How to Select the Right Photo ID System for Your Campus: Part 1

Consider these factors and best practices so you select the right system for your organization.

How to Select the Right Photo ID System for Your Campus: Part 1

This is part 1 of our two-part series on photo ID card systems. Part 2 will be featured on CampusSafetyMagazine.com on January 8.


The issuance of photo identification cards is an important part of an overall school, university or healthcare facility security plan. An ID card is the visual verification that the person is authorized to be there, whether inside a facility, participating in an event or accessing an organization’s assets.  An ID card is often also used for other card-based applications and services, such as door access control, parking, cafeteria, print/copy control and logical (network/computer) access control.

While there is an abundance of photo ID systems available for purchase on the Internet, photo ID systems are not a commodity but rather a solution. Careful consideration of many factors should be taken so you select the right system for your organization. Cost is important, but so is having the appropriate solution that meets your real-world needs.

Who Should Be Issued Photo IDs?

To have a solid visual security program, all groups of people in your facility should have and wear their ID card. This includes employees, medical staff, contractors and visitors.  In schools, it includes faculty, staff, students, volunteers and visitors. Visitor identification is usually a separate system from the ID card system, and the most secure kind of visitor ID is a temporary pass issued for each individual visitor.

Visitor identification is usually a separate system from the ID card system, and the most secure kind of visitor ID is a temporary pass issued for each individual visitor. Photo ISG

In addition to deciding who should be issued ID cards, consider how often to re-issue new cards, either in bulk, individually or on a scheduled basis. Knowing how often you need to issue and re-issue cards could be a large factor in what types of software and hardware you need to purchase. Many ID system dealers also provide rental options for times of the year when you know you may need additional equipment to handle high issuance volumes, such as at the beginning of the school semester.

Another factor that may affect how often you re-issue cards can include upgrades to new security features (like adding laminate or encrypting access rights), new protocols or technology (like time and attendance needs or contactless readers), or the desire to implement a new ID design (such as a new campus logo or color schemes). Thorough planning with all organization decision makers can help you make sure that you are making the correct ID system purchase for both your present and future card issuance needs.

ID Card Design Considerations

What do you want to print on your ID cards? This relates to the question of whether you need a single-sided or dual-sided card printer. It has been our experience that most organizations use both sides of the card. Common back-side printing might include a barcode, a mission statement, an “if lost/return to” message, and/or EMT information. Often, the barcode that’s used for time/attendance or library privileges won’t fit onto the front side with a photo, logo and cardholder information.

Most organizations print information on both sides of the photo ID card. Photo ISG

Here are some other things to consider:

  • Some organizations print the photo on both sides of the card to prevent someone wearing their card face-in because they don’t like their photo, or if a lanyard tends to flip a card around while walking or working.
  • For front-side printing, most cards utilize at least an organization logo and colors, name, photo, title and department. Some also include a number that might represent an employee number or a visual clarification of access privileges (like on an airport tarmac or in a “clean room”).
  • You should determine if you want to utilize color coding to represent different types of groups, such as employee, contractor or student, or even access privileges as mentioned above.
  • What kind of quality printing do you want? Many campuses are brand conscious and want the best image quality output, while others focus more speed or encoding options. (See ID Card Printer Considerations on page in Part 2 to learn about different card printer technologies.)
  • One more increasingly important consideration is how to make the card difficult to duplicate, manipulate or forge. (See ID Card Security Options below for more on this.)

ID Card Security Options

Organizations should consider adding security features to their photo IDs so that the cards can’t be counterfeited. Photo ISG

The widespread use and easy access to ID card printers today means that almost anyone can create an ID card that looks authentic. In addition, there are many websites that sell fake IDs. You should consider if you want to add security features that protect you from counterfeit cards.

There are many options, either covert or overt, and many are relatively inexpensive. Even if you choose to not add a feature in the card manufacturing process, there are features in photo ID card software (such as ghost images) or in the card printer (such as UV ink) that can be added. For optimum credential integrity, the best solution is to have ID cards with a security feature printed on the card body during manufacturing, at least one added during the card issuance process, and one included in a custom laminate. On top of that, some form of encoded verification on the card that links the cardholder to the appropriate record in your database, such as ID number, a PIN or even a fingerprint (if applicable to your situation) is also recommended.

ID Card Durability and Functionality

How long do you want your ID cards to last? If you don’t re-issue cards every year, it is best to purchase “composite” plastic cards. These only cost about a penny more per card on average but contain a layer of polyester that makes the card much more temperature- and crack-resistant.

