How to Take a Professional Looking Passport Photo at Home (Without Equipment): The Definitive DIY Guide

by Mikko H.·
Updated Oct 9, 2020
·24 min read
Bad passport photo example
Bad: dis­tor­tion, un­even light­ing, etc.
Good passport photo example
✔️ Better: same person and camera, but a better photo

In this post, you’re going to learn exactly how to take a perfect passport, visa, or ID photo at home without any studio equipment.

You already know the basics: neutral facial expression, face the camera, etc. Instead of repeating those, I’ll tell you the things that most overlook.

With these tips, anyone can take professional-looking passport photos that will always get approved.

Let’s get started.

Avoid Face Distortion by Using a Distance of Minimum 1 Meters (3 Feet)

Animated comparison of facial photographs with different amount of distortion

(Click here to close the animation, if it distracts you.)

In the animation, you see three photos taken with the same camera lens, with the same focal length, from different distances. Images have been cropped so that the face is the same size in each frame.

We clearly see that there’s a different amount of distortion in the three photos. Everything else is equal, except the distance the photos were taken. Short distance causes more distortion.

Side note: If you’re not familiar with the term focal length, consider it a certain amount of zoom. 50 mm or greater focal length is a suitable choice for portrait photography. A 50 mm lens (or photographic objective) means a lens with a focal length of 50 mm. If the camera’s base focal length is 20 mm, then 2x zoom would mean a focal length of 40 mm (2 * 20 mm = 40 mm), and so on.

An often-repeated myth is that wide-angle lenses (small focal length), including those used in smartphones, cause lens distortion. As a result, all photographs taken with such lenses have distorted proportions, the story goes. This is incorrect. In reality, the distortion is only caused by the distance between the lens and the subject.

At the end of this section, I’ll explain why this has become the myth, but we will first learn the facts.

If you’re not interested in the technical details, you can skip the next section and the examples.

Why distance matters?

Let’s take a look at the figures below to see why the distance affects distortion.

How long distance light travels from subject's face to camera with different camera distances
dnose: 50 cm (19.7 inches)
dear: 58.3 cm (23.0 inches)
Difference: 16 %
triangle up short lines marked
dnose: 20 cm (7.9 inches)
dear: 37.5 cm (14.8 inches)
Difference: 87.5 %

Think of the red and blue dashed lines as example paths of light traveling from the face to the camera.

If the nose is 20 cm (7.9 inches) from the lens, the ears are 37.5 cm (14.8 inches) away, which is a difference of 87.5 %. If the lens is 50 cm (19.7 inches) from the nose, the distance between the lens and the ears is 58.3 cm (23.0 inches). There’s only a difference of 16 % this time.

When the camera is far away from the face, the ears and the nose are almost the same distance from the camera.

If the camera is close to the face, the distance to the ears is almost double the distance to the nose!

If something is closer to the camera, it seems more prominent in the photo. If the camera is near the face, the nose is enormous compared to the ears because it is 87,5 % closer to the camera.

In other words: Short distance causes distortion because there is a sizeable relative distance difference from the lens to different facial features.

Notice also that in the right figure, the blue lines to the ears almost touch the cheeks. This is why the ears are barely visible when a photo is taken close to the face.

Fun fact: The above-described effect is known as Dolly Zoom or Vertigo Effect in film making. Watch a fun and informative Youtube video about it: The Dolly Zoom: More Than A Cheap Trick by Now You See It.

The greater the distance, the less distorted the photograph is. 3 meters (10 feet) is already so long that any extra distance can’t easily be detected by the amount of distortion. Less than 3 meters (10 feet) is ok, but a typical selfie-distance (little less than arm’s length) is too short if you want to avoid distortion.

I recommend you use at minimum a distance of 1 meter (3 feet). Use a greater distance if you can. In other words, use the longest possible distance, up to 3 meters (10 feet), that your camera allows you to use without it affecting the quality of the end result after too much.

Let’s take a look at some concrete examples.

Example photos with a 50 mm lens

Above, you can compare three photographs taken from different distances with 50 mm focal length.

(For the photography enthusiasts: All example photos are shot with a camera that has an APS-C crop sensor.)

The photos are cropped so that the subject is the same size in all photographs.

  1. 50 mm lens, 30 cm (1 ft) distance. The first image is cropped tighter than the others because 50 mm lens this close to the subject doesn’t produce wider images. I.e., the image is not cropped at all, because there was not enough of it. Notice how the ears of our subject are almost not visible.
  2. 50 mm lens, 1 m (3 ft) distance. The second photo looks already quite good and natural. Still, for example, our subject’s nose appears more prominent than it really is.
  3. 50 mm lens, 2 m (7 ft) distance. The last photo seems to be flatter than the others because, e.g., the subject’s nose is not overly pronounced. From these three photos, this is the closest to reality. Out of these three photos, the subject has the best smile in the second one, but try to look past the facial expression when judging the distortion!

