The Simple Light: How to Take a Great Passport Photo

Fact: most people on the planet—including roughly two-thirds of Americans—do not have a passport.

Without a passport, you won't be traveling internationally any time soon. And even if you have no immediate travel plans, just having a passport is kinda like having a muscle car at a red light. You won't always squeal tires when the light turns green, but you know you could.

If you have never held a passport before, it's a neat feeling when it arrives in the mail. For perhaps the first time, you feel like a citizen of the world. Merely having the possibility of international travel is better than not having a passport and being guaranteed you can't go.

Even better, unlike your crappy driver's license or student I.D. mugshot, your passport photo is something you can control. So if you are gonna be a jet-set traveler, you may as well look good doing it.


Details Matter

First off, don't screw up. Make sure you follow the rules so your photo won't be rejected. The official rules for U.S. passport photos are here. If you are from another country, make sure you check that country's rules. For instance, Canada is pretty hardass: it needs to have a guarantor, and they have a thing about ... ears.

For the US, it is mostly it is common sense stuff: Look straight ahead, shoot without glasses if possible (makes things easier for us, too) no smiles, sizing requirements, etc. But be sure to check the rules.

How To Take an Awesome Passport Photo

To do this you'll need a camera, a light source and two pieces of white poster board. If you can get 30x40 inch board (or foam core) that will work better than the smaller stuff. Here's my simple setup:

I used an on-camera flash, rotated and pointed at the white ceiling and closet door above/behind me. But you could just as easily use a north-light, (i.e., open shade) window as your light source behind the camera. If you don't have a shade window, drape a white sheet over a sun-filled window. It'll look great.

For window light users: since most windows are at eye level, you'll get better results if you both sit down in front of the window. This will get the light source higher relative to your subject. If you are using bounced flash, angle it up and behind you as shown for the same reason. If your flash does not swivel to aim behind the camera, aim it straight up into a white ceiling. The bounce card (more on that below) will fill in the shadows.

As you can see, we have used one of the poster boards as a backdrop, and another as a subject-held fill card. You may find it helpful to recruit someone to hold the poster board backdrop. Or you can just stack some pillows as I did.

If using a window I'd shoot at a wide open aperture (or reasonably close to it) at 400 ISO to get a decent shutter speed. If you are using a flash, shoot at your sync speed (1/250th or 1/200th) at a middle aperture (say, f/5.6) and adjust your flash exposure as you normally would. This will control any weird ambient light and allow you to craft your look with just the light from your flash.

Whether using flash or window light, if you are shooting in any kind of automatic mode that white board is going to fool the camera and make it want to underexpose a little bit. Adjust your exposure compensation accordingly. (For instance, try adding +⅔ to +1 stop compensation.) That should get you pretty close. If using manual, simply adjust your flash's power setting until it the subject looks well-exposed.

Here's how it looks from the front—and make sure to shoot it this loose so you can crop it correctly for the sizing requirements later:

The fill card is important. It's the secret sauce that works with the main light and turns this from a passport/DMV-style mugshot to a pretty nice nice head shot. (I shouldn't say mug shot, I guess. These days, some police departments are actually pretty good portraitists.)

Have your subject hold and adjust the fill card until the shadows on their neck and eyes fill in a bit and look great. It's easy, because you can check your results as you go when shooting digital. The angle will be something close to what is shown above.

This is a simple way to get clamshell light, which is commonly used for beauty shots. Trust me, you'll look way better than you would had you gone to the drug store or post office for the photo. But again, remember to give yourself enough room to crop it down to a 2x2 headshot with the appropriate framing.

Allowing for Sizing Rules

Physically, your shot will end up being a 2x2" photo. But be sure to check your country's relative sizing requirements. In the US, it says:

Your head should be between 1 inch and 1-3/8 inches (between 25 and 35 mm) from the bottom of your chin to the top of your hair. If you are submitting a digital image, then your head should be between 50% and 69% of the image's total height from the top of the head, including the hair, to the bottom of the chin.

