Thursday, June 9, 2011

DIY Passport Photos

Yes, you can do your own passport photos.  It's completely permissible in the U.S. and it's not difficult if you have at least one external flash.  If you want to trade time for money, then instead of spending $10 or more, your cost drops to around 20 cents (that's for 5 photos, mind you).  I also get a sense of pride from using my own work product.  Plus, for the vain ones among us, you can take as many shots as you want until you're satisfied with how your photo looks. :)

STEP 1: Review the current rules for passport photos.
The official requirements (again, for U.S.) are stated here:
Photo composition template:
Examples of do's and don'ts:

STEP 2: Take the photo.
Besides respecting the passport photo rules, the keys to a valid passport photo from a photographic perspective are:
1. Background should be white or off-white.  You don't need white muslin -- a white (or nearly white) wall will do.
2. Lighting should be soft and flat (frontal light, with minimal shadows).  This is not the time to show off your strobist skills (see the example "shadows on face")
3. Take the photo at least 4 feet away from the subject (to avoid perspective distortion).
4. When you compose the shot, leave plenty of room above and below the face -- we'll be cropping later.
5. Avoid logos on shirts - that's one reason some photos get rejected, even though it's not stated anywhere on the website.
6. Although the sample photos from the Dept. of State show some smiling subjects, remind the subject to have a completely neutral facial expression.


In the shot above, I was about 8 feet away from the subject, with a 50mm lens on a crop-sensor body (75mm equivalent).  The subject was standing about half a foot away from the wall.  The wall was "swiss mocha" in color.

To get a white wall, I placed an SB-800 on the floor behind the subject's foot and fired it at full power (via Nikon Advanced Wireless Lighting).  If I didn't have another flash or it's somehow not feasible to use it, I could have also used Topaz Remask or similar software to remove the background in post-processing.  (Yes, it's possible - just do it very carefully and make sure you don't cut any part of the subject.)

For completely flat lighting, I needed a super-soft light source that was as close to the camera axis as possible. In this case we were kind of in a hurry so I used an on-camera SB-800 bounced to a wall behind me.  To further reduce shadows on the face, I put a reflector in front of and below the subject, aimed at the subject's face and neck.  I didn't try a ring light although that may have worked too (shadows on the wall are not allowed but they would have been blasted by the background light anyway).  Another solution is to place a large umbrella directly behind the camera.

I chose an exposure of ISO 200 (base ISO for D300), f/8, and 1/250 (sync speed):

  • ISO 200 to minimize noise.  Excessive noise is one reason a photo can be rejected.
  • f/8 for sharpness and depth of field.  Blurriness is one reason a photo can be rejected.
  • 1/250: I used the sync speed to eliminate the ambient light (in this case from a window that might have shown shadows on her face).

When you upload the shot in your PC, adjust the shot as necessary to comply with the requirements (again, see the examples).

STEP 3: Crop the photo
I used to crop the photo to the right size.  First, I uploaded the photo to their website.  Then I used their template, which allowed me to crop and position the photo within the U.S. Dept. of State's requirements (I think they have them for other governments as well, though I haven't tried).  Their template has two green rectangles to frame the face.  The top of the head should be within the top green rectangle.  The chin should be within the bottom green rectangle. is free but they also offer value-added services such as reviewing the photo.  I clicked on "no thanks" and just downloaded the resulting 4x6 photo sheet for free.

STEP 4: Print the photo (and cut it if needed).  Then you're done!
I uploaded the photo to Costco for printing.  They charge 13 cents to print a 4x6 photo.  As for glossy vs. lustre, I looked around and it seems both are ok.  I choose lustre finish to make the photo look more professional, less susceptible to fingerprints, and reduce glare.

BTW these are for passport photos of an adult or child.  Infant passport photos are much harder and require additional techniques.  I may work on a guide for that in the future.

High-key passport photos (using a more elaborate setup)


  1. My passport needs to be renewed soon but I didn’t even think of taking my own photos for it. Even though I have all the equipment needed.

    Good idea.

  2. Thanks James. Funny enough I didn't think about it either until my wife suggested it :)

  3. I did it for my wife around 2 years ago, she put her back very close to a white wall and I lit her using two umbrellas, one from each side since I didn't have the speedlites then, both umbrellas were almost at the same power and they took care of the background as well.

    As you say you feel proud of your work, the best part for me was when she was boasting around that the pictures I took for her were much better than the studio ones. Brownie points. :-D

  4. Yup an umbrella on each side is a good setup and works very well if you have a white wall and don't need to blast it to white.


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