Variability in photos of the same face

Rob Jenkins*, David White, Xandra Van Montfort, A. Mike Burton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

456 Citations (Scopus)


Psychological studies of face recognition have typically ignored within-person variation in appearance, instead emphasising differences between individuals. Studies typically assume that a photograph adequately captures a person's appearance, and for that reason most studies use just one, or a small number of photos per person. Here we show that photographs are not consistent indicators of facial appearance because they are blind to within-person variability. Crucially, this within-person variability is often very large compared to the differences between people. To investigate variability in photos of the same face, we collected images from the internet to sample a realistic range for each individual. In Experiments 1 and 2, unfamiliar viewers perceived images of the same person as being different individuals, while familiar viewers perfectly identified the same photos. In Experiment 3, multiple photographs of any individual formed a continuum of good to bad likeness, which was highly sensitive to familiarity. Finally, in Experiment 4, we found that within-person variability exceeded between-person variability in attractiveness. These observations are critical to our understanding of face processing, because they suggest that a key component of face processing has been ignored. As well as its theoretical significance, this scale of variability has important practical implications. For example, our findings suggest that face photographs are unsuitable as proof of identity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-323
Number of pages11
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2011
Externally publishedYes


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