For example, my right eye is about 1 mm below my left eye and it isn't obvious when someone meets me in person. But in photos it's pretty obvious that it's discovered just seconds after looking at the photo. I think in the photo it's about a few mm below the next eye!

What is the reason behind this?

  • 19
    \$\begingroup\$ Photos don't move; people do. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5 at 12:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wonder if this effect is related to the phenomenon of The Simpsons characters looking strange when facing forward - in real life you are seen from all angles and not exclusively from the front, and at other angles any asymmetry may be disguised enough that it forms less of an impression? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6 at 0:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I used to think one of my ears was lower than the other before I sustained nerve damage at 45 and X-rays showed that the spine in my neck was being held in a curve by neck muscles in their relaxed state. Now looking at the photo in the accepted answer: the knot in her hair is left of center, and lines between her eyebrows, eyes and ears all titl downwards to the viewer's left. Her left shoulder is drooped, possibly to compensate for neck posture. I am not a doctor or physiotherapist but joined to suggest checking your own face asymmetry to see if there are additional tell-tale signs. Best! \$\endgroup\$
    – traktor
    Sep 6 at 4:18
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Interpretation of faces in the mind seems very complex: When I look in the mirror with a neural look, my mouth looks somewhat friendly to me, but whenever I try to make a self-portrait with same look, it always looks less friendly to me. Also the problem described by the OP is not just limited to eyes: Noses are rarely exactly vertical, and the mouth is rarely horizontal, and the ears also don't line up horizontally; so I always wondered how to align a portrait: By eyes, by nose, by ears, or by mouth... \$\endgroup\$
    – U. Windl
    Sep 6 at 7:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am glad to see this question, because this always irked me - one of my eyes is very obviously lower than the other on photos, but I don't think anyone normally notices. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6 at 14:04

7 Answers 7


It's very simple,

  • In real life the referents are three x, y, and z while in a photograph there are only two x and y

  • In real life, there are no limit frames of reference beyond those that our 3D vision allows, while in a photography everything is within a Cartesian frame

A frame and two Cartesian axes are sufficient elements for each interior object to be sensitive to being compared under these same parameters.

enter image description here

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Why isn't this obvious in mirror. Mirror image also have just two axes. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6 at 10:26
  • 18
    \$\begingroup\$ @SnackExchange: No, you can see 3D in a mirror, too! \$\endgroup\$
    – psmears
    Sep 6 at 10:41
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ An image reflected in a mirror has depth. \$\endgroup\$
    – Danielillo
    Sep 6 at 10:53
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ @SnackExchangePerhaps it is the difference between mirror and photo? You are used to see yourself in the mirror and consider it normal and perfectly fine that your (in the mirror) left eye is slightly lower. Now on a photo it is your right eye that is slightly lower. What you actually observe is the difference to your memorized mirror image, so the change in eye offset doubles ... (an dsimply does not mathc your long term experience with your mirror image). -- In other words: Did you try with a refelcted version of a photo? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6 at 12:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ The time axis might also matters. A person is always moving a bit and you are always moving relative to them. If you extract frames from a movie, it is easy to find ones that "don't look like the person" or include transient facial expressions that look strange. Also, movement can play a big role in depth perception. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 8 at 13:47

I can't believe nobody has said this yet, but the most relevant reason is very simple: (most) photos are mirror images of the way we usually see ourselves! Which is to say, they're the way that you actually look like to other people, but your own self-image is based on how you look in a mirror.

You're accustomed to the minor asymmetries in your mirror image, so when you look at a photo all those asymmetries now seem twice as large (and in the "wrong direction"). Meanwhile, it is unlikely that anyone else sees anything wrong with the photo because it shows you just the way they see and know you! And they're accustomed to any minor facial asymmetries and don't really notice them in either real life or a photo.

This is one reason why people do tend to prefer selfies to photos taken by others. When you take a selfie the live view on your phone is of course mirrored to make it intuitive to frame the photo – but most phones also store the actual photo as a mirror image, both in order to match the preview and because people prefer how they look in a mirrored photo because that's the look they're familiar with.


