The Day I Aged a Decade

It’s that time again. The dreaded time to renew my passport. I got my first passport when I was 14 and ever since then I’ve had a series of truly unflattering passport photos. Usually I go to the pharmacy or the copy shop to get it done, where a beleaguered employee, who is simultaneously expected to run the cash register, rushes me over to a corner, grabs a point and shoot camera, and snaps. Without time to review, whatever photo comes out in the first shot becomes the one I’m stuck with.

This time, I decided enough was enough. I got a photo that was my worst yet. Frozen mid-blink, the bags under my eyes and my sallow complexion made me look like I’d been up for three nights straight binge-watching Orange is the New Black. I imagined myself for years to come, cringing whenever I opened my passport at the airport and getting the stinkeye from flight attendants because my photo looked so shifty. As a friend said when I showed her, “It looks like they had a time machine that fast-forwarded to your future self in 10 years.”

But when I stopped to think about it – why did I need to resign myself to the worst passport photo ever? Why not take my own? Here you can see the before and after, taken about 20 minutes apart. I did not edit the 2nd photo at all or change my makeup.

(Please forgive the poor scan quality of the first photo)

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A few simple tricks made all the difference in the world and can help you take a better passport photo.

  1. Lighting: At the pharmacy, yellow fluorescent light poured down on me from directly overhead. At that angle, it highlighted every flaw, cast me in a sickly glow and made the lines around my eyes really pop. In the 2nd photo, I opened the curtains and positioned myself near but not too near the window to utilize the diffused daytime light.
  1. Positioning: While both photos are against a white background, I stood a little further away from it in the 2nd photo to create a softer shadow against the wall.
  1. Symmetry: In the first photo, my shoulders are uneven. One is way higher than the other, which put my head at a wonky tilt. To be honest, wonky is my natural posture, but it’s worth putting in extra effort even if it feels weird and unnatural. In the 2nd photo, I made sure to stand with my shoulders even and square to the camera and push my chin out and down, which adds definition to the jawline.
  1. Eyes: Having fully open eyes seems obvious, but the difference is really dramatically displayed here. Even though you aren’t allowed to smile with an open mouth for the passport, thinking of something that makes you feel happy and confident can create a better expression on your face.

If you decide to take your own passport photo, don’t be afraid to take several and pick the best among the bunch. Keep in mind that you need to follow certain size rules for the passport office to accept the photo, like having it be 2 in. x 2 in in size and other requirements.

I know it seems silly to go to all this effort for a single photograph, but there’s comfort in knowing that every time you take out your passport over the next 10 years, you can like the photo inside.

3 Comments on “The Day I Aged a Decade

  1. I found out my passport expired and decided to take my own photo this time. Haven’t done so yet, so I’m glad I checked out your post! Is the open smile a new reguation? My current pic shows teeth.

    • Hi April! Glad you are going the route of taking it yourself – it’s free and the result is a million times better. The guidelines only specify that you need to have a neutral expression, which I suppose has to do with biometrics scanning and face recognition.

  2. Love this post! My most recent passport photo was horrible too!

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