Let’s get one thing straight: You need a decent photo on your driver’s license or state identification card.
Some people don’t care about the quality of the photo on their licenses, and while we certainly salute them, we’ve never been able to get behind that way of thinking. Just think, this is an ID that you’ll likely use every day. If it’s a driver’s license, you’ll hand it to bank tellers, grocery store workers, and even police officers (if you’re unlucky). Therefore, you want to make the best possible impression, and that starts with a great picture.
Before you head to the DMV (or wherever else you’re snapping that photo ID picture), here’s what you need to know.
1. Realize that you won’t have control over everything.
You’re not going to a professional photo studio. You’re not going to get dozens of attempts at this photo, and you won’t be able to use Photoshop to get rid of blemishes and wrinkles.
You’re likely dealing with a tired, surly DMV employee, so you shouldn’t expect perfect lighting and exceptional equipment. The chances are that you have one shot to get the perfect picture, so come prepared. Know that as soon as you sit down, your “photographer” will snap your picture.
With that said, if you blink or flinch, you can ask for a second photo, provided that you’re not holding up the line. If you’re polite, the DMV worker will probably grant the request, but don’t expect to get too many opportunities for a retake. To improve your chances, head in during low-traffic hours or go to a DMV in a small town.
Be sure to practice before you head inside. Take a few selfies with different lighting to see how you’ll look. Finally, recognize that you’ve got the power. When you head over to the chair for your license photo, don’t look at the camera until you’re ready for your picture.
2. Make sure you’re taking the picture at the perfect angle.
Generally, you’ll look more attractive if you tilt your head slightly to show more of the left side of your face. No, seriously—scientists have actually studied this phenomenon.
In a multi-part study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers presented 172 people with 14 faces shown from different perspectives. The faces rated most attractive appeared slightly tilted to the right of the subject by 15 degrees.
If you’d prefer to look more sympathetic and intelligent (potentially a good idea, given that you might have to fork over your ID during a traffic stop), turn your head in the other direction to show the right side of your face. Either way, a slight tilt should help to improve the photo, but don’t go overboard; if you’re getting an official ID, you’ll probably have to show your whole face.
3. In any case, try not to point your chin down.
“Having the chin pointing down creates wrinkles in the neck,” celebrity photographer John Godwin told The Daily Mail. “Instead, create as much separation between your chin and neck as possible. Start by elongating the neck and jut your chin slightly forward. Also use the trick we used to make the face look thinner: place your tongue on the roof of your mouth to tighten the area underneath your chin.”
Godwin also notes that different people have different “better” angles; if one of your eyes is larger than the other, for instance, you might tilt away from the larger eye to create a more symmetrical photo.
“Not everyone has a best side,” Godwin said. “But almost everyone’s face is slightly asymmetric. People tend to turn the side they sleep on away from the camera as that’s often more wrinkled.”
4. Choose clothes to complement your skin tone.
If you’re fair skinned, a white shirt is a bad choice, since you’ll end up looking virtually transparent as the bright fabric washes out your face. Likewise, if you have dark skin, a dark shirt will leave you with a drab, indiscernible pic.
Avoid fighting with your wardrobe by choosing clothes that contrast with your skin tone. The key here is to accentuate your skin—this is, after all, a portrait.
Complex patterns are often too distracting, as are plain black or white t-shirts. Choose simple clothing that will keep your face as the focus of the photo. This should go without saying, but don’t wear a hat, scarf, turtleneck, or anything else that might mess with your photo mojo.
5. If you’re wearing makeup, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First of all, go as natural as possible. Try to choose makeup that will minimize the harsh light of the DMV. A yellow-based foundation can work well, and a bit of blush never hurt anyone. But remember, don’t choose unnatural colors for your lipstick or eyeliner—the key is to stay neutral.
Remember, you’re likely headed into a room with either harsh, bright, or a complete lack of lighting, so the unnatural look isn’t the best idea. Stick with neutral colors wherever possible. Leave the glitter and shimmer at home. The camera will pick up the holographic hues and ultimately wash out your face.
Oh, and while you’re applying makeup, consider using a mattifying powder on your T-zone. Face oils can really show up on a license photo, and they’re not quite flattering.
6. Don’t go overboard with your hair.
For the most part, you should keep your standard, everyday hairstyle—now isn’t the best time to start experimenting. If you have curly hair, leave it curly. If you’ve got straight hair, well, leave it straight. Keep it simple.
There’s one exception: If you’ve got big hair, now’s probably the time to tie it back. You’re taking a tight portrait, and a big mane can distort the lines of your face and leave you with an unsatisfactory pic. Plus, the DMV employees will likely tell you to pull your hair into a ponytail to keep it in the shot.
While you’re working on your hair, be sure to groom your eyebrows. After all, it’s picture day, so you might as well pull out all of the stops—and don’t forget about that unibrow, either.
7. Don’t forget to smile.
No, seriously. Most ID photos look awkward because they’re taken in awkward situations; you’ve just waited in line at a DMV, you’re sitting down, and you look up as you hear the camera snap. That’s not exactly a recipe for a great photo.
Smile slightly as soon as you sit down. Keep it subtle, so no pouting or smirking. Narrow your eyes slightly, and you should end up with a decent shot.
Not sure how you look? Once again, the key is to practice. If you’re serious about locking in the perfect portrait, you’ll need to take a few selfies or spend several minutes in front of the mirror.
If all of this sounds like too much work, just remember: It’s only a license photo. If you end up with a bad one, it’s not the end of the world. Just try not to cringe every time you hand your ID to a club bouncer for the next few years—eventually, you’ll get another shot.