If you've ever looked at a photograph and asked, "Oh god, do I really look like that?" the answer is almost certainly no. Nobody looks like they do in photos. Not even professional models. Especially not professional models.

Photography is two-dimensional. It cuts both depth and time out of your perception of the subject. It's hard to judge how quickly things curve towards or away from the camera, and it's easy to snap the shutter at the one instant, right in the middle of a movement, that looks bizarre and awkward. You need a lot of practice to light things such that the shadows suggest the shape that's actually there -- or at least the shape you want -- and you still spend a lot of time sifting through proofs and throwing away all the ones that look weird. I routinely get back lots of 300 proofs from a shoot, of which like ten are worth showing to the outside world.

Most of what makes people cringe about pictures is that they don't look like the image they see in the mirror. Part of this is that you're slightly asymmetrical -- everyone is -- and your face is flipped from what you get in a reflection. It makes your brain twitch something awful until you get used to it. The rest is that, under the kind of random lighting you usually see in, say, candid shots from the bar, your body looks like a shapeless blob. You undoubtedly look perfectly fine in real life, where people have depth perception and can see the shadows shift as you move around, but whatever pattern of reflection the camera has caught isn't an accurate reflection of that.

You can see an excellent demonstration of this phenomenon here, in Gracie Hagen's online gallery for "Illusions of the Body". (NSFW for artstic nudity.) The left photos are done in a variety of standard modeling poses, under standard two source (or source-and-reflector) portrait lighting, commonly used because they give a reasonably 'true' idea of what the model looks like without producing a lot of weird shadows or distracting artifacts. The right photos are done under the same lighting, with the model facing a different way, blocking light with parts of their bodies, and slouched over in the kind of way people often are in real life. If nothing else, this should illustrate exactly why people keep bugging you to stand up straight.

When you're talking about professional photography, there's also often a lot of paint involved. People have this idea that to be a model, you have to be absolutely flawless. Ha. No. Casting directors will generally ignore things like pores, dimples, light to moderate acne or acne scars, rosacea, under-eye circles or bagging, crow's feet, cellulite, moles, freckles, scars, tattoos, and any number of other things that are in any way more malleable than your basic skeletal structure. They just paint over anything they don't like, either on you beforehand or on the proofs afterward. I laugh at those bottles in the drugstore that claim to be "photo-finish foundation". What they actually put on you for photos, no matter what you look like when they start, is three or four layers thick, and can be scratched with a fingernail.

There is a specific 'look' used in makeup in professional model photography. It's something people aren't really aware of, because it's so pervasive that it's effectively become part of the medium -- Dove's 'Real Women' ad campaign looks makeup-free to most people just because it doesn't occur to them that shoot makeup could look like anything other than what you see on supermodels or socialites like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. It's not, as you can see from this backstage video. They do show the models without makeup here -- shiny faces mean no foundation has been spackled on them yet -- but the actual campaign involves about as much airbrushing as anything else does.

In contrast, here are some before and after photos from makeup artist Vadim Andreev. The women look perfectly fine, if ordinary, in the before shots, but in the after shots they suddenly strike you as professional model, even though you don't recognize any of them from any kind of media work. He's decorated them with the specific style of makeup you're used to seeing in ads and on the red carpet.

I might also add that that is a hell of a lot of pigment they're all wearing around the eyes. The entire reason eye primer was invented was because you need a layer of gesso under that much eye shadow, or that shit will crack and flake off when you blink. Most of them are wearing gel or liquid eyeliner as well, which feels utterly bizarre the first few times you use it. The stuff is basically tempera paint using pigments and binder cleared by the FDA for use around mucous membranes. If you're ever doing ad-hoc theatrical makeup for Halloween or some such, eye pigments are safe for use anywhere on the body, and gel eyeliner/mascara are great for doodling on yourself. You can paint your eyelashes weird colors with liquid eyeliner, if you're careful. Lip pigments are also safe, with the main difference that they're allowed to contain larger flakes of mica or glitter that might not be so comfortable if they flaked off and got into your eyes.

There is also much to be said for posing. It starts to become habit after a while -- Kate Moss, f'r instance, is making standard fashion model sexyface in all of her wedding photos. Buzzfeed circulated some awesome photos of burlesque dancers in and out of costume a while ago. In their street clothes, they're standing like normal humans; in their pasties and sequins, they're hamming it up as performers. I can personally vouch for the fact that the burlesquerie looks radically different in street clothes -- I knew one girl for weeks before I finally recognized the cute little upturned nose holding her glasses up as belonging to the same lady I'd last seen tearing around the theater with Pop Tarts glued to her boobs.