How to look good on dating websites: ask a photographer

This is quite exciting: dating site OkCupid took half a million profile pictures, asked three million people to choose between two randomly chosen examples, and ran the stats on the resulting photos’ EXIF data.

I know!

No really. This is seriously interesting. Even taking into account my current state of mind. Because there’s lots of advice in photography, particularly when it comes to portraits, and it all seems valid and reasonable and important until you show a bunch of pictures to somebody and they immediately reach for the dodgy one. The one where you had no choice but to fire the flash in someone’s face. The one where you’re shooting a woman from below because some dude was in the way and that was your only option. The one where the subject is blurred, but it’s the only shot you have of that particular moment. And this obviously dubious photograph turns out to be someone’s favourite shot, because it captures something personal to them that you couldn’t possibly know. This seems to happen all the time. And you start to wonder how important all the advice really is.

I once saw a photographer’s email signature that said “photographers like composition, non-photographers like smiles”, and sometimes I wonder if that’s the best tip I’ve ever heard. What’s needed is some actual data. And OkCupid is the perfect place to look, as dating profiles are modern portraits’ raison d’être.

I’ll skip to the conclusion: it’s good news for photographers. Everything that should be true about portrait photography turns out to actually be true. OkCupid have proper analysis, but I’ll unashamedly yoink the headlines:

  • SLRs take more attractive photos than point & shoots. Camera phones are a long way behind1.
  • Direct flash sucks.
  • Low apertures (which blur the background) are seriously effective.
  • People look better during the golden hour – the soft, golden light just after sunrise and just before sunset.

None of which is a big surprise to portrait photographers, but this should be a big deal. The evidence up to now has always been anecdotal. Actual numbers = win. OkCupid’s methodology seems reasonable, with the standard internet-survey caveats, and the numbers are enormous. It’s nice when the humanities can play in grown-up world for a bit.

There’s lots more you could do with such a dataset. Another classic portrait tip is never, ever to use a wide-angle lens2 as it makes people’s noses look huge, amongst other distortions. This seems true, but I’d love to see the data. However, taking into account different sensor sizes would be a nightmare, and I can see why OkCupid didn’t go there. Similarly the actual distance from the lens might be interesting, as would white balance (does it make a difference if men have a reddish hue?) and colour analysis generally. I’d also like to see how this gels with the previous – much more surprising – analysis which showed the much derided ‘MySpace angle’ (taken by holding your camera above your head and looking sultry) is the most successful style of profile shot for women by a long way, even when you control for cleavage.

Also: I wonder if single photographers are ahead of the curve. Hmmm.

Anyway –  it seems that, on average, the classic rules of portraiture are valid. This obviously doesn’t mean anything for the quirky outlier photos that strike an unknown chord, but it suggests confirmation bias is perhaps playing a large role in my memory – I don’t remember the times when people like the photo that follows all the rules, because obviously they would. Portrait photographers can get a ‘safe’ shot from the old formulas – then you can start to play 🙂

…oh, and apparently iPhone users have more sex3. The numbers don’t lie, guys.

  1. well… []
  2. that said, wide-angle close-ups are incredibly common once you start looking, though they’re not necessarily as flattering []
  3. reads along graph to his age…traces upwards to the line…moves across to average number of sexual partners…oh fuck off []

The perils of paid-for dating websites

The always interesting OkCupid blog has just posted a damning analysis of its rival dating sites. The thesis is that paid-for dating websites are extremely likely to be a waste of money, due to the ramifications of their business model.

According to them, most profiles on such sites will inherently be held by non-subscribers, who can’t reply to your message. As a result, the average man has a 93% change of ‘flirting into the void’ on Match, and can expect a reply to only 1 in 100 messages, due to the probability of contacting a non-subscriber profile multiplied by the general 30% success rate. OkCupid figure this out using Match and eHarmony’s own numbers, too. As they admit from the outset, free dating websites suffer from the inherent problems of women receiving too many messages and men receiving too few. But less so, given the dead-profiles problem, and at least you’re not paying for it.

Of course, OkCupid are biased and would want you to ignore their rivals. I’m a little skeptical of some stats in the post – being 12.4 times more likely to get married if you’re not on a dating website is a bit odd – and I’ll be interested to see any rebuttal from Match or eHarmony. But it seems to hold together, as far as I can tell. Ouch.

