I remember the photo on my first driving licence. The UK driving test is particularly rigorous, and it had taken me several attempts to pass. So, you can imagine my excitement when my ID finally arrived in the post. I opened the letter, pulled out the photo card, and… squinted. The licence could have belonged to any woman – or man, for that matter. I looked like someone in witness protection, giving an interview to a news reporter. If I peered closely enough, I could just about make out my eyes. And, were those teeth? It was the kind of licence that made people do a double-take each time I handed it over.
Don’t let this happen to you! There’s no need to rely on photo booths set up for people with lighter skin tones, web cameras, or people who can’t see that your right side is clearly better than your left! 😉 It’s perfectly possible to take your own amazing passport selfie. So, I’ve enlisted the help of an expert to show you how. Our guest post author, Tonye Olisa Ifeachor, is the designer and founder of Her Ego London. The online fashion boutique makes custom outfits for women. Tonye also happens to be my sister. So I can vouch for her fashion credentials!
Go old-school: apply on paper
The perfect passport selfie is part lighting, part patience and part skill. But, luckily it’s something that anyone can learn to do by following these steps:
- Apply for your new ID on paper
For some countries – I’m looking at you US and Canada – if you need a new passport you have to take (or send) in a hard copy of your application form. In the UK and other parts of Europe, though, residents have the option of completing their passport renewals entirely online. But, if you want the perfect passport selfie, you should choose to go old-school by completing the paper application form where possible. This route allows you to take, and crucially compare, as many test shots as possible. So, you can choose the very best photo option from the bunch. You’ll have a great picture that will truly last 10 years!
- White backgrounds wash you out
The US passport guidance says to choose a white, or off-white background. And, the UK .gov website specifies white. In either case, it’s actually best to go with a light cream background – if you can find, or create one, perhaps by standing in front of a flat hanging sheet.
- Say ‘no’ to the photo booth aesthetic
Lighting is everything when it comes to a passport photo – especially on black skin tones. That’s why if possible, you should always take your passport selfie at home, rather than relying on the photo booths you might find at the post office. Don’t try to recreate that ‘photo booth’ look at home either, it often leads to dark facial features that are hard to make out. You deserve better!
- Speaking of Lighting…
Natural light is great, if you have easy access to a window wherever you’re stood. But, it can sometimes cause shadows (which is one of the passport photo guideline no-no’s). No need to worry if you don’t have ready access to natural light, because regular indoor bulb lighting is also fine. Just be vigilant to avoid shadows on your face and on your plain background, or your photo/application might be rejected. If you can see a shadow on the wall behind you, move the position of your lights, if possible, and stand closer to the background wall.
- How to stand or sit
Your angle should be straight on to the camera, with the top of your shoulders and the top of your head comfortably in the frame. If your head is just skimming the top of the shot, it’s best to reposition your camera and take another photo. So, much is right about the picture below: the lighting, his position… his bone structure 😉 But, since this man’s head is slightly cut off by the top of the frame, it’s still a #PhotoFail.
- Know where to direct your (slight) smile
When applying for a UK passport, you’re not supposed to smile. Whilst in the US, a “neutral expression” or “natural smile” is allowed – aren’t all smiles natural? I hear you ask. Apparently not 🙂
When I take a passport selfie, I give a very slight smile, without teeth. I’m clearly in a car in the image below, and my hair is covering the sides of my face – which is a passport #PhotoFail. But, I’m giving a good example of what I mean by a ‘slight smile’ which would be acceptable in UK and US passports.
Take that ‘slight smile’ and look straight into the camera lens. A good trick for iPhone users is to look at the yellow dot on your camera screen (I think it’s the Live Photos on/off function.) However, that’s irrelevant. The point is, look at this as a mark only, and you’ll appear to be looking directly into the lens. For other smartphones, just take as many test photos as you can and practice, making sure to notice where your eyeline is for the most effective shots. It may take a few tries to get it spot on. Stare too intensely at the camera and you can come off as aggressive. But, slightly avoid the camera’s gaze and you risk looking vacant. Or, worse you might also risk your photo being rejected.
Photo: courtesy of Tonye Olisa, Instagram
- Hide your camera arm
The US Department of State website advises that you should “have someone else take your photo. No selfies”. But, with enough practice you can take a great passport selfie that doesn’t look like a selfie. Get in close enough, and change your grip on your phone, and no one will suspect you took it yourself. Again, see my photo above. That black strip to the right of my necklace, is actually the seatbelt. My camera arm is nowhere to be seen.
- Keep a steady camera hand
Make sure to steady your hand so that your passport selfie is not blurry, and comes out as sharp as possible. Most smartphones have a built-in stabiliser mode which helps.
- Turn off your camera flash
Don’t use a flash when taking your passport photos. The sudden burst of light won’t work well against dark skin for this type of picture. It can create harsh reflections, and if your flash is captured on screen it will result in your photo being rejected. If you feel you need extra lighting, though, bring in extra lamps. These fill lights will lift the illumination in the photo, in a more pleasing way than a flash could.
- How many fill lights do you need? Match your real life skin tone
If you’re wondering how many lights to use, and what exactly makes for good passport selfie lighting, there’s an easy way to tell. A good rule of thumb is to try to match your real life skin tone. Take a few test shots. Do the photos look lighter than your real life skin tone? Looks like you’ve used too many lights, or that they are too bright. Good lighting will help match your normal skin tone as close as possible.
- Use the rear camera
You can put your phone on selfie/front camera mode if it’s easier to hold. And, these days, front-facing cameras are actually pretty good. However, rear cameras are usually better quality. So, check in your settings menu to see if you can configure the camera to take a photo each time you use the volume buttons. Check for similar shortcut functions for other brand phones. This will allow you to hold the camera securely in one hand and take several passport selfies quickly and easily.
- Use online printing services to develop your selfies
Save your photo to an online storage space, like Dropbox. Then, choose an online digital photo printing service, there are a number of quality businesses these days e.g. in the UK there’s Jessops and Digitalab. Meanwhile in the US you might try, Shutterfly.
Upload your photo to their site, select standard passport sizing, and pay for printing and postage to your home address. Alternatively, save your chosen images to a usb stick as a JPG file, and physically take it into a photo printing shop.
- Stay away from app filters
Don’t be tempted to use a filter (like the example below). You’re posting this photo to a government agency, not Instagram!
Photo: courtesy of Her Ego London, Instagram
I hope that you’ve found these tips useful and that you feel ready now to rock your own passport selfie! Remember, you can always refer back to this page for a refresher. Or, if you’d like to check official country-specific guidelines, you can double-check the rules for the UK, the rules for the US – or another appropriate authority website, given your citizenship.