This story is from Niche Work If You Can Get It, a Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4. It was presented by Nick Baker and produced by Leeanne Coyle. Adapted by Sarah Keating.
In a corner of The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, a woman is nervously posing in front of a photographer. She’s not your typical model though. 53-year-old Rose is having her photo taken for her internet dating profile. The photographer standing in front of her specialises in profile pictures for online dating sites.
So, good photos equal good quality dates. Poor photos – hook-ups and poor quality dates
A group of curious Japanese tourists walk by as photographer, Rachel Spence, explains the process, giving her client advice on her choice of outfit. “Before you’ve even got here I’ve done some prep on the location because I know you love the gardens so I’m going to take into consideration what you like,” Spence tells her.
Rose says her son has taken her profile pictures up until now “sat on the couch looking a bit lonesome and sad,” she laughs.
But is there a big market for such a niche job – the internet daters’ photographer? Well, figures show that the online dating industry will be worth £225 million in the UK in 2019 and generates approximately $3 billion per year in the US. And another statistic shows 90% of a dating profile is all about the photograph. So with so much emphasis on the image you use, it’s not surprising that creating that image has become a growing lucrative, industry.
Saskia Nelson founded Hey Saturday which claims to be the first professional internet dating photography agency. They have been trading for four years and have expanded to four other locations, including New York.
The online dating industry is estimated to be worth £225 million in the UK (Credit: Getty Images)
“There’s a shift coming I think, where it’s going to become not very cool to use iPhone snaps and old blurry holiday photos,” she says. “People are just going to flick through and the minute they see a good strong image with some colour and in focus and bright and good quality they’ll start attracting good quality dates. So good photos equal good quality dates. Poor photos – hook-ups and poor quality dates.”
But how do you bring out someone’s inner attractiveness in an age when we have all become carelessly clicky with our smart phones?
Veteran photographer, Eamonn McCabe, says it’s not that straightforward. “The hardest thing is to photograph somebody the way they see themselves, or, the way they imagine themselves. We all imagine ourselves to be handsome hulks or beautiful women. Often, the camera doesn’t capture it that way,” he says.
A study by smartphone maker HTC into dating apps found that 24% of UK users kept their profile active even after they found a relationship ( Credit: Getty Images)
In an era where we are bombarded with images of beauty and perfection, how much of this industry is about manipulating people’s feelings of insecurity about how they look? At £167 pounds an hour for a shoot, it’s a lucrative business. Saskia Nelson insists that’s not the aim at all “we’re in the business of helping people find love in the best way possible. So I really hope that we’re not making people feel inadequate at all. We’re just trying to get people to look the best they can.”
We’ve always lightened or darkened photos and I think that’s fair enough. But I think once you start to trim off some unwanted chin fat or whatever, I don’t think that’s on at all
Back in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Rose has finished her shoot and photographer Kate is going through the images taken so far. She picks out one she likes “I’ll probably lighten up the eye sockets but nothing too heavy….” she says.
So is there another manipulation going on? Are these professional photographers falsely representing their clients’ potential suiters?
Eamonn McCabe thinks it’s a fine line. “We’ve always lightened or darkened photos and I think that’s fair enough”, he says. “But I think once you start to trim off some unwanted chin fat or whatever, I don’t think that’s on at all. And I don’t suppose in the long run it would do you any good.”
Portraiture for internet dating profiles is growing in popularity with clients paying over £150 an hour for a shoot(Credit: Getty Images)
Investing in our appearance isn’t new as part of the quest for love but is this a way of commercialising the way we look? Making our photo our brand?
As for Rose, she’s clear on why she is getting her profile photo professionally taken. “It’s not so much my own photograph that I’ve had on a dating site”, she says, “it’s looking at other people’s photographs and seeing that [it] wasn’t reflective of who they were once I’d met them….so I really wanted to make sure that the photograph reflected me.”
So maybe Saskia Nelson is on to something. As brand "me" dominates our social media feeds perhaps we'll all need to take extra steps to make ourselves stand out from the crowd. And that's no different in the tricky world of "swiping right."