A passport is almost always a necessity when traveling outside your country, and a photograph is required along with identity documents, filling out a form, and paying a fee when applying. The photograph is potentially the most challenging part of the process. The good news is that the photo can be taken and printed at home as long as careful attention is given to the rules.
Here are five basic rules of United States passport photos as stated on the State Department’s website:
- Submit a color photo, taken in last 6 months.
- Use a clear image of your face. Do not use filters commonly used on social media.
- Have someone else take your photo. No selfies.
- Take off your eyeglasses for your photo.
- Use a plain white or off-white background.
In this article, we will take an in-depth look at how you can shoot your own US passport photos in the comfort of your own home or photo studio.
Table of Contents
Avoid Common Problems with Passport Photos
Several rules must be followed to have the best chance for a submitted U.S. passport photo to be approved. Since it can take quite some time for processing, it’s best to get it right the first time to avoid long delays. Some of the most common problems have to do with the subject smiling broadly, turning slightly to one side more than the other, or being unevenly lit.
Technical issues to avoid include having something other than white showing in the background, such as a shadow or other object appearing in the frame. The size of the subject is important and so is their facial expression. There are even rules about clothing. A picture must be no more than 6 months old at the time of submission for use as a passport photo.
Equipment Needed to Take A Passport Photo
A camera is needed, of course, and a passport photo can be taken with a modern smartphone or a separate camera. Recent models are typically good enough as long as there is sufficient lighting. The result should not be grainy, blurry, or pixelated — a viewer should not be able to see any pixels or printer dots. Naturally, a dedicated camera might produce even better photographic quality and a sharp, well-exposed picture is best.
A white background is necessary which might require a large sheet of white paper if a white or off-white wall isn’t available. If there isn’t sufficient light in a room to light the subject and avoid shadows, some type of additional lighting will be needed. The end result is what matters and specialized equipment is not necessary.
What Kind of Background is Needed for a Passport Photo?
A perfectly, white backdrop isn’t necessary, however, it is best to use a white or off-white wall or a white paper backdrop that’s free from shadows. A paper roll or a large sheet of poster board are commonly used backgrounds. Paper can be taped or tacked to a wall to avoid folds and wrinkles. A light might be needed for the background to remove any shadows and nothing else should be visible in the cropped picture that is submitted.
A foam-backed project board is a nice solution since it’s large enough to fill the background without feeling cramped for space when taking the photo. Since a project board is rigid, it can stand upright on a table.
The Importance of Good Lighting for a Passport Photo
It’s very important to take extra time when arranging the lighting. The subject should not have any shadows. The background should also be free from shadows. This might require a separate light to be used for the background to eliminate a shadow cast by the subject.
Using a flash is an easy way to eliminate shadows on the subject but can result in shadows in the background. A little trial and error might be needed to get good results and this is probably the most time-consuming part of the process if professional lighting isn’t available.
Getting the Subject Ready for a Passport Photo
The person being photographed should remove any hat, glasses, or facial obstructions. If a hat, glasses, or head covering is part of religious attire or required for a medical condition, that is acceptable but a written document will have to be submitted along with the passport application attesting to this need. For medical purposes, a doctor’s statement is required. Jewelry and piercings are gray areas and are allowed ‘as long as they do not hide your face.’
Smiling in a passport photo is now allowed, however, it must be a ‘natural, unexaggerated smile’ with both eyes open and a neutral expression is most likely to be accepted. The subject should face the camera so that both sides of the face are equally visible and the head should not be tilted. The only restriction on clothing is to avoid anything that looks like a uniform or camouflage attire.
Taking passport photos of children might be more challenging. The child cannot be held or left in a stroller. If they cannot stand, the child can be laid on a white background for the photograph. An infant’s eyes do not have to be open for a passport photograph but all other rules apply.
Technical Tips for Shooting a Passport Photo
Here are some basic technical pointers for shooting an acceptable passport photo:
The camera shouldn’t be too close. If the distance between the subject and the camera is too small, the face may be distorted and different from what the person looks like in real life. This is presumably one of the reasons a selfie is not allowed as a passport photo, as selfies are typically shot from arm’s length. A good rule of thumb is that the camera should be at least 4 feet (1.25m) away.
A portrait lens is helpful. Using a focal length suited for portraiture (around 85mm on full frame) will be helpful, as you will be able to capture the correct composition from a suitable distance. A wide-angle lens from the same distance will require you to crop, possibly leading to sub-optimal image quality, while a more telephoto lens will require the photographer to stand further away, and there may not be enough space to do so.
A basic two-light setup works well. If you are going to use artificial lighting, the US government recommends a simple two-light setup with diffused light on each side of the subject evening out shadows.
Use a smaller aperture. Shooting wide open with a fast lens may lead to too shallow of a depth of field, causing some parts of the subject’s head to be out of focus. Use a smaller aperture (i.e. larger f-number) so that the depth of field is sufficiently wide to render all of the subject in acceptably sharp focus.
Use the lowest ISO you can. Setting your sensor sensitivity as low as you can with the available lighting you have will minimize the amount of noise in a photo. Rules state that photos must be sharp without dots.
Use a faster shutter speed. Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to capture the subject without any kind of camera or motion blur.
