CRIME SCENE PHOTOGRAPHY by Steve
Crime scene photography, like any
other form of 'once-in-a-lifetime' photography has to be done right the first
time. There is no room for errors,
for guessing or omissions. It is
imperative that the crime scene is recorded accurately on film in the first
instance, because it will be too late to go back later. As a crime scene
examiner or as a designated crime scene photographer, it is your task to make
that accurate record for a number of reasons.
Perhaps the most important reason is to eventually transport judge and
jury to the scene many years later, to show them what the scene looked like at
the time of or immediately after the crime was committed.
It may be no more than a handful of photographs of a simple break and
enter offence. The attention to detail in that instance should be no different
to that paid to a major incident such as a murder.
The only difference will be the volume of the work you do.
Other reasons for recording a scene are to provide Police with a
photographic record to assist them in their investigation - especially if it is
unsolved, to reveal any latent details at the scene and to enhance microscopic
details which are not readily visible to the naked eye.
In writing this chapter, it is
assumed that the reader is an accomplished crime scene examiner.
What I will outline are the basic requirements and methods to be applied
to crime scene photography which will stand any forensic photographer in good
stead and enable him or her to procure, prepare and present to a court of law a
photographic record which accurately and objectively describes the crime scene
2.1 THE CAMERA
There is an old saying which
goes, “A tradesman is only as good as
the tools he uses.” This is
very true when it comes to crime scene photography.
Without good, well-maintained photographic equipment you will not be able
to do your job to perfection. You
need modern, state-of-the-art camera equipment which is capable of being used
every day for hours on end and which can handle the odd bump. Advances in
digital photography are occurring at astounding rates and digital cameras are
slowly but surely making inroads to forensic photography. No matter what medium
you use however, the methods and procedures adopted to actually photograph a
crime scene do not change. The minimum requirement for many years has been, and
for a lot of years to come will be, a 35mm SLR camera with a metal body.
It is on that basis that the following is presented..
2.2 THE LENS
It is the quality of your lens
which will govern the quality of your photography. For crime scene work you will
need more than a standard lens. The minimum requirement is a wide-angle lens of
at least 28mm focal length; a macro lens of around 50mm focal length which will
give you 1:1 magnification and possibly a medium telephoto lens of 135mm focal
length. If you are looking for
greater magnification than 1:1 with your macro lens, you will also need an
extension tube. Your department may
also be able to supply you with a zoom lens in the range of 28-105mm which can
take the place of both the wide-angle and the medium telephoto lenses.
2.3 FLASH EQUIPMENT
Not every crime scene you attend
will be as easy to photograph as an everyday, landscape shot. There will be
indoor scenes, underground scenes, night scenes, outdoor scenes with heavy
contrasts between light and shadow and any one of a myriad other situations
which demand additional lighting. It is therefore essential that your camera is
coupled with an efficient flash unit with a high output, which can be dedicated
to the camera. Gone are the days of guessing lens apertures and flash guide
numbers. Today's modern cameras and
dedicated flash units not only take the guess work out of camera and flash
settings, they also calculate the scene presented to them in less time than it
takes to press the shutter release button - and deliver an optimum image to the
2.4 ESSENTIAL ACCESSORIES
No crime scene photographer would
consider throwing such valuable camera equipment onto the back seat or floor of
a vehicle in between jobs. This valuable equipment must be looked after at all
times, and when it is not being used should be stored and transported in a
sturdy, air-tight camera case. Also, no crime scene photographer worth his salt
would consider a camera outfit complete without a sturdy tripod.
The camera's power requirement must be kept in mind, with spare fresh
batteries always part of your equipment. This also applies to the power supply
for your flash. Other items
essential to the crime scene photographer are scales and graphs, a grey card and
a colour chart.
The quality of film available
today is constantly improving. Film technology is such that image quality
produced by fast films is superior to that of the slower films of 10 or 15 years
ago. The grain detail of today's
ISO400 colour negative film is finer than that of yesteryear's ISO100 film.
Many Police departments today have moved right away from monochrome
(black and white) film and now photograph all their crime scenes in colour -
including fingerprints. The Courts
too, have come to expect colour photographs.
Jurors live in a colourful world. They
have colour televisions, colour photographs of the family on the wall at home
and they are bombarded daily with colourful images from bill boards and
magazines. Why take them on a
nostalgia trip, and put crime scene photography back 50 years by producing
monochrome photographs at Court when there is no need to?
Of course there will be times when monochrome film will be used,
especially for technical applications, and there it comes into its own.
My personal preference for crime scene photography is ISO400 colour film.