They quantify things to keep you from doing something stupid. But it'll end up being a basic square headshot, reasonably framed. Just remember that the top of the hair to the bottom of the chin should take up half to two-thirds of the image height. And seriously, follow the rules.

Don't Forget the Most Important Part

If you are going to the trouble to set this up (and it really is very little trouble) don't shortchange yourself. Take lots of photos. Yes, there are rules (horizontally centered, facing camera, neutral expression, both eyes open, etc.). But unlike at the drug store, you get more than one chance to look great.

So take plenty of photos. You can't smile, but you can look confident. You won't look so great when you arrive in Istanbul on an overnight redeye flight, but your passport photo can look awesome.

Don't choose a frame where you look like a smartass (they may well reject it) but choose one where you look good. Sit up straight. Fix those chins. Smile with your eyes. Aim for a shot that makes you look and feel like the savvy world traveler you will one day be—but doesn't invite an interrogation at the border.

How to Prep Your Picture for Use as a Passport Photo

If shooting direct to output (i.e., no image handling software such as LightRoom or Photoshop) you'll have to pay close attention to your sizing and framing in-camera. But it you normally tweak/crop/etc. your digital images before printing, it's pretty simple to do that in this case.

Basically, you'll adjust the tones in your image handling program until it looks right and crop it to exactly 2 inches x 2 inches, like this:

If you are really picky you can then add a one-point black line in Photoshop (or whatever) for a cutting guide. So later, when you cut that line away you are left with a perfect size and straight edges. Either way, then expand your canvas to your final print size (either 3.5x5 or 4x6) like this so it will size perfectly when you get your print made:

And depending on how many copies you need, you can arrange 2x2 photo 1-, 2-, 4-, or 6-up on a 4x6 print.

Remember, this photo will be used for not only visual identification but biometric facial recognition, etc. So don't pull out the liquify filter to shave a few pounds or anything like that. They say no digital alteration in the requirements. If you have a temporary, north-star pimple on your forehead and you do not want to immortalize it, that's probably okay (and how would they know.) But I wouldn't do anything else other then levels, curves and color correction.

Twenty cents or so later at the local drugstore, you're all set. Make sure you get the same size print (3.5x5 or 4x6) as you sized your canvas for, so your proportions won't be off.

Head Shots 101

If you are just now getting ideas about how well you could do head shots with just a window and two pieces of poster board, welcome to the centuries-old north-light studio club. Your fill card should be white, but your background can be anything.

Having done these easy-bake passport photos, I am already experimenting with on-camera flash (I know, I know) head shots and using my entire hallway as a lighting mod. More on that soon.

Until then, maybe I'll see you in the international terminal at the airport.


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OpenID said...

Great tips, and right on about this being easy to do. I printed six of my head shots on 8x10 so I'd have extras when I needed them for international visas, and that has worked out great on my last 4 trips overseas.

March 27, 2013 8:26 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

They also get a bit annoyed if you put your watermark on it. Anyway what do they know about branding?

March 27, 2013 8:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I once assisted a guy who bounced on-camera flash into a v-flat right behind him, with an additional piece of foamcore on top as a "roof"... used a 1.8 lens at F2 close up for dreamy portaits.... and yes, the fill card is a huge help, slight tilts of the fill card can change cheekbone modeling too....

March 27, 2013 8:46 AM  
Blogger MikeScottPhoto said...

Excellent. The only thing I would add is that you can fit two 2x2" passport photos onto one 4x6" print.. side by each as they say. My recollection is that you need to submit two images with your passport application in the US.

March 27, 2013 8:53 AM  
Blogger fg said...

I love your blog David (i'm sure everyone says that!).

I did my Sons passport photo a few months ago although i'm not as good as you as I just used our white living room wall my D3100 and my flash aimed at the white ceiling. Didnt think to use the card for fill.

I was happy with the outcome and the UK Home Office seemed happy enough as they issues his passport to us with no comment.

It's another of those taks that we really should do ourselves rather then going to a machine.

March 27, 2013 9:05 AM  
Blogger Richard Woeber said...

Here is a PDF with the official rules for german passports and id cards, published by the Federal Ministry of the Interior (text in german, of course). It states all the measurements, and also show a visual gallery of how not to shoot.

