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Documenting crime scenes is crucial to an investigation. If you’re an officer in a small department without a crime scene unit, you may be responsible for documenting everything from thefts to homicides. For each scene, you need an accurate record. That means field notes and diagrams, along with relevant still photographs that correlate with those notes and diagrams. You don’t need to be an expert to take crime scene photographs or testify in court about these photographs, but you do need to know the proper way to photograph and document a scene.
Before we look at the specifics of crime scene photography, let’s consider the equipment you’ll need. Keep in mind that you don’t need the most sophisticated and most expensive camera on the market. Every department has different equipment these days. Most use digital cameras—everything from basic to high end models with interchangeable lenses. Some use cell phone cameras. Any of these can be good choices. Look for a camera you can operate well, and one that provides high quality pictures. No matter what you choose, remember that all photos taken at the scene have to be accounted for. It’s easy to delete photos with a digital camera or cell phone camera, but you should never do so. If you do delete photos, it can cause a lot of controversy if your case goes to court. The defense will want to know what happened to any missing photos. Avoid that kind of controversy; take your shots carefully.
When photographing evidence, the right camera features and the right accessory equipment are important. Use a wide angle lens to show the scene in perspective. For close-up shots of blood spatter, fingerprints, tool marks, etc., use macro photography for the necessary level of clarity and fine detail. To properly photograph things like tool marks and footprints, use portable lighting in addition to your flash, since using these lighting sources together provides oblique lighting that enhances the appearance of the print.
Creating an Accurate Record
When photographing a scene, you want to provide a permanent record of the scene and the evidence collected. This record will assist anyone not at the scene—detectives, prosecutors, members of the jury—if the case goes to trial. As you create the record, make sure the photographs are relevant to what you’re trying to depict. In other words, 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 photos could end up in court, so make sure none of them misrepresent the scene in any way.
To create the most accurate record of the scene, depict what was there when you arrived. Begin photographing the scene as soon as possible before anything is moved or changed. Provide the most comprehensive sense of the scene by using three perspectives: long range or overall views, mid-range or medium views, and short range or close-up views. With overall views, 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, 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. For instance, if there’s blood spatter on a wall, shoot that evidence first at mid-range so it’s clear that it’s on a wall, not on the floor or ceiling. Then photograph the blood spatter close-up to get as much detail as possible. Use close-up views for all evidence collected. These three different views give a record of the entire scene and the relationship of the evidence to the scene. After photographing the scene and its evidence, 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’ll also need to photograph the evidence with a scale to give a size measurement. A size measurement is critical in situations in which you’re 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 with bite marks and shoe prints, 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. If you take samples of items, put the sample next to the item and photograph both. If you do a blood test at the scene and it’s positive, lay the swab next to the stain. These photos document your actions at the scene. Take your photos as RAW files.
Photographing the scene and the evidence well can prove invaluable to your case. Be sure to have the right equipment available. Familiarize yourself with your camera and additional equipment, and practice using it so you’re prepared for the next case. Also, consider taking a crime scene photography course to 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’re 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 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. firstname.lastname@example.org