When I have to use monochrome film I use ISO125 which I rate at ISO80 for
greater image contrast. Reversal
(slide) film also has its place in crime scene photography, especially for
illustrative, demonstrative and lecture purposes.
Whilst it is not always possible to photograph a crime scene with both
negative and reversal films, the copying of photographs onto slide film is a
3.1.1 CORRECT EXPOSURE
Again, in assuming the reader's
expertise in crime scene examination and forensic photography, I will only
briefly touch on the essentials of obtaining the optimum image. It is important
to keep in mind the need for pin sharp images coupled with maximum depth of
field. Both these aspects are
achieved by careful selection of aperture settings, and the correct selection of
complementary shutter speeds to obtain the correct exposure.
Bear in mind, that whilst negative film (both colour and monochrome) has
a fairly wide exposure latitude which will compensate for 2 or 3 stops
over-exposure or under-exposure, there is nothing like a good set of correctly
exposed negatives to produce a perfect set of photographs.
3.1.2 FLASH MANIPULATION
In paragraph 2.3 I touched on the
need for a powerful flash unit for your camera. I referred to the use of a dedicated flash system which in
effect works in tandem with the camera (their electronic circuits are on the
same `wavelength') to give you optimum flash exposure photography under most
conditions. There will be times however, when you will have to take charge of
the flash unit and dictate to the camera and its film how much light you are
going to apply to a particular scene, and how you want it recorded on the film.
If you are photographing the remains of the interior of a burned-out
building for instance, the need for flash lighting will be vastly different to
that required to photograph a snow scene in daylight.
The black of the burned-out building will `soak up' the light from the
flash and there will be nothing left to record on the film.
It will be necessary for you to switch your camera and flash to manual,
and allow 2 more stops over-exposure on your camera than the exposure indicated
on your flash. For instance, if you
set your flash for an exposure at ƒ11 then you will have to set the aperture of
your lens to ƒ5.6 to compensate for the light which is `soaked up.'
Conversely, if you are photographing a scene in snow and it is necessary
to use flash to highlight some details, you may have to stop down your lens
aperture by 2 stops to overcome the brilliant combination of flash and snow
glare which could wash out your image. In
other words, in extremes of conditions don't allow your camera and flash to do
the work. Both are calibrated to work in a `normal' world where
everything is average. That is why the photographic industry works on the
standard 18% reflectance grey card which is technically in the middle between
pitch black and brilliant white. If
you do not have a grey card amongst your equipment, then get one. It is one of the cheapest aids for determining exposures that
a photographer can own and use.
3.1.3 PAINTING WITH FLASH
All flash units, regardless of
how much light they put out when fired, suffer from the same problem - light
fall off. If you are aware of the inverse square law relating to flash output,
then you will know that the furthest objects from the camera and flash receive
less light than the ones closest to the camera. They therefore show up darker in your photograph than those
closer objects. When photographing
a large scene at night, especially outdoors, you can supply flash light to all
of the scene and make it appear like daylight by using a simple technique called
`painting with flash'. All this
means is you have your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod, and with a suitable
aperture selected (say ƒ4 or ƒ5.6) you focus your lens, set your shutter speed
to `B' and lock the shutter open. You
then set about walking around the scene with your flash unit set for the same
aperture (ƒ4 or ƒ5.6) and fire the flash off manually at objects in the scene
which you want to appear correctly exposed in your photograph. It is important not to stand between the flash and the camera
and so create multiple silhouettes of yourself throughout the scene, and not to
fire the flash straight at the camera. It
may be necessary between flash firings to have an assistant cover the front of
the lens with a dark object such as the inside of a Police hat to avoid `hot
spots' such as street lights burning bright areas into your photographs.
4.1 PHOTOGRAPHING THE CRIME SCENE
4.1.1 BASIC REASONS
There is a number of reasons for
photographing a crime scene. The
most basic of those reasons is:
• To record the scene and
• To record the appearance of
physical evidence as first
• To provide investigators with
a photographic record of the scene to assist them with their investigations, and
• To present the crime scene at
court for the edification of judges, juries and counsel alike.
4.1.2 THE CRIME SCENE PROPER
It is important before entering
and photographing a crime scene that you talk to investigators at the scene and
formulate a plan of attack. In the majority of cases, especially with indoor
scenes, there is no need to rush in, to take a dozen quick photographs and then
leave. Outdoor scenes will be governed by terrain and weather conditions. You
must liaise with investigators, find out exactly what they want photographed,
know what they are investigating, and be prepared to use your expertise to
record the scene accurately. It is always possible that your trained eye will
see something the investigators cannot see. Bring it to their attention and
4.1.3 THE TECHNIQUE FOR GOOD
COVERAGE - THE BIG PICTURE
Photographing of a crime scene
should start with location shots, which are wide-angle photographs of the
general crime scene and surrounding areas.