March 27, 2013 9:06 AM  
Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

I've screwed up this seemingly easy task not once but twice. First time I used a blue background and it was rejected. Second time when I trimmed to 2"x2" the head was too big. Thanks for the reminder, I checked my passport and it's expired!

March 27, 2013 9:20 AM  
Blogger BallardFamily said...

I've been doing my families passport photos for a while now, and recently the passport gods have stopped using my actual photo, and instead did a scan of it and then printed it on their passport photo paper. Big deal you say? On my last passport renewal I confidently gave them my perfectly white balanced 2x2 only to find 6 weeks later that their printing made me look like a lobster, like I had bathed in Crisco and sat in the sun for a full day.

So it is still not totally in your control.

Another thing, instead of just printing one photo on the 4x6 paper, Photoshop six on the there because you will need at least four of them. One for the pasport gods, two for visas (we work overseas and need them for residence visas) and one to Scotch tape next to the lobster shot to keep the customs dude from doubling over in laughter, and two more to...why waste 2x4 inches of Walmart photo paper?

March 27, 2013 9:30 AM  
Blogger bobfoto said...

For U.S. passports here is a nifty and FREE (for personal use) Photo Shop template for passport photos. You simply drop your photo into the specified layer and adjust the size to conform to the standards. Then copy the layer to make a second image, save it, print it, cut them out and attach to your application...

March 27, 2013 9:41 AM  
Blogger anamika said...

Dear Hobby,
Thanks Hobby for the useful info. For cropping I use It gives me 4 passport photos in 4x6 sheet version in a digital format. I take the take the digital file and print it in Walgreens for 89c.

March 27, 2013 10:01 AM  
Blogger Glenn Attwood said...

In Canada this would not be a valid passport photo, as both ears need to be visible, and you can not smile. This is particularly "fun" to try to do with young children

March 27, 2013 10:14 AM  
Blogger Mic Ty said...

Hi David. I could be wrong but I think the cropping on your sample shot has the head too high to fit the Department of State's requirements. There's a free template on the Department of State website:

Anyway it's funny but I used almost exactly this setup (except that for my background I lit my wall with flash):

I liked the results from this kind of setup. Later on, I tried a more elaborate setup with hair and shoulder light but I think the setup you suggested looked better.

Best regards,

March 27, 2013 10:59 AM  
Blogger Brad Calkins said...

In Canada they also require that the photo be 'taken by a commercial photographer', and that 'photos printed at home and photos printed on heavy weight paper are not acceptable'. Not sure how they define what a commercial photographer is, or how they can tell if an image is printed at home, but I figure it is easier to just go to a studio. No reason you shouldn't be able to get good photos at a studio!

March 27, 2013 11:57 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

One more thing to watch... I did my own photo for my UK driving ("drivers'" in the US?) license when photos became mandatory and when it expired (since I'm no beauty and don't enjoy self portraits) I sent a new copy of the same original image with the renewal form... and that's why they rejected it. My face really hadn't noticeably changed in the intervening years but since it was obviously the same photo they rightly bounced it back to me with a nice letter so I had to point the lens at my face after all :-)

March 27, 2013 11:58 AM  
Blogger Peter Mueller said...

The German instructions Richard posted are for Austria, but they are really written in German.

March 27, 2013 12:38 PM  
Blogger Brad Calkins said...

Interesting that 2/3rds of Canadians HAVE passports...

March 27, 2013 12:56 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

You've also got to be careful where you choose to have your photos printed. While most drug stores' corporate offices will let you print your own passport photos the local managers don't seem to keen on letting you do that without a fight (they want to extort you for $10 for their "passport special").

For example, Walgreens:

March 27, 2013 1:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Boyko said...

I echo what Brad said, in Canada it needs to be done by a "professional" photographer. In practice the back of the photo needs to be stamped and signed by the photographer. I had my last one taken at a local drug store, so the photographer probably didn't do any photography other than passport photos, but that's the hoop you have to jump through.

March 27, 2013 1:14 PM  
Blogger John said...

