Of all the itty-bitty indignities that come with being a person, dragging yourself across town and through assorted official channels only to end up with an embarrassing ID photo is definitely up there. It’s certainly not life- or even day-ruining, but it’s a minor cringe every time you get carded. But forget the low-stakes annoyance of a bad photo and imagine the totally disproportionate sense of pride you’d feel with an amazing ID photo.
We’ve all seen photos of celebrities, influencers, and even some friends who manage to take a legitimately great passport picture—there are always a million questions about lighting and multiple tries, but the question everyone’s actually thinking is just, “How? HOW? How did you do the impossible and actually take a flattering ID photo?” As much as nailing the shot seems more sorcery than science, there’s a surprising amount you can do to make sure your official pictures are as close to grid-worthy as possible. To give all of us the best shot at the ever-elusive hot driver’s license or passport photo, Byrdie spoke to top celebrity beauty experts, all equipped with the best behind-the-scenes tips on getting as close to picture-perfect as possible.
How To Do Your Hair For ID Photos
Before even getting started on styling, the first thing to do is check out the necessary photo guidelines for the documents you’re after. Things like school IDs and state-issued licenses often are a bit more flexible, but federal IDs like passports tend to have more stringent requirements about things like skin-tone-altering makeup or face-obscuring hair. From there, it’s a matter of prep work and realizing that hair that looks good in IRL situations isn’t always the hair that looks best on-camera.
Celebrity hairstylist Christin Brown says it’s a common misconception, too. When we look at incredible hairstyles in magazines or on social media, she says, it’s rarely because of the hair’s actual integrity. “I’m constantly picking apart this narrative with clients in the salon because clients need to know that there is a difference,” she explains. A photo is just that—a single image captured in a split second, not necessarily an accurate depiction of reality. The good news is that means there’s tons that can be done to set hair up for maximum photogenicy.
Brown tells Byrdie that hair prep is absolutely vital for capturing the best look on-camera, and she says that may mean starting with a blowout before styling or seeking out especially high-quality products for better outcome insurance. “One of my suggestions is to always use kick-off the styling session with damp hair and frizz-fighting creme,” she says. “This can really set the tone for style memory.”
Unless you’re very attached to a particular updo, wearing your hair down will usually look more flattering in photos, too, says celebrity hairstylist and Mane Addicts Artist Cherilyn Farris. Her best advice is to keep the look simple with a focus on shape, shine, definition, and placement. Farris points out that shine acts as a hair highlight, definition will translate into a more polished and minimal frizz, and placement is what keeps the photo (and the subject—you!) aligned. “Think about what will be visible from a straight-on photo,” she recommends, adding that enhancing your own natural texture is a solid bet. For straighter or wavy textures, Farris is a fan of touching up with a GHD Flat Iron ($210) before finishing with the Balmain Texturizing Volume Spray ($50). When working with curly textures, she loves the OUAI Rose Hair Oil ($32) for its rich, nourishing shine—it even doubles as a body oil for extra sheen on the collarbones, shoulders, and decolletage.
For the straightforward, head-on nature of an ID photo, Farris recommends wearing hair down with one side tucked behind your ear or shoulder. “This will make sure your face is visible but your hair still looks intentional. Half-up styles are also great if you want your hair away from your face but still have hair visible from the front,” she adds.
And if it’s a specific style you’re after, make sure to bake in enough time to really let it set. Brown says one of her top styling tips is to let hair set for as long as possible before a photo for optimal volume and shape. “If you’re going for big, runway hair, doing a roller set before anything would give the hair a long-lasting style,” she says. “For frizz prevention, I’m going for a creme like the Olaplex No.6 Bond Smoother ($30) on damp hair to control frizz for 72 hours, smooth hair, define curls, and condition before styling.”
How To Do Your Makeup For ID Photos
Fellow graduates of YouTube Makeup University already know that lighting is among the biggest factors in making or breaking a look, especially immortalized in photograph form. These days, it’s not a big concern that ID photos will look too shadowy or grainy—you’ll usually have a totally dizzying flash that will illuminate everything and then some, especially with passport photos in which proper lighting and clarity are the most important factors. Ever see those hilariously suspect photos of celebrities swanning around the red carpet with what looks like huge clouds of baby powder across their faces? That can happen if the makeup you’re wearing is formulated with “flashback”-inducing ingredients like zinc oxide, found in products with SPF.
According to celebrity makeup artist Nydia Figueroa, it’s okay if the makeup you wear to the photo feels and even looks much heavier than you’d normally prefer. An as-close-to-flawless-as-possible face (and neck) canvas calls for more primer, concealer, and a heavier foundation, but the payoff on-camera makes suffering through an hour of cake-face well worth it. With the base of your look prepared, Figueroa explains it’s important to add structure back in through contouring. “Contour is the best way to make your features pop,” she explains, “but you want to apply it in layers and well blended so that it mimics a natural shadow.” She adds that highlighter is a great move for photos, but recommends sticking to a cream or liquid highlight for a more natural, lit-from-within glow that doesn’t read too harsh under the flash. “Apply your blush high up on your cheekbones to lift and contour under the blush to sculpt,” Figueroa suggests, and “stick your chin out especially if you don’t have a strong jawline as this will not only make you look confident but more structured in the face.”
Additionally, this is another area in which you’ll want to research photo guidelines pretty extensively. Passport rules like maintaining skin color consistency might sound bizarre or irrelevant in a vacuum but actually translate to no red, black, or otherwise bright or unnatural-colored lipstick. In the case of your official ID photos, which you’ll likely (hopefully?) hang on to for several years, it’s always wise to go with a simple yet defined, natural-adjacent look that emphasizes your bone structure and immediately-identifiable features like eyes, eyebrows, and lips, says celebrity makeup artist and Made Addicts Artist Brittany Sullivan. “Think how you’d do your makeup and hair to feel polished for say, a job interview, but not too much pressure because the lighting makes such an enormous difference in how makeup shows up.”
Plus, Sullivan has some grounding advice, offering a reminder that there really is a tremendous amount of luck in securing a great passport photo. Plan and prepare, sure, but know it’s not totally in your control—or the end of the world if you end up with a less-than-stellar one. After all, doesn’t something like a driver’s license, passport, or school ID mean imminent adventure anyway?