You could be called into court to defend your photographs. (Photo Mark C. Ide)
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Crime scene photography is an exciting, but demanding specialty with stringent requirements. Every photograph you take could be called into court as evidence. Every crime scene photographer can be called into court to defend their photographs. The photographs must be clear and focused. In order for the crime scene photographer to capture that clarity in every photo, the photographer must also be very focused and clear about exactly what they want to record and what equipment and procedures they need to use to get the job done.
Before any photographer takes any photographs of any crime scene, they must ask themselves several questions:
- What am I looking for?
- What is this scene showing me?
- What am I trying to record for others to see? What do I want them to know about this scene?
- How much of this do I need to show?
- How clear does it need to be?
- How much detail do I need to show?
After you’ve answered those questions, you can move on to the question of what type of equipment you need to get the job done. Below, I offer some general guidelines that may help you make decisions about what equipment will allow you to take the kind of photographs you want to take.
What Camera Should I Use?
First, you must decide what kind of camera you want to use. The camera of choice for crime scene photography is a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. This type of camera allows you to purchase and use interchangeable lenses. The camera you choose should also offer you the opportunity to shoot photographs in manual mode.
SLR cameras can be purchased in film or digital formats. Film cameras require purchase of differing kinds and types of film as well as post processing before you can see the image. Digital cameras store their photographs on various types of memory devices and offer an opportunity for immediate feedback on the camera’s LCD screen. The initial cost outlay for a digital single lens reflex camera is slightly higher than the initial outlay for a film model but the ongoing operational cost is much less.
Most agencies are switching from film to digital for two reasons: immediacy and cost. Digital cameras allow you to see your photograph on the back of your camera’s LCD screen immediately after it has been shot. This is critical because you generally have only one opportunity to capture all the details of a crime scene. You can’t come back after your film has been developed and ask everyone to reconstruct the crime scene so you can get a clear shot. You have to get those shots in the field at the time you take them.
When you shoot digital, you get immediate feedback that allows you to make adjustments to lighting, distance and focus while you’re in the field. By checking your camera’s histogram, you can make exposure adjustments that let in enough light to give clear details. As soon as you take the picture, you can look and evaluate these factors, make immediate corrections and shoot again. When you use a digital camera you can keep shooting until you get the picture you need. This is a critical factor.
The second reason crime scene photographers have switched from film to digital is the ongoing cost of film and film processing. Digital memory devices, usually cards, can be used over and over. On a picture for picture basis, they’re much less expensive than film.
Note: Digital cameras come with differing sensor sizes. This isn’t to be confused with megapixels. Sensor size determines how much of your subject gets into the picture. A full-frame sensor camera has a larger sensor than an APS-C sensor. The APS-C sensor is smaller. The ratio is approximately 1.5 to 1.6, depending on the camera model. So if I’m using a camera with an APS-C sensor and I purchase a 12 mm wide-angle lens, I’m actually shooting with approximately an 18 mm lens. Full-frame sensor cameras are more expensive than APS-C sensor models. They’re desirable because they allow you to get more of the subject into the photo frame, which allows for more cropping when you edit the photograph. Because a full-frame sensor is larger, it captures more megapixels. When you have more megapixels, you can produce a larger blow-up of a photograph that will have more clarity than a blow-up of the same size taken with an APS-C sensor because you have more pixels to work with. If your budget allows it, a full-frame sensor camera can be a very useful tool.
There are numerous digital single reflex camera systems on the market today. The market is constantly changing. Everyone has their favorite. Some people swear by Canon. Others will tell you that a Nikon is the only camera to have. The best way to select your camera is to go out and test the different models.
There are literally hundreds of lenses from many major manufacturers you can buy for your SLR camera. There’s also a great range in quality and cost.
Some lenses are better suited to photographing crime scenes than others. Here are a few things to remember:
Most current lenses are fully automatic. Most have switches that allow you to move between fully automatic or manual focusing. You want to have this ability.
