The opportunity to purchase new equipment doesn't always happen because you need new equipment. More than likely, you've needed new equipment for quite a while. More often, you have a narrow window of opportunity to spend some money on new equipment, and if you don't spend it, it will disappear forever. This isn't very efficient, but it does seem to be the way that public agency spending happens.
If your spending possibilities include cameras or related equipment, you have many options from which to choose -- maybe too many. When you open a catalog from a photographic supplier or look at one of their web sites, it's difficult to know where to start unless you have a very specific use in mind and you know what all the funny words and abbreviations mean. This is your guide to the funny words and abbreviations, and also to assessing what your photographic needs are.
What are you going to take pictures of?
Incredible as it seems, this question is often an afterthought, the "after" referring to when non-optimal gear has arrived in the hands of the users, and you overhear discouraging conversations along the lines of "Which one of those idiots bought this junk?"
You can have an all-purpose camera, but it's going to be a fairly complicated, expensive and fragile model. This is because a camera sufficiently versatile to accurately record accident scenes, crime scenes, one-to-one latent fingerprint and tool mark evidence, anatomical injuries, and the group shot of the next academy class will have a lot of settings and a wide range of focal distances and illumination options. Instead of buying one model of camera for everyone, you might be better off buying different models for specific applications.
A garden-variety traffic accident investigation doesn't require a lot of photographic horsepower. The investigator takes photos of the involved vehicles from multiple angles, a few more of the vehicle interiors, and some of the street or other premises from each compass point. This is mostly point-and-shoot work, with the biggest concern being whether there is enough power in the camera's strobe to illuminate the scene at night.
But if the same officer's next call is to take a report and document the injuries of a domestic violence victim at the hospital, that point-and-shoot camera will not be up to the task. When the officer goes in close to photograph a small wound or bruise, the camera won't be able to focus that close, and the built-in strobe will wash out the picture.
One solution might be to purchase relatively simple and inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras for the patrol cars, and have a more sophisticated camera available at the station or in a supervisor's car for finer work. Just make sure to account for the behavioral factor that causes a tool not to be used if it's not immediately available. If your officer needs the supercamera and he has to make a special trip to the station to get it, or it's locked in the desk of someone he doesn't want to wait for, or he's just close to end of watch and wants to get done as quickly as he can, he might conveniently forget about that evidence.
Where/how are these cameras going to be stored and used?
Is your plan to purchase a camera for each officer, each supervisor, each car, or just have one or two available for use at the station? Go back and look at that behavioral factor discussion if you're leaning toward the latter solution. If a point-and-shoot camera will handle most of what your cops encounter, make sure they're readily available by buying one for each officer, or at least one per car. If you buy one for each officer, the cameras will be handled more carefully and maintained better.
If you get one for each car, give some thought to how they will be stored. A padded, closed-cell foam case will protect the camera from most drops, but it won't help much with temperature extremes or moisture. You can get cases that are waterproof and close to indestructible from outfits like Pelican and Otterbox, often with pick-and-pluck foam to customize the cutouts for your gear. But be wary of consolidating equipment into such cases. One agency I know of went to considerable trouble and expense to make fitted cases for all of their crime scene investigation gear, so officers could check it out of the station at the beginning of the watch and throw it in the trunk until needed. None of the gear ever got broken, but the cameras didn't work well once they had been coated inside and out with fingerprint powder.
There are some point-and-shoot cameras, such as the Olympus SW line, that are ruggedized to be water- shock- and temperature-resistant. You'll pay a bit more for the protective features, but you may wind up buying fewer cameras this way.
How will your pictures be used?
This used to be really easy to answer. You take pictures, they're made into prints, and you get enlargements of the prints if you need them for court. Now, your photos are as likely to be incorporated into a PowerPoint show as they are to be printed. Digital photos are easier to transfer via e-mail or on a data CD than through paper-based prints. If photos are furnished to the defense for discovery purposes, they may insist on the "raw" file as opposed to the edited versions you'll introduce in court.