If you want cards to last for several years, and/or they will be subject to abrasion in slot readers, then adding a layer of lamination in the printing process is advised. (See ID Card Printer Considerations in Part 2 for a deeper discussion of lamination.) Additionally, regular exposure to sunlight can make the printing on cards fade much faster. This is another reason to choose lamination.

You’ll also need to consider the card technology you use today (proximity, barcode, magnetic stripe, etc.) and what card technology might you move to in the near future (e.g. contactless smart card).  These capabilities will need to be available in your chosen card printer and/or ID software, and in many cases you might need multiple technologies (old and new) in your issued cards as you upgrade your readers across your facility to the newer technology.

And finally, what about card slot punching? The traditional slot punching of cards is usually not a good idea, as cards can too easily break at the slot hole, requiring a replacement of the card. It is better to use a clip that can grip the card, or a card holder that can cover the card and connect to a lanyard. (See ID Card “Wearability” below.)

ID Card ‘Wearability’

If the ID card needs to be displayed, how will it be worn?  There are hundreds of different badge accessories for wearing the ID. Be sure to ask the following questions:

There are hundreds of different badge accessories for wearing the ID. Photo ISG

  • Do you want everyone to wear the ID card so that it is readily visible?
  • What accessory for wearing the ID will work best?
  • Will the card need to be “read” in other systems? You don’t want people to have to remove the card from a pouch or other time-consuming activities.
  • Will the “reading” be via a tap or a swipe? If the card needs to be swiped in a slot reader, it must be readily accessible.
  • While a metal or plastic snap clip is very inexpensive, it does not lend itself well to nice clothing and dresses. Badge retractors also fall into this category as they are very convenient for cards that need to be regularly used for access control or swiping applications, but don’t work so well without a visible pocket or belt on which to be clipped.
  • Lanyards are best if you really want to visually see everyone’s badge. If needed, you can add a rigid card holder so people can easily remove the card and swipe it. Breakaway lanyards are also a good idea, especially in manufacturing environments, where safety is a priority.
  • For hospital staff members who regularly work with behavioral health patients and other individuals who might act out violently in some way – such as persons with mental illnesses or drug and/or alcohol abuse issues or forensic patients — it is important that whatever is holding the ID card cannot be used by an attacker as a strangulation weapon.

Capture Considerations

Consistent and high-quality photo images are important to clearly and properly identifying a cardholder. Again, the photo ID is part of security. The photo must be good quality with consistent cropping and centering. Nothing looks worse than “off center” or poor-quality photos.

In addition to quality issues, you also need to decide how often a new photo should be captured for cardholders. Unlike decades ago, people today change their appearance often. An educational institution might want to capture new images at the beginning of every school year, while for an employer, it might be closer to once every three years.

Web-cameras are inexpensive and now capture a fairly good quality image. However, the subject must sit about three feet from the camera, and the operator must crop and center each photo after it is captured.

A good photo ID camera has a strong zoom and flash, and can auto-center and auto-crop images. This is ideal, especially in situations with repetitive daily use, even if they are a bit more expensive.

Capture speed may matter. Do you have peak periods like student registration or new employee orientation? If yes, consider investing in a higher quality photo ID camera with programmable settings and consistent results that can keep the line moving more rapidly.

If you need to move a lot of people through the line, you could have them remain standing instead of sitting, and be just a few feet away. This could be another reason to opt for a more industrial photo ID camera over a webcam. Also take into consideration the backdrop you use. Colored backdrops can be used to help visually validate access privileges or user classes. Be sure to pick something that is clearly visible yet not distracting from the photo itself.

Cameras atop tripods can get knocked over, plus they can take up a lot of usable floor space. Also, unsecured cameras can easily be stolen. It may be wise to consider locking post mounts to a desk, counter or wall. These can keep your camera(s) fixed in the appropriate direction and distance, as well as make it very difficult to remove without authorization.

Do you have people who are remote and cannot easily come to the central location where the photo ID system resides? These people can submit a photo via e-mail, and it can be easily imported to the ID system. There are other solutions available today, such as smart phone or cloud-based software that can also help.

In addition to considering the parameters of your photo capture solution, you might need additional peripherals to capture signatures or fingerprints. Along with choosing the right hardware for your specific needs, you should also plan on the best way to secure the sensitive hardware to avoid possible damage or theft while still being easily accessible during the capture process.

How to Select the Right Photo ID System for Your Campus: Part 2


Tom Stiles is the executive director of the Identification Systems Group (ISG), which is an association of 30 identification systems dealers that serve the U.S. and Canada.  To find your local ISG dealer, visit www.IdentificationSystemsGroup.com.

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