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Your Guide to Photo-Friendly Cosmetics

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,
Oh my holy hell. I look like washed-up crap in photographs. Why is this? Why can’t I have skin-colored skin? I didn’t used to be so ghostly whiiiiiite!
Okay, background: I am a natural strawberry-blond (glad you didn’t take the fake red route with your hair, which looks fab, BTW), pale-ish skin, some light freckles, blue-green eyes. It seems that every photograph taken of me in at least the past five (okay, ten) years makes my face look like a big, white blob. Also! I have no neck, it appears.
Now, I saw in one of the MamaPop posts about Kelly Ripa that they said she had the ghost face (so not true) and someone in the comments said it was because of SPF products reflecting the light from the camera flash. Is this true?
I use SPF 30 moisturizer, then Smashbox Dermaxxxxyl SPF 15 primer (because you said so) and L’Oreal True Blend foundation (no SPF). Am I over-SPF-ing? My skin looks normal in real life, but photos are a disaster. I went to a series of events last weekend at which WAY too many photos were taken, and I used non-SPF moisturizer, but it didn’t seem to help. I’m thinking it might be my foundation, although I have used a variety of them over these past years.
What say you and your minions, Oh Holy Queen of Makeup? Am I destined to wear a bag over my head every time someone pulls out a camera?
Just Call Me Casper

I’d honestly never heard the thing about SPF products reflecting the camera flash, so I conducted one of the highly -scientific and well-funded experiments that you can only get here at the Advice Smackdown: I aimed the camera and flash at my naked and make-up free face and snapped a picture. Then I slathered on some sunscreen and took another.
The photos looked exactly the same. No difference. And yes, I was completely blindingly white in both. And no, you don’t get to see either. I do still have some dignity around here, mmmkay?
Since clearly this is not my area of expertise, I sent your question on to an actual photojournalist-type person who has personally removed the blinding glare of oil off my very own forehead in many, many photos. She has also contoured my upper arm, while insisting that NO, YOUR ARM IS NOT FAT AND FLABBY, IT’S JUST THE ANGLE. TOTALLY THE FAULT OF THE ANGLE.
In short, I heart her, and I figured she was the best person to ask. She’d never heard of the SPF thing either, but thought it might make sense, HOWEVER, please read on for her list of photo-friendly cosmetic tips. It’s good stuff, y’all, and I fully intend to take her advice before the next photo-happy event I attend. (I interrupt her once or twice, as I am wont to do, so my comments are in bold.)
Ah yes, the dreaded Casper the Friendly Ghost Face phenomenon. It usually results from a combination of poor use of flash photography and less-than-ideal foundation choices. Unfortunately we can’t always prevent good people from using bad cameras, but the good news is that there are a few tricks of the trade that can help a lot.
Here’s why it happens:
The majority of point-and-shoot cameras have the flash mounted on the front of the camera. When the picture is taken, the light essentially punches the subject directly in the face. If you think about it, we are usually lit from above by sunlight or ceiling lights, or from the side by a window or lamp light. A bright, pre-set camera flash is an unnatural light source hitting you at an unnatural angle, so naturally you’re going to look, um, unnatural in the photograph.
In short, when the flash hits you directly, your skin’s natural oils reflect directly back at the camera. That’s why you sometimes see the shiny forehead effect in photographs when in fact the person wasn’t visibly shiny at all. (Amy: YES! I SWEAR I DON’T REALLY LOOK THAT GREASY!)
canon.jpg“Ghost face” is the exact opposite of shiny forehead syndrome. In this case, the subject appears unusually pale and washed out in the photo, even though they don’t look that way in real life. Lighter liquid foundations that claim to “boost your natural radiance” can be some of the worst culprits. The full-on Casper the Friendly Ghost effect usually results when a photo subject is wearing a shade of foundation that is too light for her complexion. It’s worse when the person is also wearing a lot of pressed powder.
While the proper selection of tinted foundation is definitely an Amalah area of expertise, I CAN say that the best way I’ve found to find a good foundation color for me is to go directly to a certain high-end boutique here in Stepford and have a makeup artist there help me. They converted me to Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer instead of an over-the-counter liquid base, and I’ve found it makes all the difference.
So here’s what you can do:
1. Make sure you’re using a foundation that matches your skin exactly and blend it well.
2. Don’t be afraid to play up your cheekbones and contours of your face with a well-chosen blush. (Amy: For those of us without prominent cheekbones, the best and easiest way to apply blush is to smile ridiculously and stupidly big. Now feel your cheeks. Find the most fleshy part, which is right where you should start applying the blush. Sweep up and out, towards your temples. And if you’re worried about looking like Raggety Ann, try NARS blush in Orgasm. It looks good on EVERYBODY.)
3. If you know you’re going somewhere where a lot of photographs will be taken, i.e. a wedding, set your makeup with a decent pressed powder (I like Benefit) when you’re getting ready. Do NOT keep powdering throughout the day. Maybe once or twice after you’ve been dancing a
while. You’ll just keep caking the stuff on and risk getting the ghost-face effect.
blotting.jpg4. Instead, keep oil-absorbing blotting papers handy, especially those that claim to leave your makeup in place while absorbing oil and perspiration. BLOT. DON’T WIPE. If you don’t have a Sephora near you, Victoria’s Secret sells them. (Amy: And Clean & Clear makes a good version too.) They keep them by the cash register. I keep them in my camera bag next to my emergency tampon and the sheriff-issued press pass that gives me permission to cross police lines at spot news situations. Um, TMI? Probably.
5. If you’ve moved beyond point-and-shoot cameras, and you have a camera with a separate flash, point it straight up *instead of right at* your subjects. The light will bounce off the ceiling, spread out and illuminate them in a way that mimics sunlight. If the ceiling is painted a bold color, it might cast a weird hue as the flash bounces off the paint. Instead, point it at a nearby light colored wall, which will bounce light on your subject from the side and mimic the effect of
window light.
Finally, if I could just proselytize for one minute… When Just Call Me Casper said she was somewhere last weekend where “WAY too many photos were taken,” my heart creaked a little bit. There’s no such thing as too many photos! Everyone has taken at least one picture in their lifetime that they absolutely love, so everyone has the ability to be a great photographer.
You deserve to have beautiful photographs of yourself and your loved ones. Pay someone else to take them and/or invest in a good camera, one that appeals to you in size and style so that you WANT to take it with you. Pick one that can keep up with your toddler and actually takes the damn photo when you push the button. (That weird delay is called “shutter lag,” by the way. It sucks.) Buy a separate rotatable flash that you can use to your advantage. Have patience with yourself as you learn.
No one ever said, “There are just WAY too many photos of Nana before she died. If I have to look at ONE more picture of her laughing while she danced around the kitchen with Pop Pop, I’ll scream… ” They say, “I wish I had just *one” picture of her smiling. She hated having her picture taken.”
Photographs are the way you remain immortal to your family. Don’t cringe and pull away when someone wants to photograph you. (THAT’S what gives you the appearance of a double chin, by the way, the cringing and pulling back. No one is as fat as she imagines herself to be. Your chin is lovely, I promise. ) Photograph everyone you cherish, and let them cherish you the same way. If you happen to make good foundation choices that counteract the ghost face effect and BLOT. NOT WIPE. the shiny forehead syndrome away first, more power to you. Thus endeth the sermon.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • obabe

