks she looks less attractive without them.

“Using filters distorts how I feel about my appearance,”she says. “Some filters make my nose smaller and my lips bigger which then makes me feel that I need to get bigger lips or a smaller nose,” Chanelle continues, “It’s very saddening, and so many women look nothing like their photos.” Indeed, plastic surgeons have reported an uptick over the past few years of clients coming to them wanting to look more like their filtered selves.

Chanelle raises a very good point. “I am happy with how I look in real life,” she says, “however I feel cameras on phones can sometimes not be flattering. If I take a photo from a poor angle or with bad lighting it will make me look worse, and filters will help remedy that.”

That does raise the question of whether the excessive use of filters and enhancing images is actually a combined result then of poor photography skills, the type of lenses installed in phones, plus the physical act of taking a selfie. Generally, a wide-angle lens close up to the subject will result in more distortion. As we are holding our phones at arm’s length, it’s not in fact far enough away to take a photograph with an accurate representation of what we look like. Some people do have features that look good like this, but in my experience, most of us do not.

Professional photographers and retouchers know this. Most portrait photographers will select a lens that flatters their subject’s face, unless the wide-angle distortion is a deliberate stylistic decision. Most of my clients want some degree of retouching done to their images, but at the same time they don’t want it to look obviously retouched.

Professional retoucher Lou Smith says that she likes to embrace the beauty in individuality. “I never remove freckles or moles, never re-shape, never thin down,” she says. “I only retouch to remove blemishes that appeared on the day of the shoot so I don’t make anyone look like anyone other than themselves.” Realism and not obliterating skin detail is definitely something that most retouchers and photographers aspire towards usually!

It’s an important detail, and one to bear in mind if using these filters. Being a somewhat geriatric millennial this culture of excessively using filters and beauty apps has pretty much passed me by. I know what I look like, and generally I’m ok with that. But I was curious to see if I’d still look like myself, and how using a more extreme application like FaceApp would make me feel. Would it distort my perception of self or just make me look weird? Would I become a catfish overnight? So I broke my reluctance to appear in front of the (backwards facing) lens to find out.

I probably don’t need to explain which image is the 100 percent real me! Obviously, the image on the left, is make-up free me after a long day, in not great lighting, sitting at my desk. Believe it or not, this was one of the lowest settings of filters available on the app. It sort of makes me look like a strange Disney character wearing a fleece. Definitely not real looking, but actually quite representative of a lot of influencer images you’ll see if you scroll through Instagram or TikTok these days. But how did it make me feel?

I’m normally confident and regularly go out without wearing make-up, but honestly this image on the right is making me feel slightly insecure. Now I’m wondering if I should in fact make more of an effort, and I don’t like how it’s doing that. I’m also slightly disappointed that the app didn’t tidy up the junk in the background for me!

So after all this, what’s the answer? The phone manufacturers are responding to demand, the social media giants don’t give a monkey’s about their user’s mental health, and these third-party apps are benefitting from having large numbers of real faces uploaded to them every day which they can then use for data collection.

Artist and activist Emma Shapiro believes she has the answer, and that answer ironically is Instagram. “The body positivity movement is an asset,” she writes. “We need to begin to see social media as a performative space, and not the live-journal/real-life thing that we experienced it as in the beginning.”

Can we normalise getting old and being beautiful in age, where wrinkles are looked on with fondness and gratitude?

– Anna Gunn

Ultimately then, we need to stop using filters and learn to embrace what we look like, even if we don’t fit the confines of traditional beauty norms. As photographers and retouchers, it is literally our job to help people see themselves with greater confidence. Great lighting, posing and some careful retouching can make all the difference in making someone feel good about their appearance, without running the risk of entering fantasy realms.

In most cases when I photograph somebody I fall a little bit in love with them, even if it’s just for the 30 minutes during the shoot. Their personality shines through, and it’s that lens we need to view each other and ourselves through. As Emma so neatly puts it, “the antidote to Instagram’s toxicity is already literally in our hands.”

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