There are two reasons in my opinion:

  1. Inaccurate reconstruction of transformed faces (tilt, perspective)
  2. Lack of focus on symmetry in real life interactions

Inaccurate transformation

I don't think we actually have a precise idea of what a face looks like when looking from the sides, or when it is tilted or moving. If I go to the bathroom, put my head perfectly vertically and look straight in the mirror, I can definitely see that my eyes, like yours, are not at the same level. But I only first noticed from an ID portrait photo. Normally, when looking into bathroom mirror I am looking for pimples, messy hair and stuff, not geometry.

For an extreme example, consider this photo of Adele, from her album 25:

enter image description here

Looks normal? Well what if I flip it correctly?

enter image description here

Woah, pretty creepy, right?

To a less extreme degree, unless you're looking straight at a persons face, you're simply not able to see even blatant imperfections.

Lack of focus

The second thing is, when talking with people, or taking pictures while they are talking to each other, you're mainly focused on their expressions and can miss a lot of other things. I think good portrait photographers actually have to unlearn this - I took a LOT of pictures that I thought would look fine or even great, but turned to look plain weird when I uploaded them to my PC.

I even have a philosophy around this when it comes to editing - if someone has a pimple or scratch that distracts from the portrait, I think removing it actually makes the photo more authentic. Because a scratch or a blemish is not what the people saw back then when interacting with the person.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In the second picture the lower lip looks very bigger than the upper one! \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6 at 15:02
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ @SnackExchange - the eyes & mouth are inverted in the first picture, which is then simply rotated in the second so we can see what it looks like the other way up. This is a psychological 'defect' in human facial recognition, known as the Thatcher Effect \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 6 at 18:17
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Tetsujin I think the second picture is flipped, not rotated. See the ear on the right side. Thank for the link to the Thatcher Effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – StefanH
    Sep 6 at 21:06
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Damn you for tricking me with that upside-down photo. But damn, if the effect isn't perfectly demonstrated. I didn't even notice that her eyes and mouth were individually un-inverted in the first image. Bravo. \$\endgroup\$
    – scottbb
    Sep 6 at 23:15
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Tetsujin I was actually trying to find the Thatcher effect (I forgot the name), but best I could find was Adeles use of it. My point here was more speculative - if this effect exists, presumably smaller rotations, flips and tilts can also hide things from us. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 7 at 8:18

Most images we take are OK even though they exhibit perspective distortion. Portraiture is an exception. If the camera is worked in too close or the lens used is too short as to focal length, perspective distortion is likely. The nose will be rendered too big and the ears too small. This facial distortion can be insignificant or severe. However, when it comes to human face, people won’t tolerate much. They likely say, “I break the camera” or “I am not photogenic”.

Now keep in mind, we view ourselves in the mirror and our friend’s close-up and this is a distorted view. Since we see with a combination of eye and brain, we naturally dismiss most perspective errors, in other words “we see what we want to see”.

When viewing a photograph, this is an unnatural presentation of a face, we won’t tolerate much perspective distortion.

A successful portrait maker is either skilled or just plain lucky if the portrait is first-rate. There are no rules in art, you are free to follow your heart but– The skilled portrait photographer uses a moderate telephoto that forces him/her to step back. This is the combination that renders the face appropriately.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, most portraits made in the "pre-biometric ages" were no done exactly from the front, so that effect was less noticeably I guess. \$\endgroup\$
    – U. Windl
    Sep 6 at 7:21
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The nose thing can be quite serious. When they were making ID card photos at my job, the guy used an iphone some 40cm from my face. On the card, it loos as if I am bloated and the ears are not even visible. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6 at 14:06

Your face isn't actually symmetrical (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_symmetry) and you're used to seeing one version of it. The version you're used to see is the reflection of your face (i.e. in a mirror). But a photo represents you as seen by other people (i.e. not the reflection).