So David, Where are you going?
I second doing these yourself. You get a much better job, it is cheaper and a lot more fun. BTW, the rules are somewhat bendable, my youngest has a shadow behind her that I was told is not allowed. It went through the machine just fine.
I have done three of the four passport photos in the family - can't get someone to take mine, and it is not due until 2017!

March 27, 2013 1:18 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Hall said...

A few years ago I decided to put together a Lightroom passport template because I was getting asked to take them frequently. Here's an old blog post where anyone can download the template with some instructions on how to use it:

March 27, 2013 1:22 PM  

Dear David

Thanks for the tips, as always, great to know someone is helping the photographic community! (we all deserve a good passport picture :) ) Now, let me ask you a question...don´t you need the background to be pure white? (255, 255, 255) Even if you light the scene with a big light source from a decent distance, the foam core in the background will end up being light grey...

Please be noticed that I have never done what i´m about to tell you but I think I have an idea that may help... How about using a white reflective surface as a background? (a window in front of foam core could work too...even a mirror if you watch out for the flaring) The idea would be to position the background surface in order to reflect the main light sourse (the lit door behind you)

Who knows, it may work, just thinking out loud.

Best regards!

PS: Sorry for my english, not my native language...

March 27, 2013 1:36 PM  
Blogger anotherview2 said...

As a citizen, one may leave America without a passport. But returning without one may delay one's re-entry. Yet, one may re-enter butt-naked with no ID whatsoever because the authorities have to let one back into one's own country. The authorities will eventually ID a person after a prolonged interview, including fingerprinting, biometric facial recording, computer lookup in various databases, etc.

Last time I looked, a government-issued ID with one’s picture on it along with a certified copy of one’s birth certificate presented at time of re-entry will serve to allow one’s re-entry in an automobile or on foot. Otherwise, if one leaves by airplane or sea vessel, only a passport will do, and the same for returning to America.

Maybe some exceptions exist for documentation, but take the time to apply for and receive a passport. Having it means the U.S. State Department has determined one’s status as worthy of an American passport -- not a small thing in today’s world.

Note on doing one’s own passport photograph. Embedding this photograph in the passport page affects the white balance of the photograph, skewing it toward orange-red.

March 27, 2013 2:16 PM  
Blogger Reed said...

At least as far as US Passports are concerned, the Dept. of State is very accommodating - They allow a digital file to be submitted online with the application and even provide several links with Guides, Templates, and Sizing tools...

March 27, 2013 2:44 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Rules for Irish passport photos.

March 27, 2013 3:08 PM  
Blogger chris said...

I had a bit of an issue doing this myself a few years ago renewing my passport - not long after Strobist 101 was coming out, fortuitously. I rarely see photos of myself where I look good, and I sometimes have bad adult acne, so I relished the opportunity to use my new flashes and Strobist skills to do this myself (and clean up the acne a bit).

The photo turned out fine. I didn't look great, but I didn't look bad. Lighting was even, background was white, everything was perfect. I cropped it perfectly according to the guidelines.

I got it printed at a local store, and proudly took it to the post office with my renewal application. The guy said it would be rejected because there was a bluish-green tint, which the Fuji printers Wal-Mart uses are prone to. Since I had some time before I needed the passport, I decided to try again. The Kodak machines amp up the reds a ridiculous amount (even if you turn off their automatic enhancement). I tried to compensate for the white balance in photoshop before printing - no dice. I ordered some prints from a couple different websites instead - still off, though better.

Using commercial printing services, I couldn't control the white balance to a suitable level to get it past the guy at the post office. Whether or not the photos would have actually been rejected is a separate question, but the guy at the post office wouldn't let me use them. I ended up paying them $15 to do it there, and I look comically bad in my passport, with exaggerated red splotches all over my face. Perhaps the real lesson is: don't get/renew your passport at a post office that is set up to take passport photos themselves :)

March 27, 2013 3:11 PM  
Blogger Ron Nabity said...

@Chris I tried to print my own passport photos at the local Walgreen's and also was turned away. They tried to say they weren't allowed to print photos made by a commercial photographer ("copyright issues," even though I was the photographer.)

