If your infant or toddler needs a passport to travel, you'll need a photograph for that application. Here's how I did mine.

This was the underlying thinking for my process : I want it done with minimum complexity, no shortcuts, no tricks (because they add complexity). Having minimum complexity also means it's easier to adapt the methods to your needs.

Just a caveat : I do this for a living and subconsciously make a hundred small decisions to create the photo. This is me trying to unpack all the minute thoughts and decisions involved.

Also, while it's for a US passport, I'm sure you can find a way to make it work for other countries and use-cases.

Setting the location up

These are the things we need to consider when setting the "studio" up.

Large diffused light source preferably a indirect sunlight from a large north-facing window. May substitute for large window with white (like, white-white) day curtain. Watch out for window frames - shadows of any sort are a no-no.

Eliminate all other light sources To prevent ugly color cast from showing up, you'll need to turn off or block off other light sources, such as ceiling lights, televisions, lava lamps. If you can't do this, say if you're near a lit exit sign, you'll need to find another location.

Camera on tripod about 4.5' - 5' up, pointing straight down. Use a "normal" lens. 50mm on 35mm cameras, 35mm on APS-C cameras, 1.8x zoom on an iPhone.

White backdrop Try 2.5' - 3' wide foamcore. Crib mattress with white-white sheets. Place backdrop such that the baby's chin and feet point away from the light source.

White reflector a day-curtain draped over the tripod, large white foamcore, 45-degree angle.

Testing the setup:

Testing before photographing the child will help focus your attention on the child when doing the actual photos.

  1. Use an object to approximate the child's head.
  2. Check for shadows. If shadows are behind head, move setup further from the window. If shadows are below where shoulders are, no problem.
  3. Adjust the reflector such that the shadow is minimized.
  4. Iterate process till the shadow is minimized and eliminated from the backdrop above the shoulders.

Using a “real camera”

If you're using a "real" camera and know your way around Manual mode, here are additional things that you can do to improve your chances of getting a great shot:

  • Use an aperture of f/8 or f/11 and a shutter speed that is faster than 1/160s
  • Change the ISO to match the above criteria
  • Pre-focus and switch to manual focus
  • Using a cable release/remote helps greatly. Wireless works okay too, but to a lesser degree because of trigger delays and intervals between triggers
  • Determine and set the white balance. North-facing windows are typically around "daylight" balance, but tend toward blue if there's a lot of shade outside. Best to try it out with your own hand and see if the skin tone looks right. Also take note of whiteness on the backdrop as you tweak it (is it still neutral? are you sure that sheet is absolutely neutral white, and not warm-white, cool-white, etc.)

Photograph the child:

This is the tough part because the child cannot understand your instructions. Your best bet is to keep the requirements in mind, and to do your best in keeping the child content while you trigger the shutter.

Keep in mind the State Department's requirements for expressions. Eyes need to be at least semi-open, head and eyes need to look forward (should be easy if positioned properly), pay attention to position of head, neck and shoulders (they need to be mostly level). Take note of all the other clothing requirements, paying attention to remove headgear and any obstruction to the face (including pacifiers).

Take many, many photos.

Review, check for flaws, do it again. Focus (eyes must be in sharp focus), no motion blur, facial expressions, angle of head in relation to body, eyes opened?, shadows under nose, eyes? etc.

Cute Baby Photo

Processing and printing:

In your favourite photo editor, crop the photo to meet State Department's requirements for head size. Resize the image to 600 x 600 pixels (or 2" x 2" at 300dpi). Last check. White backdrop, all of State's criteria? Send to Walgreens for printing. Ensure they don't resize it. Check the print. Does it look the one on-screen? Does it meet State's criteria?

Well done. Send it out.