Everyone Has A Bad ID Photo; Here's How To Take A Better One

“Wow,” he said to me, when the pics had been snapped and printed and paid for, “you look terrible.”
Publish date:
November 2, 2012
pictures, embarrassing photos, id photos

So, this one summer my dad picked me up at the airport in Bangkok, Thailand, drove me to Pattaya (about three hours south), and then immediately took me to get visa photos taken for travel to India later that summer. “Wow,” he said to me, when the pics had been snapped and printed and paid for, “you look terrible.”

Thanks, dad.

But, in all honesty, I did look terrible. I’d been traveling for, like, 30 hours, and I felt sweaty and weird and like my surroundings were two minutes away from melting like a Dali clock. This had less to do with the tropical heat than it did with the lack of sleep I was running on.

It’s not like I’d been sleeping even before the trip over the Pacific, you see. I mean, I was in college. No one sleeps in college, right?

Basically, it’s no wonder my photos looked like I was five minutes away from liver failure. Jaundice is never going to be the next consumption when it comes to culturally sexified illnesses, you know?

I wasn’t surprised though. The passport I was using at the time already made me look like I had escaped from somewhere very unpleasant and was on the run from men in white jackets. (Possibly with blue hands.) I am an old hand at terrible, tragically bad ID photographs.

Which is why I actually get what that Prada-wearing-devil Anna Wintour was afraid of when she called up internationally renowned fashion photographer Mario Testino to take her passport photo. I mean, her quote is a little unintelligible (which is probably because something went wrong over at the Daily Mail) but, yeah, “celebrities and people” are often insecure about how they present themselves.

Really, though, I’m convinced that almost everyone hates their ID photo. I asked around on Twitter, the best place to go for confirmation of a pre-existing bias, and the stories ranged from unfortunate post-partum shots to that one awful picture being recycled again and again and again.

They never let you reuse the good pictures, do they?

I also asked around the xoJane editor list –- and a few intrepid folks were willing to share their questionable photos. This is exciting to me because I actually really love seeing “bad” photos of people -– sometimes they wind up being my favorite pictures of folks. I mean, “bad” is so entirely subjective!

Take Madeline, for instance, who sent me this photo with the subject line, “Horrendous!”

A) She said the 6-year-old kid she baby-sat at the time saw it, and asked, “What are you? In the FBI?” B) Madeline always looks lovely, even when she’s in the FBI.

Somer sent me this:

And I was all, “You look like that actress in that thing!” Which is not the most helpful reaction ever, right? But Google saved the day and gave me Mariska Hargitay. I think it’s the fluffy hair. And the button down.

Also, Kate didn't send me an ID picture because we all know that she and Somer are the same person anyway.

s.e., because ou is awesome, sent me a small selection. I have chosen my favorite:

I can’t wear turtlenecks because of sensory issues but I think if I had the chance to rock one with overalls, I’d try for it anyway.

Olivia sent me this when I asked for bad ID pictures:

I don't know how she misread "bad" as "totally and completely awesome."

Julieanne sent in hers, too. She looks so COY.

She's working a lot of glam there.

Our lovely Ms. Emily sent two, and I’m posting both of them because she’s basically the cutest ever.

The first one especially makes me think of Mayim Bialik. The eyebrows are different but they have the same pointy chin.

And here is my current ID:

I am well aware that I look like I’m trying to kill someone with my brain. It was a very bad day and I was not prepared to have my picture taken.

That ID always gets me a second look when I have to haul it out at the liquor store to prove that, yes, fine, I am allowed to buy your very fine cider.

As pretty much always happens during these discussions, Jane joined in and was our favorite:

Seriously, what does New York DO to y'all before it will give you an ID?

Honorable mention goes to Daisy, not because her photo is bad -- I don't think Daisy can take a bad picture.

No, Daisy gets included here because check out that red Sharpie. She said she altered her birthdate to use this as a fake ID. I never had a fake ID of any kind so I'm not sure if I should be impressed by her ingenuity or appalled!

Having to constantly show an ID with a bad photo feels a bit like I'm hauling around awkward photos from my adolescence and showing them to strangers before they even know my name. On the one hand, I'm not super bothered. On the other hand, I mean, really. I don't want strangers to think I want to kill them with my brain.

Obvy, fluorescent lights are friends to no one. But there are still a couple of easy things we can all do to look better in the photos on those little hunks of plastic that serve to verify our identities any time someone demands our papers.

First and foremost, man, you gotta relax. When we get stressed out -- the way we tend to be after standing in line and dealing with the hassle of DMV paperwork -- our mouths get all pinchy and our foreheads get all RAR I AM UNHAPPY. And that shows in our photographs.

Take a minute before stepping over to the mark on the floor -- do some facial stretches or some deep breathing or whatever it is that you do to find a nice happy little mental place. Your photo can only benefit.

Second, angle your head just a little bit. We almost never look at ourselves directly full face on, so of course it's going to be weird to have a photo taken that way. It's like hearing a recording of our own voice -- a bizarroland version of ourselves. This isn't a Glamour Shot, and there's no need to try to be all MySpace angle about things. But a subtle head tilt (just don't tilt your head up because you'll get that oh-so-awesome straight up the nostrils look) can make all the difference.

Go a little subtle on the makeup, if you wear it. It's those damn fluorescent lights, see. They make what looked great in your bathroom mirror look a lot harsher, especially with a flash effect going on, too. The lighting in the DMV is always kind of miserable. That's not a fight we can win! I have found that going a little easier on the eye makeup, especially if you wear glasses, goes a long way. (This is the only time you'll see me say that.)

Every time I'm on TV, I get the list of Things Not To Wear On Camera. Heavily saturated colors, like red, are big no-nos because they look like they're vibrating. Big patterns are distracting and just look strange. That seems to hold true for ID photos as well. Also, I actually don't like wearing black in photos either -- it makes me look like a floating head. Who wants to look like a floating head? Wear a solid color that isn't too bright -- one that makes you feel awesome.

Practice your best Person Of Mystery smile before you go get your photo taken as well. Big grins can look like forced grimaces -- unless you are being honest about that smile -- and a completely straight face, well -- a six-year-old kid thought Madeline was in the FBI. Try a small, easy smile.

The impractical tip here would be to take a page from Wintour's book and hire a phenomenal photog. But, you know, screw that. I actually really like the moment that happens at parties or over dinner, where everyone is pulling out their ID to prove they have the worst photo ever. I like that we have this built in opportunity to take ourselves a little less seriously, that we have the chance to not look our best and to be largely okay with it.

What do y'all think? I've seen some pretty cute ID pictures (and I do have a couple myself). Do you hate yours? What's your worst ID photo story?

Marianne posts unflattering photos of herself to Twitter: @therotund.