Forensic Photography. By: Janie McNamee and Anna Kate Dunn. Forensic Photography.
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We are all familiar with the work of the Forensic Photographer through detective shows such as CSI. While it may not always be quite as glamorous as depicted on TV, forensic photography is still a fascinating area of work suitable to highly organized photographers who use excellent technical skills.
It is the job of the Forensic Photographer to produce accurate, detailed photographs that faithfully record the location and evidence as clearly and as objectively as possible.
What is the job?
Forensic Photographers produce a permanent visual record of the scenes of accidents and crime scenes for use as evidence in court. They must be able to produce detailed recordings of all the available evidence at the scene, including overview photographs as well as accurate images of tire marks, fingerprints, footprints, blood spatters, bullet holes and other unique evidence at the scene. They must also be able to take detailed photographs of injuries sustained through accidents or assaults and may also be required to photograph dead bodies. Much of the work is routine, but photographing crime scenes and road traffic accidents, or visiting patients in hospital, can be emotionally distressing.
Typical career routes:
While most Lead Photographers in Forensic Photography Units will usually have a strong background and qualification in photography, most Forensic Photographers start as Crime Scene Investigators or Scene of Crime Officers (SOCOs) before specializing in photography and forensic imaging. While it is not necessary to have a formal photographic education in order to gain work as a CSI, some photographic qualification (e.g. BTEC National Diploma in Photography) or previous photographic experience will often enhance the chances of selection.
Career routes continued:
Once working as a CSI, officers usually receive general training in crime scene photography at Centrex, the Central Police Training and Development Authority or on an approved University short course. Further specialist training in Fingerprints, Footwear, Lighting and Documents is often conducted in house by the Forensic Science Service and other forensic service companies.
Knowledge and Skills
As with all other types of photography, a forensic photographer first has to learn the basics of the equipment that is used such as cameras, lenses, filters, flash, tripods, types of film and a number of other items that are considered basic equipment for forensic photography.
The next thing that needs to be learned and understood is that forensic photography is technical photography. Photos must be correctly exposed, must have a maximum depth of field so that the photos are sharp and in focus and must be free from distortion. In other words, the photo must be as close to what the human eye sees as possible and still uncover things that can't be easily seen by the human eye.
Basic Crime Scene and Evidence Photography Kit
Knowledge and Skills continued:
The photographer must learn about flash and night photography. Many crimes happen at night and the photos have to be taken at the time of the finding. This includes learning everything about dedicated, automatic and electronic flash, including what problems you can expect to run into with each. Troubleshooting is critical in forensic photography.
Then there is a whole course on the purpose of forensic photography so the photographer knows why he is taking the photos he is taking. This includes recording the original crime scene, recording all evidence, providing a permanent visual record and understanding the admissibility of photographic evidence.
Then there is a course on what they call general crime scene photography. This course covers the basics of crimes regardless of the kind. These are procedures that need to be followed regardless of what has happened whether it be a robbery or a murder.
After this course there is a more in depth course, or series of courses, on specific crimes such as homicides, suicides, burglaries, assaults, traffic accidents and injuries. Each one of these incidents requires certain procedures that are specific only to that particular crime.
For example, with homicides color film must be used. Photographs must be taken of the exterior and interior of the building. The photographer must also take photos of the body itself from as many as five different angles, the room the body was found in, the adjoining rooms, close up of body wounds, any weapons found, any trace of evidence such as blood, any signs of a struggle, any signs of prior activity to the homicide, such as drink glasses on a table (maybe they knew each other) and all views that witnesses had if there were any.
And then if that isn't enough, there is a whole course on how to photograph evidence from fingerprints to footprints and anything else that may be found at a crime scene. A forensic photographer must have eyes like a hawk to know what to look for.
Interview with Ken Smith
Q. What kind of educational background do you have?
A. “My educational background is of course a high school diploma, then an associates degree from a two year college in law enforcement and then a B S Degree in Law Enforcement from Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama.”
Q. What is a typical day like for a forensic photographer?
A. “My forensic photography has to do with fire investigations...I'm a deputy of the Alabama State Fire Marshal, and spend most of my time doing fire investigations, and thus photograph mostly fire scenes...we do get involved in other investigations, such as when we find a person has been murdered and the building or vehicle they are in has been set afire. Also such things as fires set to cover other crimes, such as burglary and theft.”
Q. Are you a forensic specialist all the time or do you have a "day job”?
A. “My photography goes hand in hand with my deputy fire marshal job, however I do freelance photography on the side...I'm scheduled to photograph 4 "pee Wee' football teams and several cheerleader squads this week.”
Q. What inspired you to become a forensic photographer?
A. “My inspiration to become a forensic photographer came as a natural progression of my love for photography that began in my US Navy days in the early 1970s. I've just done more of it as time has passed. I love all types of photography. I also photograph weddings, class reunions for schools, homecoming festivities, etc.”
Case Study Ted Bundy
Theodore Bundy was a serial killer who terrorized the nation from 1974 until his final capture in 1979. He was attractive, educated, and charming but also a brutal killer who raped and killed an untold number of women across the country. Bundy confessed to 30 murders but authorities believe the true number of victims totaled over 100. After 10 years on death row, Bundy was executed by electrocution on January 24, 1989.