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Ask any forensic photographer and he or she will likely tell you that the introduction of digital imaging has been the single most important advancement in the history of forensic science. This swing into the digital era has changed the face of photography and consequently the need for an updated perspective when planning facilities for a photography section. This article asks several key questions that should be answered in this process.

Evidence being examined under an ALS.

What types of photography are you employing and how do they impact your facility design?
Creating a space dedicated solely to photography may be hindering your laboratory’s other space requirements. An area can serve as a true photography suite but also be used for large item evidence examination and ALS/laser enhancement of latent prints. A flexible area could have a large central table for the examination (and photographing) of evidence. The inclusion of ALS/laser equipment would allow for fingerprint examinations and photography. No light/ low-light control would further facilitate using the space as a working studio and examination room.

Regardless of the camera(s), equipment, and accessories that exist in your photo kit, storage will always be an issue. Cameras and lenses not in use should be kept in cases to protect them from environmental contaminants. Tripods and stabilizing devices can quickly accumulate.Wall hooks would be a good option for storing camera supports, but be sure that they are hung in low-traffic areas.

Lighting is essential in photography. Consider collapsible studio lights with floor stands that can be used in the lab or the field. A more advanced studio may include fixture lighting with remote controls for added versatility. Wall bars for mounting articulated arms for cameras/accessories and a ceiling-mounted track system with flexible drop-downs can achieve optimal positioning of cameras and overhead studio lights.

Photography utilizing specialized lighting (ex. alternate light sources - ALS) is particularly valuable. As previously mentioned, creating a multi-function suite can increase your laboratory’s efficiency. Wired ALS units will run on a standard electrical outlet. Hand-held ALS units may be rechargeable or run on batteries. If the ALS you employ is to be mounted in the room, proper placement of electrical outlets and mounting shelves or brackets must be considered.

Are you still using film and will you process and develop the film yourself?
Film is still being used in some jurisdictions, but it is quickly being overtaken by digital equipment. It is more likely an agency is using film methods in reflected ultraviolet photography and infrared photography. At the very least, storage for film can require more space, if only a shelf in your studio and space in a refrigerator or freezer.

If you will be developing film, achieving a lightproof environment will be an issue of paramount importance. You must also consider chemical storage, access to a water source and drain, and additional space for a film drying cabinet. These items have infrastructural requirements that can add to the cost of a facility, such as additional piping. Also, if you process a significant volume of film, unused run-off silver from the negatives may be considered a hazardous material.

Outsourcing film development has become a popular choice, if your protocols permit it. Eliminating film processing may give you the added capitol to increase infrastructure on more commonly used aspects of your lab.

Image capture and film development are very different processes. Creating a separate photo studio and a film processing darkroom will ensure that the photo-taking areas are always available for use.

Will you create a true studio or just a digital darkroom?
The difference between the two can be stark and determines what level of sophistication you will need to employ in your photography facility design. As mentioned, a studio may be equipped with mounts, tracks, brackets, and bars.

A digital darkroom can be as simple as a digital image card reader and a desktop computer. A digital darkroom is more about computer software and hardware than it is about infrastructure layout. Digital darkroom imaging stations may have a copy stand and camera attached to the computer or files may be accessed from stored images. A scanner will facilitate the input of latent print lift cards and other flat evidence. Working with at least two monitors will facilitate in-program editing.

Regardless of your configuration, a photo studio should be equipped with at least one digital darkroom set-up. It is powerful to immediately see the results of your photo efforts on a computer monitor. Most cameras have an in-camera LCD zoom function, but seeing things at screen resolution can ensure properly composed images and prevent wasted time enlarging every image on the camera LCD.

The height of the working surface of the copy stand and other work surfaces should be considered. You will be shooting photos from above and sometimes at 90° to your evidence. You will at times need to be physically at the viewfinder of the camera. If your camera has live view mode, running your camera through the computer monitor will be a big advantage; but you will still need to access the settings on the camera.Work surfaces of appropriate/adjustable heights are both convenient and safe for the photographer.

What questions need to be answered about servers and technology during design?

  • Are data storage issues a part of your larger lab wide infrastructure?
  • What type of servers and redundant back-ups will you choose?
  • Can your server room support the cooling needs of the equipment?
  • Can the server be located remotely?
  • What are the security requirements for the server room and your IT access points.
  • What is the volume of data incoming and how is that going to change over time (remember: new cameras = larger file sizes)?

Do you need a product that provides data management?
Unless you already have a data management system, the answer to this is yes. There are a variety of commercially available Digital Image Management Systems (DIMS). Over the past year, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory (KS) has worked with the in county IT personnel to develop a web-based DIMS application. The program will be available to anyone in the Sheriff’s Office and all of its customers (local agencies). Everything discussed on these pages will be for naught if there is no means to successfully upload, store, protect, access, and verify your digital information.

The design and implementation of a high-quality and efficient photography suite comes down to key planning by your organization. Photography is typically employed lab wide, so keep these concepts in mind when thinking about the grand scope of your facility.

Susan Halla (susanh@crimelabdesign.com) is a Project Leader and Senior Forensic Planner with Crime Lab Design which provides full architectural and engineering services for forensic and medical examiner facilities worldwide.

Ryan M. Rezzelle, MFS, CSCSA (Ryan.Rezzelle@jocogov.org) is the CSI Supervisor for the Johnson County (KS) Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory, which is accredited under the ASCLD-LAB International program.

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