Use a tripod and shutter release. For extra sharpness, use a tripod and shutter release to stabilize your camera and take camera shake out of the equation. Fixing your camera will also provide more consistent results and fewer variables to deal with when setting up your photo.
What Size is a Passport Photo?
The dimensions of a United States passport photo are exactly 2 inches wide and 2 inches tall and the subject’s head should occupy a size that is 1 to 1.4 (1-⅜) inches when printed. Head size is measured from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin. It’s best to use an app or a website service to help with sizing and positioning, however, it can be done with a photo editing app that shows units in inches or pixels. When printing at the standard 300 dots per inch, 1 inch is equal to 300 pixels and 1.4 inches is 420 pixels.
It’s important to be aware of where the subject is positioned within the viewfinder. Of course, centering side to side is required. One of the most difficult alignments is the top to bottom placement. The bottom of the eyes should be near the center of the frame. Small positioning errors can be corrected when cropping the photo. The easiest way to get the size and position correct is to use the Photo Tool that is available on the Department of State’s website.
U.S. Government Passport Photo Tool
The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs has quite a bit of information about passport photos as well as a free web app Photo Tool. The tool makes it easy to upload a photograph that is of good quality and well-lit, for help with sizing and cropping. After loading the Photo Tool, the user should click the Upload Photo button to open a file browser and select a picture to upload for cropping.
A very basic analysis of the uploaded picture is performed with the USDOS Photo Tool and it warns of photos that are too small or overly compressed but this tool cannot officially validate a picture. The user still must use their own judgment about the finer details. Along the right side, there are several guidelines presented in pictorial form. For example, clicking the Glasses section opens a view of four example photos that were all rejected because the subject was wearing glasses.
The USDOS Photo Tool attempts to automatically crop the image that has been uploaded and, if successful, allows the user to Accept & Proceed then download a JPEG file that is ready to print.
If the automatic cropping fails or if their framing seems wrong, the user can choose to Crop Manually. A tutorial appears that shows how to use the tool. In short, the user should drag each red-colored eye icon that’s below the photo over the subject’s eyes. When finished with the tutorial, clicking Close Tutorial returns to the uploaded photo where the subject’s eyes can be identified.
It’s also possible to zoom and rotate a photograph in 90-degree increments in case it appears sideways when uploaded. After both eye icons are in position, the Photo Tool will show a preview of the cropped image. Adjustments can be made to the eye icons and the crop will immediately be recalculated.
When satisfied with the cropping, the user should click Accept & Proceed then Download image to your device to save the JPEG file for printing.
What About Passport Photo Apps and Websites?
There are several passport photo apps and some might be great, however, care should be exercised if using an app to assist with this process. Digitally altering a picture is not allowed and in the description of several of these apps, there are mentions of cleaning up the background. The U.S. Department of State specifically forbids changes like this. While subtle exposure and white balance adjustments to compensate for lighting conditions are acceptable, artificially erasing the background to make it perfectly white or altering the subject, even to correct red-eye effects from a flash, are not permitted.
Also, it should be noted that an app might be developed for rules that are applicable to another country or could have out-of-date information. It’s best to use the government website for official specifications.
How to Print and Cut a Passport Photo
While a passport photo can be printed at home, care should be taken to make sure the quality of the print and the paper are sufficient. Most inkjet and color laser printers should be up to the task if they are considered photo printers. The paper should be marked as photo paper and can be either matte or glossy.
Most important is to make sure the final print is not blurry, grainy, or pixelated. When in doubt, a commercial print service can relieve any concern about this step, and most office stores and big box stores offer high-quality photo printing. Many print services accept photos that are emailed or uploaded and the print can be mailed back, which saves a trip out.
Self-service machines are also available, making it easy to print a photo without relying on a home printer. Since the picture itself is quite small, it makes sense to place multiple copies of the image on a single sheet with a photo editing app.
After printing, the photograph must be cut precisely to the 2-by-2-inch dimensions required and the edges should be straight. This is fairly easy to do with scissors but a guillotine-style paper cutter or edge trimmer works best since they create perfectly straight cuts. The head should be centered horizontally and vertically when finished. If multiple photos were printed on the sheet, there’s an opportunity to try again if a cut is misaligned.
Can I Take My Own Passport Photo?
While it might be technically possible to achieve a photograph that meets every other requirement of a passport photo without the help of another person, the official rules actually require someone else to take the picture.
Remote triggers and timers would allow the photographer to get into position, but the preview image shown in the camera’s viewfinder provides instant feedback for quick adjustments that might be needed to improve the photograph or avoid some problem.
It’s relatively easy to take a United States passport photo at home and many people already have everything that’s needed to do so. Taking the time to double-check the rules before snapping a picture and reviewing the quality, lighting, and subject afterward increases the chances that the photo won’t be rejected.
It can take quite some time for passport applications to be processed and often there is a backlog so it’s important to make sure a good photo is included with any submission as well as the form and any medical and religious documentation necessary for special considerations in the subject’s photo. With an eye for detail and quality, a passport photo taken at home can be very convenient, saving time and money.
All of the official rules are available on the USDOS website. Most of these tips are applicable to passport photos in other countries (such as the UK) — check with your country’s government website for relevant rules and specs.