HOWTO: Make Your Own Passport Photos

This is based on my own recent experience renewing my Irish passport. My first photos, taken at the local Walgreens (a U.S. pharmacy chain) were rejected. They may have been fine for a U.S. passport, but they did not meet the current Irish standards. That was about $10 down the drain. I did some searching, found a tutorial online and decided to give it a go myself.

My second pair of photos was accepted. Here's the recipe that worked for me.

Taking the Photo

Modern digital cameras are ridiculously good, but nevertheless it's not trivial to get the picture right. I found the lighting to be the biggest challenge. You want to avoid harsh light and visible shadows. Here are some hints.

Time / Location

  1. Use natural light if at all possible. Try to have light coming from more than one window (or open a door, if that helps).
  2. Watch out for shadows! Too much light coming from one direction is a problem. If it's too sunny, wait for an overcast day.
  3. Find a smooth, white or cream wall to stand in front of
  4. You'll want to stand at least a couple of feet or a little over a half a meter in front of it
  5. The person taking the photo should be over a meter or four feet away from you.
  6. The wall doesn't have be completely free of objects, just the area immediately around your head and shoulders.

Using the Camera

  1. Disable the flash — almost by definition, a flash is harsh light and will cause visible shadows.
  2. Have the person taking the picture hold the camera very steady. If possible, have them lean an elbow against something steady.
  3. Take many pictures. Have the person taking the picture judge when you are straight enough, your facial expression is neutral enough etc.

Digital Image Manipulation

I used the GIMP, a free program available for Linux and (with possible limitations, MacOS and Windows as well). Any decent image manipulation program should be able to do the job as well, but I'll assume GIMP is used here.

original , before processing
My original picture, kid in frame

Measure the Head

You want the number of pixels between the top of the head and the bottom of the chin. (Zoom in so as to show only what you need to see to complete the measurement.)

In the GIMP, the measurement tool is available from the Tools menu or via the keyboard shortcut, shift-M. It helps to hold down the ctrl key while measuring to keep the measure aligned to the vertical. The measurement appears at the bottom edge of the image window, to the right of the zoom level.

To the left of the zoom level is a dropdown menu that allows you to choose the measurement unit — you'll want that to be pixels (px).

Measuring head height in the GIMP

Calculate the Size to Select

This takes two steps:

  1. Calculate the pixels per mm needed to get the right head height
  2. Multiply by the width and height of the photo in mm to get pixels

The following calculator does the calculations, assuming Irish standards (head height 34mm; photo width 37; photo height 49mm).


Setting Up to Select a Fixed Rectangle

The aim is to select the exact rectangle to get the right proportions in the printed result. The GIMP has a rectangle select feature that does what you want.

rectangle select tool box
Setting up fixed a size rectangular select
  1. Choose Rectangle Select. From the menu, that's Tools → Selection Tools → Rectangle Select or just R if you use the keyboard shortcut.
  2. In the toolbox window, at the bottom, find the controls for Rectangle Select.
  3. Tick the Fixed checkbox, choose Size as the thing you want to fix in the dropdown next to that checkbox.
  4. Enter the proportions calculated (widthxheight) below that.
  5. Make sure the Size: unit dropdown reads px for pixels.

Selecting the Rectangle

Actually using the select tool should be relatively easy.

selecting the rectangle to use
Selecting the rectangle to use as the passport photo
  1. Zoom out — you don't need pixel perfect placement for this step
  2. Click and drag to place the rectangle.
  3. Aim to have the centres of the eyes a little above halfway up the selected image.
  4. Once you're happy with the selection, use ctrl-C to copy the selected rectangle to the clipboard.

Brightening the Background

Depending on how you took the picture, it may be acceptable as-is, in which case, skip this step. In my case, the background was a bit dark in the image and needed a bit of brightening. Here's how.

using fuzzy select on the background
Selecting the background using fuzzy select
  1. Paste the selected rectangle into a brand new image (menu: Edit → Paste as → New Image)
  2. Choose the Fuzzy Select tool (menu: Tools → Selection Tools → Fuzzy Select).
  3. Click somewhere on the background; the GIMP should select most of the background, showing a “crawling ants” effect around the head.
  4. Immediately choose the Brightness-Contrast tool (menu: Tools → Color Tools → Brightness-Contrast).
  5. Increase the brightness using the slider or type in a number. I did not find a need to change the contrast. (Click OK.)
  6. Hit ctrl-A to select the whole picture. Hit ctrl-C to copy it to the clipboard.
using fuzzy select on the background
Using the brightness-contrast tool

Creating the Sheet to Print

Choose a size that's convenient for you to get printed. If you want to use your own printer with photo-quality paper, use the size of that paper. Otherwise, use a size that you can print in a shop. (I chose to use 4"x6" because that's the most common size to print in the U.S.) Specific instructions for the GIMP are below.

entering size information for a new image
Creating a new image to print multiple photos
  1. From the file menu on the image window, choose New.
  2. Enter width and height of the final image (4 by 6 inches in my case).
  3. Under Advanced Options, enter the pixels/mm calculated earlier as the X resolution. (The Y resolution should automatically be updated to the same number.)
  4. That's it! Hit OK to get a blank sheet to paste your portait onto.
  5. If you get a warning that you are trying to create an image with a large number of MB, just click OK again. I'm assuming you're using a newish computer with a gigabyte or more of memory.

Paste Your Portrait

pasting in multiple portraits
Pasting in multiple portraits

On a 4"x6" sheet there's just enough space to fit six images, two in each row. It's up to you how much time you want to spend, but in any case, allow some space (at least a millimeter or two) around the outside edge.


Copy the final image file to a USB stick or flash card and take it to a shop that does digital prints. (Ironically, in my case, the same Walgreens that failed me before was the most convenient choice.) Print the size you chose earlier (4 by 6 inches in my case).

That's it. You just need to carefully cut out two of the images for the application. Use the measuring slot on the instruction sheet to ensure that the photo is acceptable before mailing.