Example photos with a 17 mm lens

Above, you can compare three photographs taken from different distances with 17 mm focal length. 17 mm lens is close to a typical lens found in a smartphone. The photos are cropped so that the subject is the same size in all photographs.

  1. 17 mm lens, 30 cm (1 ft) distance. Clearly distorted.
  2. 17 mm lens, 1 m (3 ft) distance. Less distorted.
  3. 17 mm lens, 2 m (7 ft) distance. No easily visible distortion. The photo had to be cropped so much the image quality has visibly decreased.

Compare the 17 mm lens examples to the 50 mm lens examples above. When the distance is the same, the photos look the same (after cropping).

Comparison: Same distance, 50 mm vs. 17 mm lens (cropped to the same size)

Above is a side-by-side comparison of the middle-distance photos from the earlier example.

The first one is shot from 1 m (3 ft) distance with a 17 mm lens.

The second is shot from the same distance with a 50 mm lens.

Notice how there is no difference in the distortion because the distance is the same, even though the focal lengths are different. For example, the ears look identical in both photos. If a wider lens caused more distortion, we’d see a difference in this comparison.

Myth busted

The myth of wide lenses causing distortion is probably based on the fact that if you want a subject to fill the whole frame with a wide lens, you need to be close to the subject. In other words, a wide lens leads you to go close to the subject.

Luckily, even if you’re stuck with a wide lens, you don’t have to go close to the subject. Take the photograph from a long enough distance and crop the picture later, with, for example, our passport photo editor. You’ll lose pixels, but ID photos are anyway required to be so small in size that it doesn’t cause any harm.

Note that a non-wide (for example, 50 mm or 85 mm) lens is, of course, better for portraits than a wide lens. It allows you to take the photograph from a long enough distance without the need to crop it exceedingly later.

The earlier mentioned lens distortion is also a real, but a separate and lens-specific, effect. It’s a milder effect and causes a different kind of distortion than the distortion caused by the distance.

You don’t need to worry about lens distortion, no matter the camera you’re using. You do need to worry about distance distortion, no matter the camera you’re using!

If you want to learn more about the subject, I recommend this excellent in-depth post: Face distortion is not due to lens distortion.

A distorted selfie-style passport photo can lead to unwanted stops at airports

In 2020, passport control is partly automated in some airports. On automated passport control, the subject’s face is compared to the photograph on the passport. Automatic face recognition is based on measuring distances between the features of the face. If the passport photograph is distorted, the automated check can fail.

Picture illustrating a recommended distance between background and the subject.
Photo: Delta

Of course, distortions also affect humans’ ability to compare the photograph to the real face.

4 Lighting Tips for Total Photography Beginners

It doesn’t matter how good your camera is; you can’t take a good photograph in bad lighting.

What is bad lighting? Bad lighting is not enough light. In the passport photo context, bad lighting is also direct light that creates pronounced shadows and light that unevenly illuminate the face.

The good news is that setting up lighting isn’t rocket science that only professionals could do.

In fact, you don’t even need any lights or equipment besides the ones you already have available.

No artificial light beats the sun, so take advantage of it.

As a rule of thumb, the daylight on a cloudy day (at around midday) is near-optimal. It’s diffused (soft), it’s white, and there’s enough light.

Here are the tips.

1. You have to have enough light (prefer daylight)

Cameras produce better pictures when they receive more light to the sensor. Regular ceiling lights on a dark evening aren’t enough for a good result. If you can’t get sunlight in, wait until you can. If you can’t wait, put on all possible lights and/or use flash.

The color temperature of daylight (just avoid early mornings and late evenings) is better (white, 5500 K) than on average ceiling lights (yellow, 2800 K).

If you have daylight available, try using it only. If the subject is unevenly lit, or there are too hard shadows, try filling with a lamp or flash.

2. Diffuse the light

Don’t use direct sunlight, and don’t point a table lamp directly at the subject’s face like in an interrogation. Instead, direct the lamp towards a wall or a ceiling to bounce and diffuse the light. Diffused light doesn’t create hard shadows. Optional: Instead of buying a softbox, put a piece of white paper or cloth in front of the lamp.

The same applies to flash. Try holding a clean piece of white printing paper about 20 cm (8 inches) from the flash to diffuse the light. Suppose you can’t direct the flash independently. In that case, you can use a small mirror to direct the flash towards the ceiling instead of the subject. However, if the flash and the lens are close to each other (like in a smartphone), this can be hard to achieve.

