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As a crime scene officer working a traffic fatality, homicide, theft, assault, or any other kind of case, you must capture an accurate record of the scene and the evidence collected. In order to provide a complete record of each scene, you need field notes and diagrams, along with relevant still photographs that correlate with those notes and diagrams. While you do not need to be a photography expert to take crime scene photographs or testify in court about these photographs, you do need to have a solid understanding of the proper way to photograph a scene.
Before we look at the specifics of crime scene photography, let’s take a moment to consider the equipment you’ll need. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need the most sophisticated and most expensive camera on the market to do your job well. Every department has different equipment these days. Some still use 35 mm film cameras; others have gone to digital cameras, using everything from fairly basic models to high end models with interchangeable lenses. Any of these options can be good. Be sure to look for a camera that you can operate well and that can provide high quality pictures. Whether you choose a film or a digital camera, remember that all pictures taken at the crime scene have to be accounted for. It’s easy to delete photos with a digital camera, but you should never delete photos taken at a crime scene. If you delete photos at a scene, it can lead to a lot of controversy if your case goes to court. You are much better off avoiding that kind of controversy, so take your shots carefully.
When photographing evidence you also need to have the right features on your camera and the right accessory equipment. For example, to show a scene in perspective, you need a wide angle lens. When taking close-up shots of blood spatter, fingerprints, tool marks, etc., you need to use macro photography to get a photograph with the level of clarity and fine detail that you need. In addition, to properly photograph things like tool marks and foot prints, you need portable lighting in addition to your flash, since using these light sources together provides oblique lighting that enhances the appearance of the print.
Creating an Accurate Record
When photographing a scene, keep in mind that you are trying to provide a permanent record of the scene and the evidence collected. This record will assist anyone who is not at the scene—from detectives and prosecutors to members of the jury, if the case goes to trial. As you create that record, remember that the photographs you take should be relevant to what you are trying to depict. In other words, you should only capture the scene and the surrounding areas that provide useful information, not the “extras.” Don’t take pictures that have nothing to do with the scene—such as the sky or a nice tree away from the scene. Also, avoid pictures that are purely emotional, such as someone crying at the scene. Finally, remember that all of the photos you take could end up in court, so make sure none of them misrepresent the scene in any way.
In order to create the most accurate record of the scene, you want to depict what was there at the time you arrived. Begin photographing the scene as soon as possible before anything is moved or changed. You can provide the most comprehensive sense of the scene by taking photographs from three different perspectives: long range or overall views, mid-range or medium views, and short range or closeup views. In the overall views, you want to show as much of the scene as possible. For example, if the crime took place in the bedroom, the overall views should include the front of the house, and then follow the progression to the actual crime scene, ending with shots of the entire bedroom. The medium or mid-range views should show the evidence in relationship to the other items in the room. In other words, if you have blood spatter on a wall, shoot that evidence first at mid-range so that it is clear that it is on a wall, not on the floor or ceiling. Then photograph the blood spatter from close-up to get as much detail as possible. Use close-up views for all of the evidence collected. By using these three different views, you’ll have a record that shows the entire scene and the relationship of the evidence to the scene. After the entire scene and its evidence are photographed, photograph the surrounding area to add perspective. These photographs may include the neighboring homes and streets or fields. In some cases, you may need aerial photos to complete the record.
Now that we have a sense of the order in which to proceed, let’s look more closely at some important considerations when photographing the evidence. First, photograph the evidence exactly as it was when you found it. Then photograph it again with an item number or placard to identify it and tie it to your other records. In many cases, you will also need to photograph the evidence with a scale to give a size measurement. A size measurement is critical in situations in which you are trying to make a 1 to 1 comparison between your evidence and evidence taken from a suspect. In order to make this type of comparison when you have bite marks and shoe prints, you need to photograph the evidence with a scale and shoot it at a 90 degree angle. Also, be sure to place the scale at the same height as the evidence so that the scale and the evidence will both be in focus when you take the shot.
As you can see, photographing the scene and the evidence well can prove invaluable to your case. Make sure that you always have the right equipment available. Familiarize yourself with camera and additional equipment and practice using all of it so you’re ready to go when you get that call. Also, consider taking a course in crime scene photography to gain more knowledge that will make your work even better. And most important, always remember that your goal is to provide the most comprehensive record possible of every crime scene and the evidence found there. You are not trying to prove guilt or innocence—that’s the jury’s job. But if you do your job well and provide a clear, thorough document of the evidence at the scene, then the jury can see exactly what you saw and can use that evidence to do their job well.
Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company.