This question also relates to the most-commonly touted specification of digital cameras, that of maximum resolution. Digital cameras are usually rated as being 5 megapixel (MP), 8 MP, etc. A pixel is a "dot" that is the smallest component of the picture, and a megapixel is a million of those. Look at the cover of this magazine (or if you're reading this on the web, just about any magazine). The cover is 7.875 x 10.75 inches, and there's an edge-to-edge photo there. Most magazines are printed at 300 dots per inch (dpi) resolution, so on that page there are 7,619,062 dots (7.875 x 10.75 x 3002), which translates, more or less, to 7.6 MP.
As those resolution numbers increase, the size of the biggest print you will be able to make from your photos will also increase, and the degree to which you can "blow up" photos before they become illegible ("pixelate") increases. This sounds like a very desirable feature to have, but remember that any portion of the photo that isn't in sharp focus won't improve in enlargement (this does not apply if you have one of those machines from TV that can bring a shapeless blob to crystal clarity when you push the button marked "enhance"), and few photos will be in perfect focus from edge to edge. Further, think about this: how often have you needed to create poster-size crime scene photos for court?
Photographs displayed on a computer monitor or through a LCD projector are considerably lower resolution than prints--typically, 96 dpi. The same magazine cover discussed previously, seen at the same size on a computer monitor, would contain only 0.78 MP, but you probably wouldn't notice the difference.
The upshot here is that bigger isn't always better where maximum resolution is concerned, as most of the time you won't be using all of that resolution, anyway. And once you go beyond the resolution levels of popular consumer cameras, you will pay dearly. Presently, you can buy a 39 MP Hasselblad camera for about $1000 per MP (good luck getting that one past the city council), or a 10 MP Olympus E-410 (with two lenses) for about $500. Unless you're really, really good, most people won't notice the difference between pictures taken by either one.
If you do anticipate producing a lot of small prints and you're being eaten alive by the cost of photo print paper and inkjet cartridges, you should consider a color laser printer or a dye sublimation photo printer. Color laser printer prices have fallen well below $500, will print onto plain paper, and the quality is more than adequate for most law enforcement applications. Dye sublimation photo printers use a different process than inkjets, and the finished product rivals a print from a photo lab. Sony makes the DPP-EX50 that typically sells for less than $200 and produces 4x6 prints for about $0.60 each.
Are you going to need any special lenses, strobe lights, or other accessories?
Simpler, point-and-shoot digital cameras have no options for extra lenses or external strobes, so your choices there are simplified. More sophisticated cameras will accept multiple lenses, but you are often tied to the manufacturer of that camera for those accessories, as the others won't work. This is especially true now, since many cameras have auto-focus and image stabilization features that use components built into the lens.
When people shop for extras to supplement the "normal" lens that comes with the camera, they are usually drawn to telephoto models. Unless you're planning on doing a lot of stand-off surveillance work, a telephoto lens won't get used nearly as much as will a wide-angle lens.
Police are often called on to document evidence in close quarters--bathrooms, vehicle interiors, small apartments, etc. There is often a problem where the photographer can't get back far enough to photograph the entire room or other area, and has to do it in segments. A wide-angle lens moves you back artificially, making it appear you are farther away than you really are (ever looked through a telescope or binoculars backwards?). In my day as a uniformed officer/crime scene investigator, I didn't use my telephoto lens even once, but I needed a wide-angle lens so often I eventually bought one for myself.
Many cameras are now shipping with zoom lenses that range from around 18mm to 80mm or greater. A standard "normal" lens is about 50mm in focal length, but remember that these numbers don't translate directly between digital cameras and the 35mm film cameras they resemble. The magnification of a lens is determined by its focal length and by the area of the sensor or film where the light will be focused. The size of the image sensors in digital cameras vary from one model to another, so the magnification of a 18mm lens--which would be a wide-angle lens for a 35mm film camera--may be close to a "normal" lens on one digital camera, and a moderately wide-angle lens on another. Your best bet here is to visit a camera store that handles the camera and lens models you're considering, and look for yourself.
Strobe lights or "flash" attachments are also a critical choice. Most digital cameras have a built-in strobe that may or may not adjust its power for each photo, according to the settings of the camera. Even if the strobe is adjusted carefully, its direct light is going to cast a harsh shadow on the background behind the subject, and the apparent absence of oblique light will obscure details that are clear under "normal" viewing conditions.