Always purchase a lens with the largest lens opening (which will be the smallest aperture number). For example, a lens with a 1.4, 1.8 or 2.8 F-stop would be better than a lens with a 4, 5.6 or 6.3 F-stop. The lens with the largest opening is also more expensive. Buy the best lens that you can. Your lens will last a long time if you take proper care of it. Your lens determines the clarity of your photograph. This is one area where you get what you pay for.
Vibration reduction is offered on some lenses. This feature is designed to compensate for camera movement. It allows you to take pictures in low-light situations without a tripod. It’s a helpful, but expensive feature.
When you start shopping for lenses, you’ll notice that they come in different focal lengths. The focal length determines how close you need to be to a subject or how far away you can be and still get the shot. For example, if you’re using a 60 mm macro lens, you may need to be within four or five inches of your subject. If you switch to a 105 mm macro lens, you can be 10 to 15 inches from your subject.
When you buy a lens, one consideration is light. You must have adequate light. As mentioned earlier, lenses with large openings (small F-stops) let in more light than lenses with small openings (large F-stop numbers). There are other factors, such as distance, to consider. If you’re using a lens that requires you to be as close as five or six inches from your subject, you may block the light falling on that subject. Always think about light. You can’t have a clear crime scene photograph without adequate light.
Here are some of the major lens types you will need in order to produce good crime scene photographs.
Normal lens: This is a lens that photographs subjects as we see them with our normal vision. The ratio and focal distance of a human body would photograph as I see it when I am standing there viewing it. These are called normal lenses because they capture things as we are used to normally seeing them. If you’re using a full-frame sensor camera, a ″normal″ lens would be 50 mm. If you’re using a digital camera with a APS-C size sensor you would need a 35 mm lens.
Prime lens: A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal range. This is a 35 mm, 50 mm, 85 mm, 105 mm, 200 mm lens as compared to a zoom lens which could be a 12–24 mm, 28–70 mm, etc. Prime lenses are usually sharper than a zoom lens.
Zoom lens: A zoom lens allows you to compose photographs without moving around the scene. These lenses come with varying focal ranges. They can cover everything from wide angle to telephoto. When you purchase a zoom lens, it’s important to buy one with a large opening. You can tell the size of the opening by looking at the aperture range of the lens. An example would be a lens with a focal range of 18 mm to 55 mm with an aperture range of 3.5 to 5.6. This means that at the focal length of 18 mm, your maximum aperture would be 3.5 but at the 55 mm focal length it would be 5.6. One thing to remember is those lenses rarely perform optimally at the extreme edges of their focal lengths. High quality zoom lenses have an aperture of 2.8. They’re more expensive, but produce photographs with greater clarity. They’re worth the investment.
Macro or micro lens: These terms are interchangeable in photography. They mean the same thing. A macro lens allows you to focus very closely on your subject. It allows you to capture very clear minute detail. This lens is what you should use when you photograph fingerprints, fibers or other small items of evidence. Without a macro lens you won’t be able to capture the detail you need for crime scene photography. A true macro lens will be a fixed length and capable of photographing an object in a 1:1 ration. Macro lenses come in varying lengths but they must have the 1:1 ratio to be a true macro lens.
In order to capture a clear image in a photograph, you must have adequate light. There are many ways to light a subject. When we are shooting photographs in an outdoor setting, we may get by with natural light. We may also need to use an external light source to open up the shadows when we’re shooting outdoors. When we’re shooting indoors, we almost always have to use an external light source.
The most common way of providing additional light is to use an external flash. It is best to use an external flash manufactured by the same company that produced your camera. Example: If I use a Nikon camera, I prefer to use a Nikon Speedlight, which is the Nikon way of saying flash. The reason for this is that your camera communicates with your flash through digital contacts on the camera ″hot shot.″ Your camera and your flash talk to each other about how much light is needed to give just enough light to show details and preserve highlights. An off-brand flash may not be able to communicate the necessary information to produce that desired effect.
