Bad Passport Photos And How To Avoid Them

woman pulling a silly face

If we were to come up with a list of things that 99% of people fail, taking an official photo for documents would be somewhere close to the top. Indeed, passport photographs turn out notoriously bad: even if your appearance is close to that of a supermodel, it doesn’t guarantee you a model-like headshot. Some even say that if you don’t look ugly in your picture, you’ve been doing something wrong.

Anyway, it doesn’t mean you have no other choice but to take an ugly mugshot that will remain in your British travel document for the next decade. Taking a good passport photo is not as difficult as you might think (as the saying goes, worry gives a small thing a big shadow). Let’s see what makes a bad passport photo and what you can do to make it more attractive!


Why Are Passport Photos So Bad

Let’s start with a very important disclaimer: it’s not one’s appearance that spoils a passport photo, it’s the very conditions this photo is taken under. If you don’t look like yourself in the picture, it’s very likely that your eyes do not deceive you: anyone will look unnatural or even uncanny if they look straight at the camera with a strictly neutral facial expression. To top it off, the lighting used in this kind of photography leaves no room for shadow.

Let’s look at five things that are usually responsible for ruining your passport picture.

photo session

Common Photo-Spoiling Factors


For most of us, taking a passport shot is actually a big deal. Perhaps, even too big a deal. Excessive anxiety will result in an awful-looking headshot you’ll be stuck with for the next ten years.

Overall Tiredness

If you’re working nine-to-five on weekdays, you most probably have to handle your personal matters closer to the end of the day, and it may show in your photo. If you’ve had a long day of hard work, your headshot will definitely reflect your fatigue.


It works the other way around, too: if you got out of your bed less than an hour ago, it’s a no-go for a photo session. No matter how well-rested you are, your sleep-clouded eyes and overall half-awake state will make your headshot look ridiculous.

Poor Lighting

When taking your picture by yourself without proper preparation, it’s very easy to mess up the lighting. Poorly arranged illumination will highlight any imperfections you might have and distort the facial proportions. Although, the same can happen at a photo studio run by an unprofessional photographer.

Clothes And Background Of Similar Colours

Want to put on a neat light grey shirt for your photo take? Please don’t. This colour is commonly used as the background in British passport photos, and such clothing can make the headshot look like it depicts a face floating in the air. By the way, the same rule applies to your hair: if you wanted to dye it silver-ish, you’d better do it afterwards.

How To Avoid Taking Ugly Passport Photo

In almost any endeavour, the key to success is proper preparation. Before you even position yourself in front of the camera, you need to think about the conditions you’d be completely comfortable with. So first and foremost, you will need to decide which way of taking your pictures works best for you. We’ve singled out three main ways of taking your headshot, each with its pros and cons.

Common Photo Places

machine for taking pictures

Photo Booth

Even today, these are still widely spread: you can find one in the supermarket nearest to you. Accessibility is definitely a good thing, but in terms of control over the picture you’re taking, this is the least preferable option for those who want an ideal passport photo.

Despite the fact that these machines give you a complete setup (proper lighting, background, etc.), it also gives you a limited number of attempts (most often, it’s three shots only). This means that you can’t get too picky here: you either take a headshot you like in three attempts or pay another six pounds (or more) to try it all over again.

To top it off, you can’t say ‘wait a sec, I need to fix my hair’ to the machine at the last moment, and the robot-like voice can make the whole process very uncomfortable. All this discomfort has a pretty good chance of rendering your passport photo as bad as such headshots can possibly be.

photographic services studio

Photo Studio

This one is surely better if you want more comfort. First of all, most photographers are professionals: they can adjust illumination and camera parameters so that you look better, give you prompts on how to hold your head, make minor enhancements to your picture and so on. In other words, these guys can be very, very useful if you don’t want to end up with the worst passport photo ever.

On the other hand, there’s always the human element. If the photographer is inattentive or inexperienced, this may take a heavy toll on your picture. Also, they may be impatient when it comes to multiple takes, so, in a way, you may be limited here as well.

Another important factor to be aware of is the price: it can skyrocket depending on how well-known the studio is and how close it is to the downtown. Plus, additional attempts to take a passport photo you won’t hate may cost you a pretty penny, too.

man taking selfie

Your Home

Now, this is where it gets interesting! The option to get a new passport photo online doesn’t imply any of the disadvantages of the previous two variants:

  • The whole thing, from the snapshot itself to its processing, can be done for free provided that you know where to do it (more on that a bit later)

  • There is no limit whatsoever to the number of shots you can take, which means that you have all the time in the world to take as many photos as you like. You can try different expressions, change hairstyles, wear makeup and so on – there’s no reason for you not to!

