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Do Cameras Really Add 10 Pounds?

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For everyone who’s ever been unhappy with the way they look in a picture or on video, there’s almost always someone there to try and comfort them by pointing out that the camera “adds ten pounds” to its subjects.

Sometimes this just excuses actual flabbiness, but some people swear up and down that the phenomenon is real and cameras actually fatten us up. What’s going on?

Flash Problems

A few different things, one simply being the way the subject is shot. Strong, flat light directed straight at a person—like from a bad lighting setup or the camera’s flash—flatten the features of a subject by killing shadows. Those head-on shots of you at the family reunion look bad, in part, because your cousin’s camera flash flattened and fattened you.

The camera itself also shoulders some of the blame. Telephoto and wide angle lenses each distort an image in their own ways. No matter the type lens, though, there’s also the problem of a camera having just one of them.

Seeing in Stereo

Most of us look at the world through two eyes, and our brains take what we see with each one and fuse it into a single image, which allows us to perceive depth. With only one eye—its lens—a camera lacks our accurate depth perception. Unless the photographer creates some illusion of depth by using distance cues, light, and shadow, or by composing their shots in certain ways, the lack of it makes their photos and subjects come out looking flatter than they really are, which also makes them seem wider.

Another difference between a two-eyed view of the world and a one-eyed view that factors in is the way they capture the background behind the subject. Background features hidden from one eye can be seen by its partner, and together they capture overlapping views that a single eye or camera can’t. This means that a single eye has a different perception of the width of the subject relative to the background than two eyes working together.

Michael Richmond, a physics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, illustrates this effect with a few photos of a coffee mug against a patterned background sheet. He took one photo straight on like the lone eye of a camera would see it, one photo four centimeters to the left of center the way your left eye would see it if your nose was directly at the center and one photo four centimeters to the right of center the way your right eye would see it. He then merged the perspectives of the latter two “eyes” by cutting both those pictures through the center of the mug and fusing the right side of the right eye's picture with the left side of the left eye's picture to get something like what the brain would create.

In both pictures, the mug is the same number of pixels across, but there’s a huge difference in the way the camera view and the combined “two-eyed” view capture the background. In the camera view, background appears narrower, and the mug looks much “fatter” against it.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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