Even though sunlight is recommended, avoid direct sunlight. Sunlight is non-direct on a cloudy day or when the sun doesn’t shine directly in through the windows. If the sun shines directly through your windows, consider closing curtains, given that they let some light through.

3. Turn the subject’s face towards the (primary) source of the light

Make sure that the subject is evenly lit. In a home setting, it is often easier to move the subject than the light source. For example, if your primary source of light is a window, the subject should turn towards the window. Otherwise, the other side of the subject’s face will get more light, and there will be shadows on the other side.

4. Try different settings and positions.

Try different combinations of light sources and try moving your subject around to find the best spot. Try at different times of the day. Even the pros have to do trial and error. If you have an option to use flash, try taking a photo with and without, and see which one is better.

How to Get an Even Background Without Shadows

The background of a passport photograph has to be light-colored, or preferably white, and even. Use a wall, a door, or a bedsheet.

If possible, the subject should be at least half a meter (1-2 feet) from the background. This helps you avoid creating shadows from the subject to the background, and you can get some blur effect on the background, when you focus on the subject.

The subject doesn’t have to sit on a chair. They can also stand or sit on the floor. For example, if the subject is sitting on the floor, you can create a background by placing a bed sheet on the back of a couple of chairs. If the subject was sitting on a chair, the background would have to be higher, which could be harder to setup.

If you have to choose between a place where the lighting is good and where the background is good, always go for the good lighting.

Many problems with the background can be solved by photo editing. E.g., free online editor Pixlr has an excellent spot removal tool. Lighting is much harder to fix after the photo is taken.

Get the Correct 90° Angle With a Tripod, DIY Stand, or by Leaning Forward

Place the camera at the same height as the subject’s face is. If you don’t have a tripod or a friend to take the photo, chairs, tables, ladders, etc. are good alternatives.

If the phone or the camera slides, place a towel on top of the surface to add friction.

Make sure that the camera is pointing towards the subject at a correct angle! If the subject is sitting on a chair, it can be surprisingly hard to find a high enough surface for the camera (same hight as the subject’s face/eyes).

A line from the camera to the subject’s face, and a line parallel to the subject’s back, have to meet at a 90° angle.

Photo hack: It’s only the angle between the subject and the camera that matters. If the typical setup is hard to achieve, think outside of the box. For example, the subject can sit on the floor, so that you can have the camera lower as well.

You can also place the camera on the floor and ask the subject to lean forward so that the angle matches a standard setup.

Just to reinforce the point: you could even lie on your back on the floor and tape the camera to the ceiling, pointing downwards. Actually, this kind of setup can really be used with babies! (Instead of taping the camera, a parent would hold it.)

Avoid Blurred Photos by Using a Focus Placeholder

If you’re taking the photo alone, getting the focus right can be a bit tricky. It’s hard to focus on something, in this case, your face, when it’s not yet in front of the camera.

When you’re setting up the timer, focus the camera, e.g., to the chair you’re going to be sitting on. Do not pre-focus on the background, because it’s further away from the camera than you will be.

Autofocus on cameras usually works best when there’s an object with clear borders. Try to place a dark item where you will be sitting, pre-focus the camera to the object, set the timer, run to the chair, throw the object away, and sit down.

The autofocus algorithm works by trying to minimize the blur on the area of focus. In other words, it tries to maximize the color difference between neighboring pixels. A sharp contrast, e.g., a black bottle on a white background, helps it because there is a significant color difference when the focus is right.

Some cameras can automatically focus on a face even when the timer is used. Take advantage of this feature if it’s available!

Camera Settings for a Passport Photo - Use Zoom Wisely

The default mode on your camera is just fine. Use portrait mode, if you have one on your camera.

Use a timer option if you’re taking the photo by yourself.

Don’t try to take a selfie and don’t use a mirror. In a selfie, the distance is not long enough. It’s impossible to take the photo with a mirror without the camera getting in the picture while maintaining the correct angle.

Check that you don’t have any automatic filters or face retouching on.

If you have optical zoom, use it. Zoom in, so that subject’s face fills the frame when the photo is taken from a long enough distance. Leave plenty of extra room for later cropping. You can crop afterward, but you can’t add more to the photo. You can’t align everything perfectly while taking the photo because the specifications are so strict; you’ll have to crop the photo later anyway.

A common mistake is to align the photo with the camera so tightly that there isn’t enough background visible over the subject’s head.

If you have digital zoom (typical zoom on a smartphone), you can use it, but you don’t have to, because you get the same result by cropping later. Digital zoom is effectively just cropping.

If you’re unsure if your zoom is digital or optical, it’s better to zoom as suggested for optical zoom. That is, use the zoom.

