Smile! Passports cost $85 -- passport photos can be made for less than a buck

As of June 1, Border Control requires all U.S. citizens to have a passport if they're crossing an international border. If you're a first-time applicant, that means $85 to $100 in fees, and that's if you don't need it in a hurry. But there's another expense beyond that: You'll also need to have some mug shots of yourself for your new passport.

The passport office in my city will be happy to take your photo for the application, but it will charge you $15 for the convenience. Some shops in the surrounding neighborhood will also do the deed for patrons who balk at that price, but they still charge $10.

You don't even have to pay a full dollar. Just do them yourself. You may not need many passport photos in your lifetime, but let's face it, taking one isn't rocket science, so you shouldn't have to pay so much for them.

Wisebread.com provides easy-to-follow instructions for making your own photos. You only need a digital camera. The basics are:

Set it up

* Use a white background. White wall, wrinkle-free bedsheet, whiteboard.
* Don't use a flash. Just have lots of ambient light, and maybe turn on all your lamps.
* Don't wear glasses or hats or scarves or anything like that. Just you. Wear street clothes. You can smile, though.

Take the shot
* Get some of the shoulders and leave some space above the head. As Wisebread puts it, "You don't even really need to worry about taking the perfect passport shot: That's what photo editing is for."

Print the shot
* You can take your camera's memory card to a photo printing kiosk at the pharmacy if you want. It'll let you edit the photo to the 2-inch-by-2-inch format the government wants. Some even have a button that says "I.D. photo" that makes it super easy. It cost the Wisebread writer 32¢ to print six photos this way. Even if the price is four times as much, it's still a huge savings over professional shots.
* Or you can do it at home or at your friend's place; these days, a decent photo printer costs around $75, and lots of people already have them. If you think it needs to be a little brighter or darker, edit the photo with an editing program such as Photoshop. I'm on a Mac and I use the free GraphicConverter. Then print it and do the cropping with a pair of scissors.

Wisebread added a disclaimer to its instructions that said some passport applications require that photos have the certification of a photographer. I just applied for a passport card myself, and this stipulation is nowhere on the application or the federal instructions. Maybe a passport officer somewhere was making things difficult. Just do what the passport office's instructions tell you to do, and you'll be fine.

The government puts out a free sheet of examples of good and bad photos (click here to download it as a PDF) to get you started.

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