I don’t have any problem with online dating, and know lots of people trying it, and some who’ve had big successes. I’m not on any sites, though, as for the first time in my adult life I’m neither daydreaming about anybody, getting over someone, or actively looking. It’s just not something I’m finding appealing at the moment. I’m just not very good at any of that stuff. Maybe I’ll feel differently at some point, or maybe I’ll happen to meet someone with whom it’s all different, but I’m genuinely perfectly content on my own for the time being. It’s a nice feeling.

Surplus of A

Dating site has more Andrews than any other male name. Why is this? The obvious explanation is that potential romantic partners are too intimidated by our awesomeitudemacity to ask us out. It’s a curse1.

Alternatively, there might just be a lot of Andrews, although this seems unlikely.

Anyway, you too can help reduce the Andrew deficit with the “Random Andrew Generator”, which links single women directly to the Andrew of their dreams. A fully-functional example of this can be found here.

  1. though it could be worse []

Chickens roosting and all that

Before November started, and I remembered how much time NaNoWriMo takes up, I was considering signing up at I was briefly public on it last year, then chickened out and cancelled within the 7-day trial period. I had two people ‘wink’ at me, but given the complete lack of any similarity in personality (they both smoked heavily, for starters) I think they were the equivalent of flickr users who click ‘add as contact’ on everybody they see. I went back to the site a couple of weeks ago and found my profile was still in the system, just not visible to the outside world. I remember liking over other sites because there were plenty of areas for free text – other sites just had star sign, favourite animal and whether you liked Big Brother – and I’d filled in most of them. I went through it and tidied up the language, removed comments that seemed terribly amusing at the same but were cringe-worthy now etc., but most obvious was the godawful choice of picture. I really don’t know what I was thinking. So I figured I’d replace it with a decent one.

Hah. As anybody who’s ever tried to take a photo of me knows, I don’t do normal expressions on camera. If there’s a lens in front of me it’s imperative that I pull some kind of silly face / adopt a weird pose / wear an Extreme Hat. Also, my natural expression seems to be rather dour, so the rare pics taken when I’m not looking aren’t exactly flattering. Feeling rather self-conscious, I searched though my own collection and came up empty, which isn’t all that surprising, but also found nothing in friends’ flickr accounts. So I gave up.

I mentioned this to chum-of-old Ed at the weekend, and he immediately grabbed his camera. I attempted to look respectable and failed miserably, so we gave up and laughed over about it with his housemate Simon. Unbeknownst to me Ed continued taking pictures the whole time – I think he just kept his finger on the shutter – and later emailed me a few shots that, amazingly, weren’t too bad. I’m not pulling a particular face in this one. Honest I’m not. Thanks, Ed! Maybe I’ll use one of those shots, although probably not until December…or next year…It’d be much easier if I could just meet Sandra Bullock in a railway station kiosk or something.

Headway Quiz

A friend’s brother was in a nasty car accident last year, and both he and his family were helped out by the charity Headway. They provide information on brain injuries and were apparently a great support, and I went to a quiz last night to raise money for them. It’s a good thing it was for charity, as it wasn’t the greatest quiz in the world. Having double the number of points on a music round – one for the song title, one for the artist – is all very well, but when this isn’t revealed until the round itself, and some teams hadn’t yet used their point-doubling joker…there were grumblings 🙂 Plus, MIM bloody well is a correct roman numeral form of ‘1999’. Well, Wikipedia actually says:

Rules regarding Roman numerals often state that a symbol representing 10^x may not precede any symbol larger than 10^(x+1). For example, C cannot be preceded by I or V, only by X (or, of course, by a symbol representing a value equal to or larger than C). Thus, one should represent the number “ninety-nine” as XCIX, not as the “shortcut” IC. However, these rules are not universally followed.

This ‘problem’ manifested in questions as to why 1990 was not written as MXM instead of the universal usage MCMXC, or why 1999 was not written simply IMM or MIM as opposed to the virtually universal MCMXCIX.