Wireless flash systems are available. These systems allow you to trigger the flash on your camera with an off-camera transmitter. There are also cables that can be attached to the camera that allow you to trigger the camera and flash without actually touching the camera. These systems are desirable because you don’t have to be right by the camera to trigger it, and they reduce blurring that can occur when you press the shutter, which produces camera shake.
In crime scene photography continuous lighting is desirable. When you use a flash, you’re using sporadic bursts of light to illuminate a scene. When you use flash, you can have varying results with the same subject or object. When you use continuous lighting, which is strobe or constant lights, you have greater control over the amount and duration of the lighting that you need. Remember: In crime scene photography, your goal is to get photographs with as much clear detail as possible. You can’t have clear detail without adequate light. Light produces shadows. Illuminating a subject is always a balance between light and shadow. When you use flash, it’s harder to control shadows. When you set up strobes or other continuous light sources you have control over exactly how much light you haven and how you want it to illuminate your subject. You can also use reflectors to highlight specific areas where you need greater detail.
This may seem like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised at how often great shots are not made because someone forgot to charge their batteries. Digital cameras are power-using devices. They use a lot of battery power. Every time you turn on your camera, shoot a pictures, review your images or change settings, you are draining your battery--and you’re not the only factor in the equation. Cold weather causes batteries to drain. Even when your camera or flash is not in use, the batteries are draining. It’s something you always have to be aware of.
Most digital cameras use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are a great improvement over the older rechargeable batteries. These batteries do not need to be drained all the way down before you can recharge them. You can recharge them whenever you need to recharge them. There’s no battery ″memory″ that will cause them to not recharge if you don’t wait until they’re depleted.
Batteries usually take about 90 minutes to charge. AC and DC battery chargers are available. Most cameras come with a battery and battery charger. It’s a good idea to buy extra batteries. When your battery is depleted, your digital camera is dead. You should always have at least three or four fully charged batteries with you when you photograph a crime scene.
Digital Camera Memory
Most digital cameras use either a Compact Flash (CF) or a Secure Digital card (SD). Older models may use other types of memory but the most common in use today are the CF or SD cards. One of the greatest advantages of using a digital camera is that memory is not expensive. You can shoot hundreds of pictures of a crime scene for very little expense. That said, you can never have enough memory. You should always carry extra memory cards and have them available. There are a few things you should know about digital memory storage.
Memory cards are electric and have been known to fail. Many photography pros prefer to use several smaller memory cards such as 4GB rather than the 8GB or 16GB cards because if one card fails, you haven’t lost your entire shoot.
Stay with the known brands of memory cards. Some cameras are touchy and don’t work as well with the off brands.
Always have a storage backup in addition to your memory card. If the subject is important you’ll want more than one. Again, memory cards can corrupt. They were never meant for long-term storage.
Always format your memory card in the camera rather than in the computer. When you format or reformat in the camera, everything is erased. When you do it in the computer, there may be residual which can later corrupt the card.
Have a system so you can know what cards you have used and what you have not. It’s very easy to format a card with images when you are in a hurry. A good system is to use a memory card wallet and put the cards that have images with their label facing the back. That way you know you have something on that card.
How Will You Store & Catalog Your Photos?
Police photographers should be encouraged to take lots of pictures, especially now that it costs nothing to record and store a digital image. However, image files take up a lot of space and the higher the resolution of your camera, the bigger the storage challenge.
Software like Adobe Photoshop Elements (about $100) provide great cataloging and basic editing functions, but you can also get a copy of Picasa from http://picasa.google.com, which will give you most of the features that Photoshop Elements has and costs nothing. Large agencies usually dedicate some component of their records management system to handle photos. Just don’t try to get away with transferring everything in bulk to a computer or CD because you won’t be able to find what you want when you need it.
Long-term storage can be a challenge because we’re learning that optical disk storage (CDs and DVDs) may not be as permanent as we thought. Some users are pulling out CDs that were used to archive old reports, pictures, etc., only to find the disks are no longer readable. The specific details are outside the scope of this article but know for now that you would benefit from going back to your archived CDs to make sure they’re still good, and to consider copying them onto new media as a backup. Avoid using markers that were not specifically designed to write on CDs. Many markers in use are not designed to be archival and actually erode the reflective surface on a CD. This can cause a CD to fail.
