How to Take a Passport Photo You Won’t Hate for 10 Years

Do you know the serial killer Charlize Theron played in the 2003 movie Monster? The role for which the actress underwent a physical transformation so spectacular that it earned her an Oscar?

Well, that’s exactly what I look like in my current passport photo.

My current passport photo, worthy of a serial killer, compared to the one taken by a professional photographer.

Provided

My current passport photo, worthy of a serial killer, compared to the one taken by a professional photographer.

Needing to renew my passport last year, I went to the nearest pharmacy to have my photo taken, paying $20 for the convenience of having someone take a photo that was guaranteed to meet the requirements.

And yes, it ticked all the technical boxes – but it was also quite possibly the most unflattering photo ever taken of me. And I was stuck with that for the next 10 years.

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For the camera shy, having a passport photo taken is a special kind of torture. There’s nothing more confronting than being presented with a full frontal view of your fizzog, discovering that one of your nostrils is undeniably larger than the other.

“It’s a bit scary for a lot of people because you really see yourself,” says professional photographer James Gilberd, owner of Photospace studio and gallery in Wellington.

“What you have to remember is the idea of ​​a [biometric] photo ID is that a computer can recognize your face. This means taking your facial features and measuring them.

“And yes, it brings out those slight differences between the left side and the right side of your face – that everyone has.”

Gilbert has been offering passport photos as a specialty service for over 20 years, charging the same price you would pay at a drugstore – $20. The difference is that he uses his expertise and professional equipment to take a shot that won’t make you cringe at the check-in counter.

Photographer James Gilberd is a master in the art of passport photos.

Jericho Rock-Archer / Stuff

Photographer James Gilberd is a master in the art of passport photos.

Intrigued by the promise of a “good” mug shot – or at least one where my murderous tendencies aren’t as apparent – ​​I was eager to visit Gilberd to learn the ropes.

Turns out, lighting is key and the main reason you might consider hiring a professional. For his passport photos, Gilbert uses a studio flash with an umbrella reflector.

But even if you have someone take your photo at home (and no, you can’t just take a selfie), there are some things you can do to improve it.

Avoid relying on room lighting or your camera’s built-in flash, says Gilberd. “They are brutal.”

Instead, find a window that doesn’t get direct sunlight, ideally on a cloudy day. You have to face the window for the light to hit you head-on. For New Zealand passports, you’ll also need a plain, light-colored background (light blue, gray or cream work well, according to the Department of Home Affairs passport website).

As for the camera, ideally you’ll get one with a decent zoom, not just a little point and shoot. These days, most smartphone cameras will do, but the photographer will need to zoom in at around 1.5m away – if they’re too close, your features will be distorted. From this angle, you will look like a blobfish; a gelatinous mass with a bulbous nose.

The “brutal” (read: bold) effects of flash, and what happens if the photographer gets too close.

James Gilbert/Supplied

The “brutal” (read: bold) effects of flash, and what happens if the photographer gets too close.

It’s a humid, pore-opening day when I meet Gilberd, and within minutes he’s handing me tissues to mop my face. He also encourages me to straighten my hair and adjust my clothes and necklace to make sure everything is in place. These little details can make a big difference.

When posing for the photo, Gilbert recommends letting out a few deep breaths to relax. Avoid wringing your hands or clenching them into fists, like a rugby team photo – tension will build in your shoulders and jaw. Give them a little shake before placing them loosely on your lap.

If you’re aware that you’re a flasher, you might end up overcompensating by forcing your eyes open and staring too hard at the camera. Blink several times to relax your eyes.

The goal is a “neutral” expression, with the mouth closed. You’re not supposed to smile, but that doesn’t mean you have to look actively disagreeable. The more relaxed you are, the less stern you will appear.

It might take a few shots to settle into the process – Gilberd says he regularly takes half a dozen, and shots four, five and six are usually the winners.

Ultimately, getting a decent shot has “nothing to do with what you look like,” he says.

“It’s how you feel and how you stand in front of the camera.”

As someone who has always considered themselves chronically unphotogenic, I’m pleasantly surprised by the “good” option Gilberd sends me.

The grim expression and bulging under-eye bags that haunt my current passport photo are all but gone, thanks to quality lighting and expert instruction from Gilberd. I would even go so far as to describe it as a photo ID shard.

It’s just a shame that I have nine years left before I can officially change it.

Jack C. Nugent