    August 3, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    I have to admit that I skimmed this, and then practically starting sobbing at the start of the second to last paragraph.

  • glitterdice

    August 3, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    I can’t say I’ve mastered them, but this little tipsheet has been really helpful
    Particularly the Secret No. 2. My boyfriend is a photographer and long ago taught me the “turtle move” and it has made all the difference. In profile you look weird, but front view is great because it creates a little more shadow under your chin, to differentiate from your neck. Hope this helps.

  • becky fay

    August 3, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    ok, never before has makeup advice made me cry!

  • J P

    August 3, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Blotter note: Courtney Cox was on David Letterman and shared a beauty secret of using the toilet seat covers in restrooms when in a jam and did not have any oil blotters. I’ve done this…it works. Made out of similar material, I would imagine.
    Doesn’t exactly solve Ghost Face…but figured I should share the blottery goodness.

  • psumommy

    August 4, 2007 at 8:16 am

    As usual, great advice! And I just have to add a BRAVO for the little sermon! I’m a little bit of a wanna-be photographer (until I sold my Nikon D70 woe is me) and it drives me INSANE when people give me dirty looks, roll their eyes, or try to make a quick get-away when I take photos…then whine and complain about how bad they look in pictures! (This comes from family, who are now complaining that there aren’t any photos of their family events…HELLO I was the only one taking photos, and I stopped because I got sick of the attitude!) So thank you for that, too!