They also don't allow bicyclists to use the pharmacy drive-up window, either, but that's another issue.

March 27, 2013 3:25 PM  
Blogger Minotaurus007 said...


No, you do *not* need a complete white background. This makes things easier.


March 27, 2013 3:26 PM  
Blogger Prelo said...

In a quick response to Ron, when the Walgreens opened a block away, I sent something over for a quick 5x7. I wound up writing a note to someone to the effect "I certify that I am entitled to print my own work"

March 27, 2013 11:32 PM  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Hey David,

Is that a Nikon that you're using?

I thought you had converted to Phase One (plus the X100s).

Just giving you a hard time as I am still a Nikon fan, and it's nice to see you've haven't bailed on the Nikons you still own.

March 28, 2013 12:54 AM  
Blogger Ben Hollingsworth said...

I had the same experience as BallardFamily and others: I sent in good-looking images, but in the resulting passport, my wife and I look like Oompa-Loompas (very orange skin). Neither of us relish actually having to use those passports. :-(

March 28, 2013 2:03 AM  
Blogger Sakki said...

Enjoy your freedom while you can!
Some places in Europe (i.e. where I live) you are not allowed to take your own passport photo. A "professional" photographer may take a photo and send it electronically from his office e-mail to the passport office. However, even then a new photo will be taken at the passport office by a special machine which also measures "certain characteristics" of your face - i.e. characteristics which will not be discernable in a photo. All of this will be stored in a microchip which resides within the passport. According to recent laws I will be fingerprinted as well the next time I renew.

March 28, 2013 4:23 AM  
Blogger David Pyle said...

From my travels i offer the following tips:

1. Print a black and white version too
2. Print on both glossy and matt paper
3. Add a touch a selective sharpening to the eyes*

* I've had embassies get out a magnifying glass and check the sharpness on the eyes - they told me f tis sharp then they know its been taken and printed professionally. Yeah right :-)

March 28, 2013 9:37 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

In the UK we have to use a pale grey or cream coloured background, not pure white. I just use a normal white background and underexpose it a bit but everything else is as you explained, one light bounced off a white wall behind the camera and a white board reflector under the chin... Simple and it works every time..

March 28, 2013 10:34 AM  
Blogger henrique baldwin said...

As luck would have it I had to do my own photo for my application. i used 2 shoot through umbrellas then went to Target to their photo booth. there is a selection where you can print photos for official documents or something of the sort. after selecting to print onto a 4 x 6 the Kodak printer placed the image in six places so the print would have the properly sized 2" x 2" photo. It cost all of 34 cents with tax.

March 28, 2013 8:23 PM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said... has a PS template that's very useful for UK folk. Also a search for "UK passport photo" will take you to the site where you can download the regs on a PDF.

March 29, 2013 7:35 AM  
Blogger Kuba Szabelski said...

And here you have the similar PDF instructions for passport photo in Poland. Eventhough it's not in English - you may still see the difference (size, head position and so on).

March 30, 2013 6:07 PM  
Blogger Kuba Szabelski said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 30, 2013 6:09 PM  
Blogger Tom Legrady said...

I just did my brother's photo this afternoon.

In Canada, the picture has to be taken by a "commercial" photographer, not a "professional" one.

I shot from the front hall into the living room, with an on-camera flash pointing up, turning the hall into a large soft source, with another flash on a table in the LR, with a wireless trigger, white-ing out the background. The reflector card ones were better than without.

In Photoshop I created a 2" x 2.75" canvas and placed the photo into it, ... had to retake the image cause they want a lot of shirt I created another 2x2.75 image in which I put the text for the back, the so-called commercial photo studio at my home address, the statement that it is a true likeness of ... and the date.

Then LR print module to set up a 2 x 3 arrange of images on 8x10. Printed the photo, then swapped the text into the same print arrangement to put the text on the back. Wasted a couple of sheets of paper getting there, but it looks good

March 30, 2013 7:18 PM  
Blogger Bryan Leighty said...