An external strobe attachment is usually adjustable as a "bounce" flash, so the light is focused upward and reflects off of the surrounding walls and ceiling. The result is a huge reduction in harsh shadows and a more natural appearance in the image. External strobes are also more powerful than the camera's integral flash, so there is more light available for exterior scenes, such as wide shots of accident scenes.
Many external strobes are electronically mated with the cameras that carry them, so that the light output is focused and metered continuously with the camera's settings. This means if you buy a Nikon camera, you're best off to buy the corresponding Nikon strobe. Strobes and lenses can cost more than the cameras they're mounted on, so it's critical to know how much these items are going to cost before you commit to a specific brand.
That said, quality between major brands doesn't vary a lot. People have individual preferences for one brand or feature set over another, but all of the familiar name brands have reliable products that will work for you.
How will you store your pictures?
Police photographers should be encouraged to take lots of pictures, especially now that it costs nothing to record and store a digital image. Image files take up a lot of space. How will you store and catalog your images?
Software like Adobe Photoshop Elements (about $100) provide great cataloging and basic editing functions, but you can also get a copy of Picasa from Google (http://picasa.google.com), which will give you most of the features that Photoshop Elements has, and costs nothing. These solutions are suggested for smaller agencies, of course. Larger outfits usually have 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 is a problem of its own, because we're learning that optical disk (CDs and DVDs) storage are not as permanent as we thought. Users are pulling out CDs that were used to archive old reports, pictures, and whatever to find that the disks are no longer readable. The details are for another 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.
For the short haul, consider this solution, used by a department of about 40 officers: 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 that the CD is good and the images are safely on the hard drive, only then is the camera's memory card erased.
Every day, an evidence technician uses a portable hard drive to back up the drive in the image computer. The backup is set so that images erased 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. Make sure you have sufficient safeguards to ensure you won't lose evidence.
One more item to consider on image storage: different models of cameras use different storage media. There are five variations of Sony's Memory Sticks, three physical sizes and two storage capacity categories of Secure Digital cards, and, so far, only one kind of Compact Flash card, although the capacities vary widely. Careful planning will ensure that all of your cameras use the same storage media. You'll also find that buying lots of moderate-capacity media will be cheaper than buying a few large-capacity cards. I have a puny 1 GB SD card in my Nikon D40. It will hold 283 images at the camera's full resolution of 6MP. I've never come close to filling it up.
What power source will your cameras use?
Duh. Batteries, silly.
But will those batteries be internal and not replaceable, so that the entire camera has to be recharged between uses? Or will they be a proprietary battery designed just for that camera, removable for placement in an external charger, but limited to that battery type only? And there is a third option of plain old AAA or AA cells, conventional or rechargeable.
A rechargeable battery saves money on consumables, but a camera with a dead battery is an expensive paperweight. Users in the field should always have access to a fresh battery, because someone will leave the camera's power switch on while it's in the case, use it until it's drained, or just forget to charge it. The proprietary batteries can be very expensive, and they have a finite number of charge-discharge cycles in them before they need to be replaced.
With the higher-end cameras, you're almost always going to be using a proprietary battery, and it usually has to be recharged from an AC socket. But some models will charge the battery while it's in the camera, and a few will do this via a USB cable plugged into a computer. If you have in-car computers, you may be able to have them serve double duty as a battery charger.
For the simpler, point-and-shoot cameras, the conventional battery option is almost always better. If the rechargeables go dead, or the spares have been used up, there is a reserve supply at any convenience store.
There are so many choices in digital cameras that settling on a model or models is never going to be easy, but maybe you'll know what questions to ask now. Whatever you decide, make sure that these tools are available for your cops to use when they need them. Give your people every opportunity to gather evidence and do first-rate investigations in every case. If you expect quality work from them, they'll expect it from themselves.
Anti Shake: also known as Image Stabilization and Vibration Reduction. A mechanism inside the camera compensates for small tremors, so that a picture that would be blurry without Anti Shake is clear with it.
Aperture: also called f-stop. The amount of light admitted through a lens by an iris that opens or closes ("stops down") as needed. The maximum aperture of a lens is usually expressed by its smallest f-stop, e.g. f 5.6. The smaller that number, the more light the lens will transmit, and the more expensive it is.