  • You won’t have to waste your time on a visit to someplace, which will surely give a boost to your mood. This may not be too obvious, but high spirits usually show on your face and a bad mood can actually spoil your passport pictures (or any other images, to be fair)

  • You can do some minor post-processing by yourself (but please mind that it has to be exactly minor, which means no filters or masks that change skin tone and texture – a passport picture that depicts not the real you, can be considered bad, too)

16 Helpful Tips To Get Best Picture Ever

Once you’ve decided where to take not a half-bad but perfect passport photo (the choice was pretty obvious, wasn’t it?), it’s time for some fast prep. Below is a list of simple tricks and tips that will make the whole thing as easy as cake:

  1. Take the photo when well-rested. If you’ve just finished an especially tiring shift at work, it’s not the best time for a photo session (unless you specifically want a bad passport photo on your hands)
  2. Don’t arrange your photo session early in the morning. Puffy eyes and a slightly swollen face (especially if you had a glass of water before bed) are the worst features to have in your UK passport photo
  3. Don’t rush it. If you’re having a photoshoot somewhere out of home (or you want to have it at home but need to get there first), please don’t hurry. Showing up for your photo all panting, sweaty and red-faced is ill-advised, so calm down and take your time. Or reschedule, if you’re being too late
  4. Tidy up your hairdo in advance. Have a look in a mirror and make sure there will be no flyaways. If you have facial hair, take a moment to think about how you want it in your own passport photo: will it be a bushy beard, neat goatee or clean shave?
  5. Use some cosmetics. Know how to make yourself even more stunning with makeup? You have every right to use it now as well. Just remember that you can’t put on too much: you may like a nice photo with your appearance changed almost beyond recognition, but His Majesty’s Passport Office won’t be so happy with it
  6. Have a temporary skin defect? Reschedule or retouch. An ugly pimple that grew on the tip of your nose overnight (or a big red scratch across the face) is something you definitely don’t want to look at over the next decade. In case you need your document urgently and rescheduling is not an option, you could try to edit the defect out. If you’re good at Photoshop or another similar software or app, you can airbrush it to nothing. It won’t count as appearance editing (which is strictly forbidden by HMPO) since the defect is temporary and you don’t look like that all the time. In case you’re taking your picture at a studio, you can ask the photographer to edit your bad passport photo into something nice yet compliant
  7. Make sure the lighting is proper. Uneven illumination may make something cast shadows on your face or background, and it’s a good reason for the instant rejection of your passport application. By the way, sharp lights are also bad: these will highlight any imperfections of yours, and you don’t want that, right? Remember that it’s always best to use natural light (or at least a professional lighting setup)
  8. Avoid wearing anything of background-similar colours. That means your favourite light-grey shirt for formal occasions is a no-go, as it may kind of melt into the backdrop and make it look like your head is soaring in the air. Even though it can seem funny, it still makes a bad passport picture
  9. Don’t look at the camera as soon as you sit in front of it. This is particularly the case for cheap studios with poor service where photographers will try to get rid of you asap. That’s why they will be happy with a quick photo taken at the very moment you landed on the chair, but believe us that you won’t be happy at all. A passport picture like this is usually ugly, so don’t let it happen: look at the objective lens only when you’re ready
  10. Sit (or stand) straight. Make sure you hold steady but comfortable. Stand or sit upright with your back straight and don’t lean to either side. Perfect symmetry is impossible but it always helps to maintain a proper posture
  11. Keep your chin parallel to the floor. It goes without saying that even a slight tilt of your head can either make you unrecognisable or make you look so different and, possibly, bad that you’ll regret having taken a photo for your new passport
  12. Don’t clench your jaw. If you believe that no one can see you doing it, you’re mistaken: having your teeth gritted shows in the photo, and it does so in a bad way
  13. If the corners of your mouth look too down when relaxed, smile a bit. But remember that it must be a very slight smile! According to HMPO, smiling your usual wide smile makes an inappropriate passport photo, so don’t go sporting a full-toothed grin
  14. Don’t try to achieve complete symmetry in your photo. Remember that people’s faces are slightly asymmetrical by nature, and there’s no point (and no reason) in trying to change that in your snapshot. This would only make your new passport photo look worse: a completely symmetrical face looks uncanny and may even seem ugly
  15. It’s okay to blink. When photographed by a family member, friend or professional photographer, don’t let your widely-open eyes dry and blink a couple of times if you need to! The person photographing you won’t give you a picture where your eyes are closed, so don’t worry. But be careful with blinking if you’re using a photo booth: obviously, it won’t wait for you
  16. Relax. We’ve given you quite an extensive list of dos and don’ts, but it doesn’t mean that you need to obsess over every possible detail to avoid having a bad passport photo. If you’re too tense and worried, your own photo will capture that vibe. Sometimes all you need to do is unclench and chill out, and next thing you know, you’ve got yourself a perfect passport photo!

woman holding smartphone


We hope our pieces of advice will come in handy when it’s time to take a photo for your British passport. By the way, if you’re okay with doing it at home, we can lend you a hand. Not only will we crop and process your image, but we’ll also help you check it against the official requirements.

Following the rules is crucial: the government is very stringent in terms of compliance (for example, if one wants to become a British citizen, it becomes way harder if they have a criminal record).

Once you’ve familiarised yourself with all the relevant specifications, you can use our guide on taking a passport photo to get a shot you’ll be absolutely happy with!