I am very curios to know what your thoughts are of others that use your Strobist Blog posts on other sites? Even though they fully credit you and link back to your site, they still present it initially as a post of their own, even tagging their name on their own sites blog post. Does this bring any new traffic to you? Piss you off? Or just make you shrug your shoulders?
Slr Lounge has this post up and even has your images in its main body. Very sketchy if you ask me.

April 02, 2013 9:16 AM  
Blogger Cher Ping said...

I'm rather late in reading this post, but my gosh! Mr Hobby? On-Camera Flash???? ;)

2-3 years ago, when I was still terrified of flashes (they bite!), a friend asked if I could help him with a passport photo. Being firmly convinced that "If I can't take a decent passport pic, I should give up photography", I read up on all the requirements: even lighting, clear, etc.

and of course, back then, I was too stupid to recognize that "make do with simple when you can".

20+ shots later, I finally got one which I'm happy with. After establishing what works (and what doesn't), I finally decided to heck and use a Orbis ring-flash adapter with another flash (to light up the background). I'd have done on-camera flash if I remembered it, but I didn't.

I'll remember your tip and if I need to shoot another passport pic again, I'll get 2 boards and keep it to 1 flash.


April 02, 2013 10:45 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Bryan- What SLRLounge is doing is outside the TOS and not cool. I wrote them about it.

April 03, 2013 11:37 AM  
Blogger Petar Maksimovic said...

Ehm, isn't like standard in most countries to have a biometric passport with the picture taken at police station or something? What about all the security after 9.11. in US? O.o

April 04, 2013 8:22 AM  
Blogger Zeshan Anjum said...

Tried it. Works. Awesome! Great tip, thanks!

April 08, 2013 11:59 AM  
Blogger Andrzej Jeczen said...

Funny. I just took a passport photo for my mate at work. I'm a product photographer by trade so I used continuous lighting, plus a silver reflector to bounce the light. I used a 'clam' light set up.
I also had another person hold a white poster as a background.
Everything worked fine.

April 09, 2013 5:31 AM  
Blogger --Simon said...

I've been doing my own passport shots for some years, and they have lots of other uses too.
Australia is very picky about the sizing, so I eventually wrote a little tool to do the math - measure the pixels from chin to crown in original image, and it tells you what to crop such that I can put 6 images in a 4x6 that will be correctly sized.

April 11, 2013 3:31 PM  
Blogger Hanfeng Zhao said...

Excellent tips on taking good passport photo. For the trimming steps, you can try It can help to get compliant passport photo size for 50+ countries.

May 07, 2013 9:45 AM  
Blogger Glenda said...

I did just what Dave instructed in photoshop, but somehow my picture print became pixelated-it lost quality- when converting it to 2 x 2 size. Maybe I need to do some adjustment in photoshop but I am not sure what. I might try one of the templates above.

May 21, 2013 9:01 AM  
Blogger caprae said...

I did this two up deal for all of my kids but had to put a neutral gray background to prevent the photo club from seeing the white and trying to fill the image with just the actual two images. It also helps in trimming as the 1 pxl black line - which I would extend like print trim marks - easier to line up that xacto knife.

June 03, 2013 9:36 AM  
Blogger Charles Gallo said...

My daughter needed a 'passport' photo for her school bus ID, and we stretched it a BIT (she has her glasses on, and her head is SLIGHTLY tilted, but fully face on). Was told it was acceptable for a passport if need be

June 03, 2013 8:51 PM  
Blogger aledobroadband said...

I did all our passport photos 4 & 5 years ago using this same basic setup. Adjusted levels in Gimp, imported them into MS Word (yeah, I know. But I'm used to Word's layout controls, and Gimp had a way of trying my patience.) and printed 6 photos on a 4x6 photo paper on my desktop HP inkjet printer.

The US passport office accepted them, and dutifully added their lobster-ify filter on the finished product. Oh, well.

June 24, 2013 9:18 AM  
Blogger crescent harbor said...

I'd like to set up a shot for my own passport photo as my last one was terrible. It'll be useful to have an updated ID photo anyhow, so I'd like to get it right.

December 16, 2013 10:59 AM  

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