Always place the subject in the center of the photo, when taking the photograph! Even if you could crop the picture technically correct, subjects closer to the sides of the frame can have distortions.

Cropping, Aligning, and Editing a Passport Photo

Passport and ID photos have strict size and proportion specifications that must be followed. Check the specifications from your local authority.

Whether you need a photo file with exact pixel size or print a photo with a specific physical size, you can use Passport Photo Lab-tool. The tool is free and works online on your browser with all devices, including mobile devices.

Passport Photo Lab has built-in helpers for typical size specifications. You can also freely enter any size and alignment specifications you want.

We recommend that you don’t use a passport photo app that requires you to align your face to the requirements while taking the photo. The alignment is hard to get right at this phase. Most importantly, it can force you to take the picture from a non-optimal distance, causing distortion.

It’s beneficial to first concentrate on taking a good photo, taking care of the alignment and size afterward.

Printing an ID Photo at Home vs. Ordering a Print

If you print the photo at home, consider using photo paper. Paper quality plays a significant role in the end result. Also, check the printing settings and make sure to select the best quality. Standard settings are usually a compromise between quality, printing speed, and ink consumption.

Windows 10 system print dialog
On Windows 10, select "Preferences" in the system print dialog to access print quality settings.

Emily has written excellent tips to get a great quality print at home on The Graphics Fairy. Make sure to check it out!

If you need a printed photo, but you don’t have a suitable printer, you can still take the picture your self at home.

Take a photo, crop it to the right size and order a printed version from your favorite photo printing service.

If you live in the US, check this photo printing service comparison from PhotoBlog.

With Passport Photo Lab-tool the metadata will be set to the image file automatically correctly. The photo will get printed to the correct size with every printer. Just make sure you don’t select any printing options to stretch or shrink the image.

Why Take an ID Photo Yourself?

It’s worth it to consider your options.

Pros:

  • It’s free.
  • You can save time by taking it at home.
  • You can take your time and take as many photos as needed until you get the result you want. This reduces the risk of having an ID photo where you look horrible. Photo services can advertise that they will take as many pictures as needed until you’re satisfied, but think about it realistically. How many times are you going to ask them to retake your photo?

Cons:

  • It can be more convenient to take the photo at a booth or a studio near your usual daily route.
  • It might not be worth the saved money if you have to spend a lot of time setting things up at home. E.g., if you don’t have a suitable background readily available.

Are you worried if your self-taken photo will get accepted?

Requirements for an ID photo can be divided into three categories:

  1. Facial expression, posture, etc.
  2. Studio setup, such as lighting and background. (This doesn’t have to be as professional as it sounds.)
  3. Post-processing: editing, cropping, and printing the photo.

The most important rules for passport and other ID photos consider facial expression and posture. These rules can be met as easily at home as anywhere else.

The hardest parts are the technical aspects.

For the home studio setup, you have this complete guide.

Editing the photo can be a challenging task if you’re not familiar with photo editing software. You need to edit the picture to the correct size, either for print or for online submission, and get the face to be precisely the right size in the photo.

If you’re good at photo editing, just go ahead and use your favorite software. For everyone else, we have published a free, studio-grade yet easy-to-use online ID photo editor.

That’s all three tackled!

Based on what I have heard from Passport Photo Lab users, self-taken photos are accepted almost 100 % of the time.

Bonus: Tips for Taking a Passport Photo of a Baby or a Toddler

Lay your baby on his or her back on a white or light-colored sheet. Take the photo from above. Be careful to select the place and the lighting so that there aren’t shadows on the baby’s face.

Another option is to use a car seat. Cover it with a white or light-colored sheet. The seat will help keep your baby’s head supported while you take the photo.

Olivia Frost has written a great post about how to take baby passport photos at Tots To Travel. Make sure to check it out if you’re taking a DIY baby passport photo!

Conclusion

Although I wrote this lengthy article on the topic, taking an ID photo at home without professional equipment is simple.

Taking the photo yourself isn’t always the best choice, but it can save you time and money.

Taking a passport photo at home often results in a better-looking picture than you could get elsewhere. Even if your equipment isn’t studio-quality, you can take your time and genuinely re-take the photo until you are satisfied. Remember, you’re stuck with the picture for years!

The hardest part of ID photography at home is the setup. I recommend that you

  • wait for the next sunny day,
  • take advantage of the natural light, and
  • shoot from at minimum 1 meter (3 feet) distance.

Editing and cropping the photo to meet passport standards can be done with your favorite editor or our free online passport photo editor app.

My most essential tip, which applies to any photography: Try different things and take several photos from which you can pick the best one.

Have you already tried our online passport photo editor? (There’s a demo photo. No registration needed.)