Hack 21 Make Your Own Passport Photo

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Don't spend money for a terrible passport picture that you'll be embarrassed to show to strangers all over the world. You can take your own shot, and make great first impressions instead.

Why is it that whenever you have an official photograph taken, you're made to look like a criminal or terrorist? Sometimes, you don't have a choice in the matter, such as for your driver's license (or booking at the county jail). But when it comes to passport photos, you can submit your own picture, and I recommend you do.

There are general requirements for an acceptable photo:

  • Photographs must be identical and recent (within six months), with a clear full-face and front-view image. They may be in color or black and white.

  • The photographs must be at least 2" 2" (5cm 5cm), exclusive of any white borders. The image size, from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head (including hair), should measure between one inch and one and three-eighth's inches. There should be at least one half inch between the top of the head and the photograph's border.

  • There must be a clear contrast between the background and the image of the subject. The background of the photographs must be white. Grainy photographs cannot be accepted.

Easy enough, right? Now let's talk about actually taking the picture, because that's the important part. Here is the equipment you'll need:

  • Digital camera with a self-timer or remote release

  • Tripod or alternative way to position the camera

  • Two pieces of white foamcore, cardboard, or some other sturdy, reflective surface

  • A stool or something else to sit on

  • Inkjet printer with photo paper, preferably with matte surface

You want to avoid that stark, deer-in-the-headlights appearance that's usually caused by using a single flash in a darkened room. You might still use a flash for your shot, but if so, it should be a fill flash and not the sole source of illumination.

Look for a well-lit area that has a white or light background. You might use a brightly lit room in the house (with lots of light coming through one or more windows) or an outdoor setting, where you can use the side of the house for the background. But you don't want the sun shining right in your eyes. Diffused light is better.

Position your sitting stool at least five feet away from the background. You don't want to record much background detail. Instead, you want the background a little out of focus, and distance is the best way to create that effect.

Put the camera on the tripod and point it at the sitting stool. A trick I like to do is to put a lamp on the stool to act as my model while I'm aligning the camera. If you have a helper for this project, that person can serve as your stand-in. Position the camera slightly above eye level of the subject. By doing so, the picture will be more flattering and, if you do use a fill light, the shadows will be cast downward and out of the picture.

For your first test shot, turn off the flash. Let's see how it looks with natural light only. Turn on the self-timer, have a seat, smile slightly, and hold still until the camera has recorded the image.

How does it look? If one side of your face is too shadowy, then position one of the pieces of white foamcore so it reflects light onto the dark side of your face. Try another exposure and make more adjustments to the reflectors until you get something you like.

Sometimes, you just can't get enough pop in the image if the room lighting is too flat. In this situation, turn on the fill flash function. If you camera has a control for flash exposure compensation, set it to -1. The goal here is not to have the flash serve as the main light source. Instead, you just want a little additional pop to augment the ambient lighting.

If you're taking your own photo, try positioning a mirror behind the camera to help you pose. Also, some digicams have swiveling LCD monitors. If you have one, turn the flip screen all the way around so you can see yourself in the monitor. It's a great time-saver!

Finally, once you get the exposure you want, take a look at the color balance. Is it too cool? Sometimes, in this type of lighting, the color tint tends to be on the bluish side, which isn't good for anyone's skin tones. To compensate, set the white balance to cloudy and try again. By now, you should have a pretty good-looking photograph. Figure 2-9 shows a more flattering passport picture than I'd get from government photographers.

Figure 2-9. A more flattering passport picture

Upload your images to the computer and pick your favorite. Adjust the brightness and contrast to suit your taste, but don't get artsy. Remember, this has to be a clear, evenly lit image.

Once you have everything in order, make a duplicate of the picture by using the Save As command. Resize your copy so that it's slightly bigger than a 2" 2" or 5cm 5cm square, and print out two copies on your printer. I think that matte surface photo paper looks better for this application.

Trim the photos to size, and head on down to the government office. You now have a passport that you can proudly show to strangers across the globe.