I’m going to use ‘these rules are not universally followed’ as my get-out. Also it’s pretty rich having such silly rules in a numeric system with no symbol for zero. But hey, I’m not bitter 🙂

I was nervous about meeting my ex-girlfriend’s parents, and they came over to say hello at the end of the evening. I got myself into a bit of a state afterwards as a result, but came home to find something that cheered me up. Is long and not all that interesting, so I won’t go into it1, but the end result was I made somebody laugh, which was enough to knock me out of that particular mood. It has made me realise that:

  1. Moping over her has become my default position when I don’t have anything else major going on, isn’t even all that strong since it goes away as fast as it arrives, and is almost undoubtedly just a result of having nobody else to think about (figures, since it went away earlier this year).
  2. I am completely bloody fed up of being on my own.

Maybe I’ll have to give another try.

  1. yeah, I know this doesn’t normally stop me []

Not Very Romantic

Did anybody else watch “Secrets of the Sexes” on BBC1 this evening? Urgh, I’m yet again embarrassed to be male. The premise was a ‘scientific dating agency’, which matched people using facial characteristics, compatibility tests and various psychological profiles. It was a pretty interesting idea. They gathered 20 men and 20 women for a speed-dating session, making predictions as to who would find who most attractive.

Various subjects were interviewed beforehand as to what they wanted in a perfect match. The number of men who specifically stated they wanted somebody who could cook and clean…it was pathetic! They also put the men in front of a software program to design their ideal partner’s body shape. About half were realistic, but there were a fair number with anatomically impossible shapes, particularly in the breast area. Lara Croft + a good few cup sizes, with a teeny tiny waist, was popular. The ‘average’ build from the 20 men wasn’t as ridiculous, thankfully, with a 32C/D chest size. The most important result was a confirmation of other studies which found the waist:hips ratio to be the most important characteristic. It’s been proven that women with smaller waists and wider hips have a higher fertility rate, so evolutionarily speaking this trait of the male psyche makes perfect sense. In today’s society it of course makes no real difference, but it’s interesting to have it explained.

The biggest wankers of the show, though, were members of the “London Seduction Society”. Geez. These guys meet up to discuss the best ways to seduce women, and have talks and lectures on various techniques. As if this isn’t seedy enough, their behaviour was bloody appalling! Anna of little red boat wrote about similar guys recently, and it’s something I wasn’t really aware of. They basically criticise the women in order to make them grateful somebody is taking an interest. They’ll ask why the women are still single and suggest reasons why – one guy even said “so you couldn’t entertain me, then?” – and generally be terribly full of themselves. Ugh. After meeting everybody, each person wrote down those they’d been attracted to. It was extremely funny when two of the three society members had no women interested, while the other guy had one. Most of the nicer blokes were chosen by two or three women, so this was at least a vindication of my particular views on how to treat people.

The predictions failed almost completely. Particularly interesting was that while married couples tend to have similar faces, none of the similarly-faced couples selected each other. Odd. The scientists, in true scientific-method fashion, said that they’d work on more hypotheses. It was nice that the show didn’t feel the need to take the mickey at this point; it approached the whole thing as the experiment it was, rather than a ground-breaking discovery that failed. I’m not sure how scientific an approach it really was – 20 couples isn’t really a large enough number, I’d say – but it was an interesting show nonetheless.

I’ve not really spent any time in pubs / clubs / anywhere that people flirt generally, so watching these people talk and try to attract each other was something of an eye-opener. I’m not sure I’d be able to do it! It just seemed so false. I think I’ve watched too many romantic comedies – I just want my very own Sleepless in Seattle 🙂

Mercury Rising

Mum said this morning that 1 in 5 people are registered in dating agencies. 1 in 5? Really? I’m wondering whether I should try something like that. Sometimes it seems like a good idea. I don’t come into contact with many women my own age, so it seems like a reasonable way of meeting people. On the other hand, it sometimes seems a little crass. The dating sites let you filter prospective partners, which would be an irresistible feature. For example, I don’t think I could go out with anybody who smoked. I know real life involves filtering people like that, but doing it in such an obvious fashion doesn’t feel quite right. Or maybe I’m being a dick, and if the other person doesn’t mind then what does it matter? Ho hum, just thinking out loud.

Speaking of relationships, does anybody else find Tom Cruise and Kate’s Holmes’ engagement rather odd? Not that I don’t wish them the best of luck, but it just seems…odd. This is the man who left Nicole Kidman and Penelope Cruz, for crying out loud 🙂

Speaking of hotness (damn my segues are good today), it’s very, very warm outside. Which is funky. Wore the wrong shirt for walkies, though. Phew.