Free passport and document photos

People filing immigration forms (I-485, I-765, etc.), especially those with large families, often need to make dozens of passport photos. Getting passport photos done at Costco and other discounters can save you money, but the costs can still add up. If you want to save more, you can make the photos yourself, and you will pay next to nothing (well, maybe $1-$2 depending on the number of photos). In addition to saving money, making your own photo also gives you a chance to take several shot of yourself and pick the best one, the one that you would not be ashamed to show to the customs officers.

To make your own passport photos, you will need the following: (a) digital camera, (b) white (or off-white) background, (c) computer with the Internet connection, (d) image editing software, and (e) scissors. If you do not own a commercial photo editor, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, you can use a free desktop program, such as Paint.NET or GIMP, or an online service. You can edit images online for free at these sites:

Cellsea
Fauxto
ImproveYourImages
Online-image-editor
Pixenate
Phixr
SnipShot
and others

First, read the government guidelines. Make sure you understand do’s and dont’s.

Find a white (or off-white, or even light gray) wall or background. The surface must be uniform, but it does not have to be perfect. I used a regular room wall, but a white board or a projector screen may work even better.

Take a shot. I would recommend taking a photo when there is enough sun light, so that you do not have to use flash. If you use flash, you will need to deal with shadows (to eliminate or reduce shadows, you either need to use background light sources, or erase shadows in the image editor, which can be a hassle). Make sure that you follow the guidelines when taking the photo, but do not worry about composition too much, you will crop the photo later. Take a few shots just in case.

Once you got the photo (image) files, pick the one you like best and, if needed, adjust it in the photo editor paying attention to exposure, glare, shadows, color balance, and contrast. I could not get good lighting, so I started with a rather poor quality photo (I do not have the original, but this one looks similar quality wise).

 

passportphotooriginalsample.jpg

Then I used different photo enhancement techniques in Microsoft Digital Image Suite to make the image more-or-less acceptable (not perfect, but good enough to be accepted by USCIS).

passportphotoimprovedsample.jpg

Once the photo is ready, you need to crop it, so that the resulting image complies with the passport photo requirements. Although you can do it by hand, software makes the process much easier. For photo cropping, I bough a desktop application Passport Photo from OnTheGoSoft for around $10. The program shows an overlay over a loaded photo image which you can resize and move around the photo until you find the optimal composition. After you crop the image, Passport Photo duplicates the cropped result so that it fills 4″x6″ photo paper (you will get six images on a single 4″x6″ sheet). If you do not want to spend $10, you can use Web-based ePassportPhoto, which works similar to Passport Photo, only you would need to upload your original photo to the Web site first.

 

passportphotofinalsample.jpg

After the image file is ready, you can just drop it at your local Wal-Mart, Costco, or any other outlet providing cheap photo printing services. Quite often, digital photo printing sites, such as Snapfish, offer promotions for new customers, so you may be able to get prints for free, but even with the cost of printing, it will take you a $1-$2 at most to get enough prints for the whole family. When printing photos, you may need to choose between glossy or matte paper; according to a USCIS agent I spoke in 2006, either option should work, but I would verify in case the rules change.

Once you receive the prints, use a guillotine paper cutter (if you have access to one) or regular scissors to cut them into 2″x2″ photos along the dotted lines. Take one more look to make sure that the photos do not violate the passport photo guidelines. Enjoy.

UPDATE (08/26/2011): See comments for additional tool suggestions. Also, U.S. Department of State offers a really nice Adobe Flash-based online photo tool to create a photo composition for passport photos (if the URL changes, I suspect, it would be linked from the Passport Photo Requirements page).

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