They will present a big picture of the overall scene to show its layout,
and to show the relationships between various pieces of evidence at the scene.
This may involve aerial photographs from an aircraft, from some other
elevated advantage point nearby, or simply general shots from a distance.
If the scene itself is an indoor one, I work on a minimum of 10
photographs of a room using a wide-angle lens - one from each corner looking
diagonally to the opposite corner (4); one from the centre of each wall looking
directly to the centre of the opposite wall (4); one from near floor level at
one end of the room looking up to the ceiling (1); and one from the same end of
the room near to ceiling height looking down to the floor of the room (1) giving
the total of 10 photographs.
4.1.4 THE MID-RANGE PHOTOGRAPHS
The next set of photographs
should be your mid-range shots.These show the relationships of specific items of
evidence to each other and to the scene proper. They should be photographed from
normal viewing height, the same perspective any person in the room or at the
scene would have when walking through them. Remember, your photographs will eventually be viewed by a
judge or a panel of jurors, and they must be able to relate to the scene easily,
with no distortions or confusion.
4.1.5 THE CLOSE-UP PHOTOGRAPHS
Generally, the final series of
photographs will be close-ups to show details of important pieces of evidence
which you have already identified in your mid-range photographs. Items with
which relative sizes are important should be photographed with and without a
scale. The item should be firstly photographed as located, then photographed
again including the scale. It is
important that the scale is placed on the same plane as the item, and that the
film plane is parallel to the scale.
4.1.6 IMPORTANT POINTS TO
• If you have a crime scene
which is not confined to one area, photograph it progressively by doing a
`walk-through'. Always link your photographs by having some identifiable object
in one photograph visible in the next photograph, and so on.
• Be careful where you step and
what you touch. Do not destroy any evidence such as shoe impressions, blood
stains or fired cartridge cases as you are photographing.
• If an object was moved prior
to your arrival, don't try to replace it or have someone else replace it in an
effort to reconstruct the scene. Photograph
the scene as it presents itself to you. If
an investigator asks you to photographs a particular aspect of a scene after an
item has been replaced, make a record of it in your field notes.
• Don't be rushed by an
investigator. He or she has a job
to do - and you have yours. Conduct your photographic examination systematically
and objectively. In serious and major crime scenes record everything, regardless
of its apparent irrelevance. Many a
crime has been solved a long way down the track, thanks to photographs of
objects in scenes which at the time had no apparent relevance. Adopt a policy of total disclosure and you can never be
criticised for over-photographing a crime scene. Remember, film is cheap.
5.1 SPECIFIC CRIMES
Each crime scene has its own
particular features, and the type of photography required at each scene will be
determined by those features.
Murder has been called the most
heinous of crimes - the taking of another human life. It abhors all humanity and demands swift and satisfactory
resolution. For that alone, the
photographing of a murder scene will be a detailed one.
The same procedures as outlined in 4.1 above are important.
Perhaps the most important `items' at the scene will be the victim,
injuries and any weapons located. It
will be important to photograph any signs of activity prior to the murder; any
evidence of a struggle, or of forced entry if an indoor scene; and the views
from the positions any witnesses had of the crime.
You will usually have to attend and photograph the ensuing autopsy, where
as well as taking photographs for your own information, you may be asked by the
attending pathologist to take photographs of anatomical significance for his
When attending a suicide or any
other deceased for that matter, and there is some doubt as to the circumstances
of the death - treat it as a homicide. Film
is cheap, and if the suicide should turn out to be a murder you have covered it
fully. Don't think it cannot and
will not happen. History is full of
murders made to look like suicides.
Assaults and other injury crimes
firstly require a general, overall photograph of the victim prior to detailed
photographs of injuries. An assault victim can be photographed like a mini crime
scene, with general (big picture) photographs, mid-range and close-up. When
photographing bruises, bites marks and other injuries close-up, use a scale to
show the sizes of the injuries; photograph at 90 degrees to the injury to avoid
distortion; and use a small aperture especially on curved surfaces such as an
arm or finger to increase depth of field and so ensure the entire injury image
5.1.4 STRUCTURAL SCENES
Scenes of building fires,
building collapses or other structural events, both externally and internally,
should also be photographed using the `big picture, mid-range and close-up'
principles Always ensure your own
safety and the safety of your valuable equipment.