Audio Annotation: some cameras can be set to auto-record a brief (5 seconds or so) sound clip with each exposure, so that the photographer can dictate notes as he shoots. This is very useful for documenting crime scene photos.
Bounce flash: using an electronic flash or strobe to indirectly illuminate a subject by bouncing the light off of walls and the ceiling. Bounce flash avoids the red-eye effect and stark shadows behind the subject. Photos appear to have been taken in an evenly-lighted room.
Bracketing: a technique where a photographer will take multiple photos of the same subject, adjusting the exposure above and below a median. This often captures detail that would otherwise be missed. Some cameras have a setting to auto-bracket, taking 3-5 images at different exposures every time the shutter release is pressed.
CCD: Charge-Coupled Device. CCDs are sensors that convert light into electronic data that the camera can store as an image.
CMOS: Complementary Metal Oxide Conductor. Another type of image sensor that works like a CCD, but uses less power. These are gradually replacing CCDs as the preferred type of image sensor.
CF: Compact Flash card, a non-volatile, solid state memory medium commonly used in digital cameras and music players.
Digital Zoom: magnification of a portion of a digital image, excluding the image data around it. The image will degrade as the digital zoom increases. Not to be confused with Optical Zoom.
Dye Sublimation: a printing method where a waxy ink is heated until it vaporizes and bonds with the paper. This method produces good quality color images with a continuous tone, as opposed to images made up of tiny dots.
Flash media: solid-state memory devices that will retain their data without a power supply. Compact Flash, Secure Digital and Memory Stick are three types of flash media commonly used in digital cameras.
Hot Shoe: an attachment point, usually above the viewfinder of a camera, where a strobe can be attached and will electronically synchronize with the camera's shutter.
IEEE-1394 Interface: also known as FireWire, a cable-and-socket connection between a computer and a peripheral device. FireWire transmits data faster than a USB 1.0 connection, but not as fast as USB 2.0.
Jaggies: the appearance of a digital image that has been magnified so much that the structure of the pixels in the image becomes apparent. Also called pixelation.
Lag Time: the interval between pressing the shutter release and the capture of the image. Digital cameras can impose a significant lag time, especially when features like auto-focus are in use.
LCD: Liquid Crystal Display, the panel typically located on the back of a digital camera that displays either the image seen through the lens or an image recorded by the camera.
Memory Stick: a non-volatile, solid state memory medium created and used primarily by Sony for their digital camera and music player products. Variations on this medium include Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick Micro, Memory Stick Pro, and Memory Stick Pro Duo. These variations are often not interchangeable.
Optical Zoom: magnification of an image by the use of lens optics, as a telescope would do. Optically zoomed images do not degrade with greater magnification, although they are subject to greater camera shake and reduced illumination.
Red-Eye: an effect caused by the reflection of the light from a camera's strobe from the retina. Some cameras have a red-eye reduction feature, where the camera's strobe flashes at lower power just before the shutter is tripped and it flashes at full power. The first flash causes the pupils to constrict slightly, reducing the red eye effect. Red eye is avoided when an indirect light source, such as a bounce flash, is used.
SD: Secure Digital, a non-volatile, solid state memory medium commonly used in digital cameras. There are three form factors to SD. SD cards are about the size of a postage stamp, mini-SD about half that size, and micro-SD the size of a fingernail. There are also SDHC cards in all three sizes, the "HC" meaning "High Capacity."
SLR: Single-Lens Reflex, where the image in the viewfinder is transmitted through the camera lens, so "what you see is what you get." A mirror has to flip up out of the way to capture the image, so the viewfinder in an SLR will go black momentarily when the shutter is triggered. Digital single lens reflex cameras are usually the more sophisticated and versatile (and expensive) models.
USB: Universal System Bus, a data interface between a computer and a peripheral device, such as a camera. USB ports are more commonplace than FireWire.
Viewfinder: a small viewing window on the back of a camera, used to aim the camera and compose the image. Simpler digital cameras dispense with the viewfinder in favor of an LCD display. These can be difficult to use in bright light or when the camera must be held at an awkward angle.