In Forensics Fundamentals Part One and Part Two, I covered camera essentials, exposure techniques, lighting methods, macro photography, gear essentials and more. For this installment, I’m going to put it all together discussing the fundamentals of crime scene photography, approach, technique and execution.
As I said in the two previous articles, forensics photography may be applied to all types of investigations including traffic accidents, physical assaults, arsons, burglaries, homicides and so on. While in the classroom setting, officers have the ability to practice their skills unencumbered, but the reality is much more challenging. On top of the documentation process, each of them will need to operate around a variety of obstacles such as fellow law enforcement officers, logistical hindrances and time constraints.
As a rule, I teach “slow and methodical equals fast and effective.”
Essentially what I mean is do not rush through the forensics documentation, as it will only require repetition of the photography; thus taking more time in the end. Nor should the officer be hurried by anyone, as it’s important to be thorough and not to overlook finer details. Having a systematic approach to documentation is important.
Photographers should ensure their kits are clean operable and ready to go at a moment’s notice – batteries charged, lenses cleaned, camera settings reset and all packed nicely ready to go. When in a rush, it’s easy to forget gear. Therefore I encourage having a checklist that includes all items within the photographer’s camera and lighting kits.
In fact, it should become routine for photographers to clean-and-check their gear after every use and return items to the same place within their bags and cases every time. That old adage, “There’s a place for everything and everything in its place.” I stand by that because I know exactly where to find my NIKKOR 24-70mm lens in my camera bag and where my Nikon SB-5000 strobe is located in my lighting kit.
In the end, one shouldn’t concern themselves with gear cleaning before heading out – that’s wasted valuable time.
I urge all law enforcement officers, whether it’s their official duty or not, to carry their camera kits with them. They may be the first on-seen, and have the lead. They’re the best person in that moment to capture critical, unaltered visual evidence.
No matter whether it’s inside or outside, the scene should be secured immediately, preventing contamination. Also, the officer should follow protocol in regards to the wearing of proper personal protective equipment (PPE) before beginning their documentation too.
Officers should take an establishing image of the crime scene’s setting upon arriving to the location. From there, they should be taking pictures all the way into the crime scene space.
For example, if a homicide’s crime scene is within an apartment on the second floor of a high-rise, the officer should document the building’s exterior surroundings, exterior facade, entries, exits, stairs and elevators leading to the crime scene.
I teach students to be sure they’re looking up and down as well as eye level all the way to, and into, the crime scene. Again, this should be done before other personnel contaminate the scene. And no, this isn’t overkill. It’s ensuring nothing is missed. Photographs may be referred back to after the investigation is complete, and may provide significant clues not spotted upon initial review. There are never too many images in such cases.
Officers should use a camera bag or holster/drop pouch system that allows access to lenses and strobes without the need to place the bag on the floor/ground, thus inadvertently polluting the scene.
As I stated in Part One, a 24-70mm lens is a good all-round, multipurpose lens and works well for the wide-angle and normal-perspective, medium views of crime scene coverage. This allows the photographer to switch back and forth between wide and medium views without having to change lenses. However if the photographer chooses to use a dedicated 50mm lens for normal views, I advise them to shoot with two cameras – one camera with a wide-angle lens and the other camera with the normal lens.
Upon entering the crime scene area, the officer should photograph the space from every angle. If it’s an enclosed space or room, it should be documented from every corner, up, down and eye level both wide angle and normal perspectives. These images provide viewers with an understanding of where objects are within the space and where these objects are located in connection to each other. I refer to this method of shooting coverage as the “four corners.”
From there, the space should be worked in a spiral motion. By that I mean the photographer should begin circling the outermost space documenting as they go and getting slightly closer to center with every circle thus creating an imaginary spiral into the center of the space.
No objects should ever be moved before being photographed, or moved during the documentation process. To ensure viewers know exactly where items were within the room, and in correlation to other objects, it’s important that the officer photographs these items straight on at right angles from one object to the next. No oblique angles.
Next, officers should photograph articles from directly above. Macro photography of smaller items may be necessary. Implementing various lighting techniques discussed in Part One may also be needed to ensure even, quality light during this critical phase of documentation. If there is glass, metal or mirror within the scene, the techniques mentioned in Part Two may be employed.
If there is a victim, or victims, present, the individual(s) should be thoroughly documented for fresh and latent injuries. Before photographing anyone, permission should be obtained and a consent waiver signed.
I always emphasize that officers, no matter their gender, should offer the victims the option to have another officer present. Providing an escort for the victim(s) during the photographic process ensures the individual being photographed is more at ease, and the officer photographing the individual will have a witness that all procedures were conducted in a professional manner and they are above reproach.
The victim(s) may be emotionally unstable and photography can be invasive for those in front of the lens. Heightened emotions may cloud the victim’s judgment and perception of the documentation process. Therefore, a second person on-hand during the victim/photographer interaction is paramount.
If there is a deceased victim, the body should be photographed head to toe – starting with a wide-angle view of the deceased inside the crime scene space using the “Four Corners” method. The same pinwheel approach of documentation should be conducted around the body getting closer with every circular pass. The same right-angle techniques should be applied when photographing objects near the deceased. This provides a better understand of where the objects are in conjunction to the deceased.
Here’s an example. Knowing the position of the gun to the body, the blood splatter to the body and the bullet casing to the body and all three of these components to each other is important to help determine whether it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound, perpetrated by someone else, or set up by someone else to look self-inflicted. Something as minute as the gun’s position and distance from the body may make the biggest difference.
Macro photography of evidence on the deceased such as scratches on the skin, debris under the fingernails, fibers/hairs on the clothing and dirt on the shoe tread should all be documented. Defensive and offensive marks, bruising, nail damage, all of these are important. Using oblique lighting as demonstrated in Part Two will help illuminated smaller, harder-to-detect elements. That’s why I tell my students to always have a flashlight to cast over the scene, even if the room is well lit.
After the initial documentation is complete, evidence markers may be placed and evidence inventoried. After markers are placed, the entire scene should be documented again from the beginning. Wide angle and normal lens shots from the “Four Corners” followed by the pinwheel documentation method until the center for the scene is reached. Again, normal and macro photography of the room and evidence should be taken throughout.
The use of rulers and angle finders are used during the documentation with markers to provide scale of the evidence and exact positions within the crime scene.
If investigators find more evidence and add another marker after the second round is complete, a third full documentation must be completed again and so on until all evidence is found, marked and documented.
In my advanced forensics photography classes, students learn about the use of chemicals, specialty lights, lasers and other amazing forensic photography tools. However all of the law enforcement personnel who attend my fundamentals course learn and apply what I’ve imparted to you here. I hope this series demonstrates that photography is not only a wonderful outlet for art and expression, but also an essential tool for a multitude of other professions – including law enforcement.