  • Suzy Q

    August 4, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    Oh. My. God. I think I just peed my pants a little bit. *holds hand up* I am Casper. And Amy posted my question!!
    Since I wrote you, Amy, I have invested in Mac foundation (the young, sick, makeup-free Mac girl picked out the perfect color for me in a flash, which completely surprised me, but she was too sick to glam me up, which disappointed me – she didn’t even try to upsell! WTF?) But, I didn’t realize that it ALSO has SPF in it when I bought it. Yish. I am quite possibly the most SPF-protected face in South Florida.
    However, I have not yet been photographed with my new face. Love the tips, and please thank your photog friend for her advice. And yes! She’s right; I have ONE beautiful photograph that was taken of me, in natural light, about 20 years ago.
    The event I went to that recent weekend was my 30th high school reunion. Yes, I am older than dirt, as all you girlies will be one day, too. The pro photographer used a digital camera, so we were dealing with a delay AND a flash. Ahem. In spite of all that, I had a blast and even hooked up again with the guy who absconded with my virginity! So, I couldn’t have looked TOO bad.
    And, let me add this: In addition to your family, the friends you hold dear will love and appreciate photographs of you, even if you are a Casper, or old, or fat, or shiny, or…whatever. Smile!

    • Aisha

      July 10, 2015 at 3:16 am

      All foundations have a form of spf,making fun of white skin isnt funny and shouldnt be appluaded

  • Danielle

    August 6, 2007 at 11:19 am

    I am all for SPF. Just want to put it out there when you are combining SPFs the numbers don’t add up. The amount of protection will be closet the lowest factor applied.

  • andi_g

    August 6, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    The ghost face is a result of the flash reflecting off of some ingredients found in most foundations. The foundations that claim to make you look younger or dewey are the worst culprits. They’re great for daily wear but when they get hit with a flash – Ghost Face! There are brands (like Mary Kay) that don’t have have those ingredients. Also, when applying products that have different levels of SPF – your coverage will be the highest level you’ve applied.

  • *Otter *

    August 6, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Ok, I came to the comments to reluctantly post about the toilet seat cover thingies being great at blotting shine. I say reluctantly because holy shit, does that sound bizarre, but it works! I’m glad I’m not the only one who has done that :~)

  • djgroovyslug

    August 6, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Camera flashes can be ultra harsh, and one way photographers (particularly those in portrait photography) try to control that is with various flash filters that soften the light. Now I suppose you could go out and buy these things but honestly, the best “The Look for Less” tip my teacher gave me is to just cover your flash with a strip of scotch tape – obviuosly one with a satin finish, not clear, shiny scotch tape. This also helps minimize typical glare you get with flash.

  • tofunmi

    March 30, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    for me its most definitely the foundation im using with spf(something or other). the flash is definitely bouncing of something in the foundation. i never blend my foundation to my hairline so i make sure its a perfect match, i took a pic under normal lighting and i looked fabulous!…then with flash and it literally looked like i had a lighter paler mask on my face (i’m medium dark skined btw) and i could tell it was the foundation because the skin around my hairline looked like my normal skin tone. the foundation was l’oreal true match and lets just say  I AM DONE! i was in love with it till i saw that it literally looks like a mask! i mean either i make sure i never take another picture again or i get another one! i don’t get why they’d make products like these tho, in this day and age where taking photos is an everyday occurrence and one wears make up to enhance looks and takes pictures to immortalise the memory…’cept the memory has a shining bright white mask where your lovely face is meant to be!

  • AlotofPhenol

    June 11, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    I realize this post is old, but I feel the need to point out that PHYSICAL sunscreens (think titanium dioxide, zinc oxide) will leave the white cast as they are designed to reflect UV rays from the area of application. ORGANIC sunscreens (think avobenzone, octocrylene, octisalate, etc.) will absorb in the UV spectrum and therefore do not reflect any light, which is why cosmetics with these ingredients do not give off the white “ghost face”.

    Thanks Amy for all your posts!

  • Aisha

    July 10, 2015 at 3:15 am

    Calling a light skin person casper/ghost/light bright is just as bad as calling dark skin tar or charcoal or darkie.Plus,they dont look light/ looks ashy gray!  There are alot of people who liek to look pale in photos.I work as a photographer! lighting doesnt affect your tone! her undertone even changed. Unless youre light to begin with..nobody goes from alek wek to nicole kidman.People dont turn “white” in photos. Due to titanium dioxide and spf there is a gray cast..but not white.White or Light skin shows out better in front of the camera then dark skin. It has to do with reflection of light. White or light skin reflect light 100 fold better then dark skin (which absorbs it). And if you know anything about cameras u know the object that is being captured by the camera has to reflect the light projected unto it in order to be caught by the camera lens.
    If a person does appear pale in the camera, thats because theyre originally pale.