For the short haul, consider this solution, appropriate for departments of approximately 50 officers or less: Set up a PC dedicated to image storage and CD creation. When officers come in from the field with new photos, they first download them onto the computer’s hard drive, using a cataloging application like Picasa. They then burn a CD of those images and book the CD into evidence under the case number associated with the incident. When the officer has confirmed the CD is good and the images are safely on the hard drive, only then is the camera’s memory card erased.
Then, an evidence technician (or other person designated to be responsible for evidence) should use a portable hard drive to back up the drive in the image computer. This backup drive will help ensure that images inadvertently deleted from the computer hard drive are still preserved on the portable unit. The portable unit resides in the evidence safe when not in use.
Hard-disk storage is cheap these days. A little over $100 will buy you a self-contained 500 GB drive. For less than $100, you can get a bare drive of the same size that will swap in and out of an inexpensive drive enclosure.
Finally, you should have a specific policy dealing with digital evidence because this is an area that will bite you in court if you don’t follow a set procedure. This evidence is going to be subject to the same type of chain of custody challenges that physical evidence undergoes.
Nobody likes a tripod but every good photographer loves what they do. A good sturdy tripod is a must. In many crime scenes you will have low-light situations where you will need to take timed exposures. There’s no way to take a clear picture in that situation without using a tripod. There are many, many different types and brands of tripods and tripod heads. Like a lens, you often get what you pay for in tripods, but there are many choices and it is important to match your tripod with your other equipment what you need it to do. Here are some things you might want to think about when you buy a tripod.
How big is my camera? How heavy is it? How heavy is my lens? Here’s a big difference in weight between cameras. A Nikon D3 is a lot heavier than a Nikon D90. You want a tripod that is sturdy enough to hold your camera without toppling over.
What places am I likely to be shooting? There can be a lot of people and equipment moving around in a crime scene. You will definitely want a tripod heavy enough to withstand some bumps. Tripods are made in many different materials. Two of the most popular choices are carbon fiber and metal. Carbon fiber is light. It’s strong. It’s popular with people who have to carry their equipment over large distances and do not want to struggle with tripod weight. The downside of carbon fiber is that it can be bumped over or blown over much easier than the heavier metal models. The rule of thumb is that your tripod must be sturdy enough to properly hold your heaviest camera mounted with your heaviest lens. This is really important. If your tripod falls you can lose your camera and your lens. You can’t have a fragile tripod in a crime scene. Too much is going on.
How tall am I? This is important. You don’t want to be hunched over your tripod. It has to be tall enough for you to comfortably work with your camera. When you look at tripods, try them out. What would it feel like to work with that system?
What kind of tripod head do I want to use? There are two basic types of tripod heads: geared heads and ball heads. Geared heads are generally heavier with fixed increments that you can lock in. Ball heads allow you to move the camera in any direction in any increment before you lock it in. Preference in tripod heads is a matter of personal choice. Again, you want a sturdy dependable tripod head. You don’t have to buy the most expensive, but you definitely do not want to go with anything flimsy or shoddy. A good, middle-of-the-road sturdy tripod head from one of the many known manufacturers should work. Try several out before you make your decision.
Spend a Saturday morning or afternoon in your local camera shop checking out the equipment. Ask questions. Tell your salesperson what you need the camera to do for you. Take your time. Ask the associate to let you take some pictures. Ask the associate to demonstrate some of the feedback controls on the camera so you can see exactly what kind of picture you took, how it looks and what you could do to make it better. In the end, if you make careful choices, you’ll wind up with what you need to take the very best possible photographs in some of the very worst possible situations. That’s what crime scene photography is all about.
Dean Carr is a retired sergeant with the National City (Calif.) Police department. He now works in sales and as an instructor at Nelson Photo Supplies. He also does freelance photography. Carr has had photos published in numerous magazines, including 911 Magazine, First Responder Magazine and United States Rottweiler Magazine.