Vision as experienced by us is an extremely "post-processed" sense: what your eyes perceive is much less detailed than what you are led to believe. It is also quite energy-intensive. And as with everything else governed by evolution, conserving energy is important. So your brain is incredibly lazy when it comes to vision.

As a result, seeing your own familiar reflection triggers your brain to avoid analyzing it in detail. It will be quickly filed into the "doesn't require further analysis" pile.

But if you see your own face as it really is, your brain is wholly unprepared for this: we've had good enough vision to recognize faces for a few dozen million years, but we've only had sufficiently detailed reproduction technology for a few hundred (depends on whether you count the possibility of an extremely faithful painting). Before then, this was simply impossible.

So, an explanation could be that the unfamiliar not-reflection face makes your brain pay a lot more attention because it is not what was expected. Which then triggers you to see details that you didn't otherwise.

This is similar to how you'll be much better at counting letters/words/symbols when reading a language you don't understand. Your brain isn't used to the task, and so doesn't attempt to use a lazy heuristic.


This below is pure speculation!

For me this is more like a psychological case. On the photos you have kind of artificial horizon in form of edge of image, paper, computer monitor. And observer "compare" horizontality of elements on photo with this horizon. And when see the same subject in live observer (usually) do not have this horizon so can't "compare" and "see" such details.


In addition to the other great answers already shared here, there is the following psychological aspect to consider...

When you are face-to-face with someone, you are focused on the present situation, centered around your communication with them as another individual

You are aware that they are also observing you, as part of an exchange happening in real-time. So as far as your cognitive bandwidth is concerned, this interaction takes precedence over picking apart their facial imperfections.

More on what's going on in our brains when we talk to people:

On the other hand, if there's something exceptionally unusual about their appearance, this feature could actually distract you from the conversation. ("Oh... should I pretend not to notice his eyepatch? He definitely notices that I notice. Should I just ask about it to get past the awkward phase? No, it's gotta be a touchy subject. Note to self: do not make any pirate references... Maybe he will bring it up first, so I don't have to. No luck so far... stuck in awkward limbo.") It can be anything, but you get the idea.

When you focus your attention somewhere for an abnormal amount of time, the other person will likely take notice. One example is the classic “my eyes are up here” situation. Another is the guy who uncomfortably notices people frequently glancing at his receding hairline, possibly without the conversation partner even being aware they are staring rudely.

When you're looking at a person face-to-face, there's an elaborate communication situation taking place, full of social cues, and you're observing the other person's face within the context of the situation.

But what about when we're not looking at someone face-to-face, but perhaps glancing at them as they walk past?

If you're looking at someone from an arbitrary angle where their line of sight is not focused on you, you likewise won't be seeing their face straight-on - and this means you are once again unlikely to notice any finely detailed asymmetry in their facial features.

When it's a photograph

When you're just looking at a photo of somebody, you know that photo can't stare back at you. Because of this, you just scan over it like any other image. Well, maybe a face is a little different from just any other image, because our brains have a dedicated region for recognizing faces called the fusiform face area (FFA).

Paradoxically, our brains do expect some degree of asymmetry in faces. This is what makes photrealistic human faces one of the most challenging subjects to create if you are a 3D artist. (Yes, I know this statement is becoming obsolete as I type these words because AI even generates 3D models now, but it's still not perfect, and by "3D artist" I mean in the traditional sense, not relying heavily on AI.)

In short, knowing we're looking at a face will make our brains take notice, but being immersed in the interaction will also necessitate that we overlook some small facial details, to instead focus on having effective in-person social interactions.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Of course, the facial imperfections that are obvious in face-to-face interactions (like the mentioned eyepatch) are big enough to be observed. On the other hand, there are also very small imperfections (like what I mentioned in my question) that aren't observed in face-to-face meetings. But they are obvious in photos. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 15 at 9:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, in a photo you don't have to scan it with your eyes to observe imperfections. Scanning take a few seconds to be done. But you can observe the imperfection in the photo just 0-1 second after looking at it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 15 at 9:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.