Ugly Passport Photographs and How to Avoid Them

I will admit that I’m not the most handsome chap on earth, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that I am un-photogenic. I don’t have a “good side.” I’m sort of funny-looking from any angle. In normal life, in real life, this hardly matters because I’m always moving. But take a still photograph of me, and all the flaws get nailed down: ears are crooked. The nose is too big. Shoulders aren’t level. And what’s up with the hair?

My first passport picture, back when I was young and almost handsome, was my best. I went to a professional photography salon, and we spent a lot of time getting the right picture. But ten years later for my renewal, I cheaped out and went to a drugstore where they only gave me a couple of tries to capture a usable image. The finished product looked like the mugshot it was, and I was stuck with that ugly mug for the next decade.

Sadly, this is a common story. Not all of us are naturally photogenic—or, better yet, naturally good-looking. Passport pictures tend to be unflattering, to put it mildly. Do you want to know why?

Why we look bad in our passport photos

We look harried, frazzled and impatient in our passport pictures because we were harried, frazzled and impatient when the picture was taken.

I know I was impatient that day in the drugstore. I had to wait in line behind a couple of problem customers who slowed everything down. The clerk who took the pictures was also harried and impatient. The customer service was awful. They took two pictures, and I got to choose the lesser of two evils to be my official photo. The whole process put me in a bad mood, and that bad mood was as plain as the expression on my face.

Some people might say that a frazzled, bad-mood photo is the perfect picture to reflect how you’re most likely to look when traveling internationally: tired, angry, and a little stunned. But I prefer to have a passport photo that reflects the inner me: a cheerful and confident traveler with a sparkle in his eyes and a vague half-smile on his lips. Read on for some tips on how to get a great passport photograph.

Take your passport photos online

The DOs and DON’Ts of passport photos

As you may have figured out from my story above, I recommend that you DON’T go to the drugstores for your passport photo. Yes, it’s cheaper than at the Post Office (and MUCH cheaper than in a photography salon!), but they get a lot of turnover in those stores and the clerk who takes your picture may not have much experience. It can be frustrating.

I also DON’T recommend the Post Office. The clerks there are likely to be much more experienced with the equipment, and provide better results than at the drugstore—but the Post Office is definitely going to be busy, and the process is still going to be rushed. Also, $15 is the high end of the passport photo price range—you can do better almost anywhere else.

What you DO want to do is to relax. Give yourself plenty of time, and take plenty of pictures to capture just the right image. Turn on the music and play your favorite songs. Would you like to know where—in what magical place—you can find great customer service like this? Why, in the privacy of your own home, of course!

Take your own passport photos at home

By avoiding the hassle of taking your pictures at the Post Office or in a drugstore, you’re already going to be considerably more relaxed and at ease—and believe me, the difference in your attitude will clearly show in your photos. Take all the time you need and take as many pictures as you like. Wear your hair in different ways. Play your favorite songs out loud. Put on different shirts or ties or jackets. Experiment with makeup. Have your best friend come over to act as your photographer, critic and assistant.

If you choose to take your own pictures at home, there are a few things you need to know about getting the right image. Keep reading for some important tips.

Lighting and background

To look your best, smooth and even light is a must. The best light is diffused daylight: it will make you look glowing and beautiful. What you want is early morning or late afternoon sunlight on a cloudy day. Avoid full sun because it can be harsh. Stand near a white wall (or hang up a white sheet if you don’t have a white wall), preferably facing a window. Some gauze curtains on the window can help to diffuse the light.

If you need to add light, make sure that the lamps you use have a “daylight” color temperature or else the artificial light won’t match your sunlight, and you’ll get an ugly picture. Also, avoid using a flash because this will cause the ugliest effect of them all: red eyes!

To smile or not to smile?

We usually advise people not to smile in their passport pictures because this is the only way to be sure you’re not smiling too much. But the State Department has relaxed their Do Not Smile requirement somewhat in recent years, and a slight smile is now permissible. Let me emphasize the word “slight.” This means NO TEETH! No big movie-star grins. In other words, keep your lips sealed. Think happy thoughts, and wear a relaxed but pleasant expression on your face. Don’t overdo it.

What makeup is best for your passport photo?

You want your makeup to be subtle and natural-looking for your passport photos. Don’t do anything over-the-top like you’re about to go out to a bachelorette party at a downtown nightclub! Keep it simple: perhaps a light matte foundation, a little blush, and a little mascara. Your picture needs to show the actual, natural color of your skin. Avoid sparkling or shiny makeup such as lip gloss and glittery eyeshadow. Maybe ditch the false eyelashes.

What hairstyle should you go for?

You can probably wear your hair the way you usually do, with some exceptions. Remember that your entire face must be visible in the passport photo, so if you usually comb your hair over your eyes, or hide behind big “emo” bangs, then you will need to make a change. The fringe of your bangs cannot cross over the line of your eyebrows, so big bangs will need to be combed back.

If you have really long hair, you may want to wear it up in the photo. If you have really big hair, like a large afro, you may want to pull it back because your hair cannot extend beyond the edge of the photograph. Other than this, feel free to wear your hair as you like.

Avoid these things when taking your passport photo

To look your best, you gotta feel your best. Avoid taking your pictures when you feel stressed out, or haven’t gotten enough sleep, or are in a bad mood.

Avoid heavy makeup, exaggerated hairstyles, and outrageous clothing. Military uniforms or anything that looks like a military uniform (including camouflage patterns) are not allowed. Keep your accessories simple; for example, big earrings that impinge upon the oval of your face may cause your photo to be turned down, so wear simple studs instead.

Eyeglasses are not permitted at all, so take off your glasses.

Fashionable hats and caps are also not allowed. You may wear religious head covers such as yarmulkes and hijabs if it is something you wear every day for religious reasons. Still, you will need to provide a signed statement attesting to your religion.

Do not use digital filters to beautify, enhance or alter the photograph in any way. Avoid using image editing software such as Photoshop. To properly crop and resize your image, you should use dedicated passport photo software.

Final thoughts

Your biometric passport photo has one job: to identify you at border crossings. But that job can be done with style and grace if you just put a little effort into getting the perfect passport photo.


Do I need a professional camera to take my own passport picture?

No, you don’t need a professional camera to take your passport photo. If you have a modern smartphone with a high-resolution camera, it will definitely do the job. If you don’t have one, ask a friend or family member who has either a smartphone or a digital camera to let you borrow it. Perhaps they can help you take the photos while they’re at it!

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