5.1.5 MOTOR VEHICLE CRASHES
Scenes of motor vehicle crashes,
and for that matter scenes involving crashes of any kind - be they motor
vehicles, aircraft or even trains - should also be photographed using the `big
picture, mid-range and close-up' principle.
These photographs must show the relationships of each vehicle to the
other; the view each driver had on approach to the point of impact; the
direction from which each driver came; debris and marks on the roadway; views
from the points witnesses observed the crash at their eye levels; technical
photographs showing damage to the vehicles; and where necessary detailed
photographs of physical evidence to identify hit and run vehicles.
The damage to a vehicle must be photographed from at least two opposing
diagonals and through the two axes of the vehicle, as a minimum.
Flash should be used to fill in shadows within damaged areas.
Remember, despite the terrain and the positions and angles of vehicles,
to keep the camera horizontal at all times. Liaise with the crash investigators
and be guided by what they require of you.
5.1.6 BREAK AND ENTER OFFENCES.
Again the `big picture, mid-range
and close-up' principle applies. Close-up photographs will include tool marks,
shoe impressions, fabric impressions, fingerprints and other trace and physical
evidence. These will all include a scale, and fingerprint examinations and
photography will be carried out according to laid down procedures.
6.1 TRACE EVIDENCE
6.1.1 SHOE AND TYRE IMPRESSIONS
The same principle applies as in
general crime scene photography, with the `big picture' photograph showing where
in the scene the impressions is located. This
can be indicated with a marker alongside the impression, which is left in
position when the mid range and close up photographs are taken.
With these larger items of trace evidence I maintain a standard lens
setting when photographing them, which makes it easier to relate sizes when
viewing or enlarging photographs for comparison purposes.
Of course a scale is always included in the photograph as well as an
identifier with the date, location and my initials thereon. It is important to
keep the film plane of the camera parallel to the surface bearing the
impression. It is equally important to use an oblique light source to reveal the
detail of the impression. When
using flash in this way on an impression which is outdoors and in sunlight, cast
a shadow across the impression to enable the flash to create a greater contrast
and so reveal the detail in the impression.
A shoe impression can be photographed on one film frame.
A tyre impression however needs numerous frames which must overlap, and
here it is important to have a measuring tape alongside the impression to show
the scale and to enable the photographs to be joined if necessary.
A standard 50mm to 55mm lens should be used for impression photography as
a wide-angle lens will give unacceptable distortion to the impression.
6.1.2 BLOOD SPLASH PATTERNS
Photographs of blood splash
patterns, whether they be on a floor, on a vertical surface such as a wall or
even overhead on a ceiling, must be photographed with the film plane parallel to
the surface bearing the stain. A
scale must be included on the same plane as the surface.
Of course, like any serious crime scene, general location photographs
must be taken to show the positions of the blood staining at the scene.
6.1.3 MACRO/MICRO PHOTOGRAPHY
Apart from 1:1 and 5:1
fingerprint photography other detailed photographs are often required of tool
marks, serial numbers, pieces of jewellery and the like. The focusing of a lens
so close to small objects, especially when an extension tube is used, requires
the use of the smallest possible aperture in the camera lens to ensure maximum
depth of field and clarity of detail of the item being photographed.
7.1 ALTERNATE LIGHT SOURCES
Many lighting sources are
available in forensic photography, apart from ambient daylight and electronic
flash. They include infra-red,
ultra-violet, laser and the `Polilight'â. Each has its own applications and limitations.
Their uses are mainly restricted to the crime laboratory, with the
exception of the `Polilight'â which is portable and can be taken to and used
at crime scenes to reveal and enhance latent trace evidence such as fibres and
body fluids. Photographing of such trace evidence requires the use of barrier
filters, and descriptions of techniques and applications which are too detailed
and comprehensive to report here.
Be in the habit of ensuring that
all your camera equipment and accessories are in top condition, and will enable
you to attend and photograph crime scenes with the knowledge and confidence that
each photograph you take will be as technically perfect as possible.
Be critical of your own work and where you can, improve on it at the next
scene you attend. Treat every scene with the same degree of attention to
detail, with the same objectivity, and make the camera an extension of your eyes
and your analytical mind. By being
so thorough and objective, your reputation as a crime scene examiner and
forensic photographer will flourish, and the results of your work will for many
years be accredited as playing key roles in the successful conclusions of many
© Detective (Technical) Senior Constable Steve PEARSON
Physical Evidence Unit
Forensic Services Group
Crime Scene Section
Email: [email protected]