Can we engineer pictures to appear more trustworthy and competent?

Many studies show that we jump to conclusions about a person’s intentions when we look at their picture because of the expression on their face.

It’s fairly easy to engineer an expression because we rely on the person’s ability to control their facial muscles, but we assess competence through the bone structure, which is very difficult (and painful) to change.

A recent study set out to find out the limits and the potential of representing ourselves as more trustworthy and competent in our photographs.

Our findings show that facial cues conveying trustworthiness are malleable while facial cues conveying competence and ability are significantly less so” says Jonathan Freeman. “The results suggest you can influence to an extent how trustworthy others perceive you to be in a facial photo, but perceptions of your competence or ability are considerably less able to be changed.

Apparently, trustworthiness can be engineered, but competence can’t… or can it?

I set out to find out.

How to look more trustworthy

The study found that people with facial traits that resemble an angry expression (downturned brows) were deemed less trustworthy than people with upturned eyebrows and mouth (resembling a slight smile).

The spectrum between less and more trustworthy is represented in this graphic:


This can be a challenge when working with a client whose facial structure resembles the expression of anger (discussed in detail here). If this occurs, we will want to help them appear more trustworthy by coaching them into a more friendly expression.

Perceived competence and focal length

The study went on to uncover that perceived competence is based on a person’s facial width-to-height ratio which is based on a person’s bone structure, and that thinner facial structures are perceived as less competent than wider facial bone structures.

Unlike trustworthiness, which is conveyed largely by the face’s dynamic musculature, [perceived competence] is based in the face’s skeletal structure which cannot be changed for the most part.Freeman said.


As photographers, we know this is not entirely true because the focal length we use when shooting will drastically impact this ratio, and as a result, using a shorter focal length distorts the face. The shorter the focal length, the thinner the face is going to appear, which consequently will impact our subject’s perceived competence.



This study gives us even more to consider when choosing our lens than simple esthetic considerations, and we’ll want to make sure that we do not impact their perceived competence by using a lens that distorts their face.

In practice

Taking all this information into consideration, I set out to see if I could make my model look more (or less) trustworthy and competent and created two images based on the spectrum extremes.

Low spectrum cues

Using a 24 mm focal length on my 24-70 lens and coaching my model into a relaxed yet slightly angry expression.

High spectrum cues

Using a 200 mm focal length on my 70-200 lens, and coaching my model into a relaxed yet slightly happy expression.

In conclusion

To answer the question “can we appear more trustworthy and competent in your pictures?”, looking at those two pictures above, I’d say that is a yes.

Let’s recap what I learnt from this experiment:

  • Expressions of anger will impact the feelings of trust towards the person in the image, while a friendly expression will increase their perceived trustworthiness.
  • A low width to height facial ratio impacts perceived competence, and using a short focal length that distorts the face which makes it look thinner can impact this perception.
  • To make your subjects appear competent and trustworthy you’ll want to use longer focal lengths and coach your subject into a happier expression.


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and find out how a photographer’s guide to body language can help you create stronger portraits and boost your photography business.