CRIME Photography


Historically, photography has played a significant role in applied criminology, the scientific study and investigation of crime and criminals. Over a period of time, the usefulness of photography has widened, serving not only to record evidence of past crime and criminals, but increasingly used surreptitiously and openly in surveillance to detect and deter unlawful activities. It is also spreading to document law enforcement activities such as interrogations, premise searches, pursuits, pull-overs and arrests. Some remarkable documentary crime photographs were taken more than a century ago, including those depicting the "Chinese Massacre" that began on Calle de los Negros in El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (City of Los Angeles) on October 24, 1871. Importantly, many early original black and white photographs were archived and remain intact.

Crime Scene Photography

Crime photography continues to evolve and now includes several categories in which specialists are needed to perform some of the more sophisticated tasks. A major portion of crime photography is performed at a suspected or known crime scene where specified protocols must be followed to insure thorough documentation before any evidence is disturbed, altered or destroyed. Typical crime scene photography is performed as the initial step of formal investigation, and in most instances documentary photos (including video) are taken from three vantage points: (1) overview, (2) mid-range, and (3) close-up.

In residential homicide, for example, the overviews should include a compass location and site orientation clearly showing relationship to surrounding areas and apertuant structures including access streets, pathways, doors and windows. In some cases aerial views may be indicated. Mid-range shots are used to reveal entrance and exits, the location of the evidence (body, weapons, etc.) as viewed from entrance and egress, its location in the room relative to doors and windows. Commonly, five full-frame views are made of the victim: views from each side, views from head to feet and feet to head, and one from overhead. After the coroner has had the body removed, an additional shot is often taken where the victim had lain in order to document the presence or absence of evidence under the body. Overviews and mid-range views are taken at eye-level (preferably with 50mm lens if 35mm camera is used) to minimize distortion and to aid in orientation when the pictures are reviewed and/or presented as evidence.

Close-up views are taken of all evidence. This should include the victim's face, all visible body wounds and braises, torn or disheveled clothing, tattoos, jewelry, weapons, and trace evidence consisting of footprints, blood stains, powder burns, and fingerprints. (See Figure 2). Trace evidence photography has become specialized and in many instances special cameras, lighting, and chemicals are required.


Necropsy Photography

Full body photographs are obtained during the course of an autopsy before and after clothing is removed. These should include close-ups of all scars, tattoos, wounds, teeth marks or any visible sign that might be used to determine a time and cause of death. Ideally this would include color, black and white, and video. Given a choice, color photographs are preferred to black and white, but filters should only be used with specific justification. Closeup studies of penetrating or internal injuries are always obtained. Modern facilities may utilize TTL- metered zoom-lens cameras suspended from the ceiling and triggered by foot pedals. Tissue samples taken at necropsy are studied by pathologists who may use photomicroscopy to make detailed enlargements for use as evidence. Slow-speed film with ISO ratings of 50 to 100 are used to minimize grain characteristics and provide maximum detail for prints which may be subject to great enlargement.

Medico-Legal Aspects of Crime Scene Photography How to do it Correctly

When taking crime scene photographs, certain ground roles should be followed. A photographer's log book is essential and a ruler or scales is helpful to reveal the relative and absolute sizes of evidence. When photographs are offered as evidence in a trial, both the expertise of the photographer and the integrity of the photos may be challenged. It is customary to utilize a log book of all photos taken that notes the time and date, camera, lens, film type, aperture, shutter speed, filters, description of each photograph and type of lighting used. New film packs or rolls of film must be used in each investigation and an accounting of each exposure should be made, including any unused portions of the film. Sheet film should be numbered. Contact prints can be made of developed film to reveal the exposure number of individual frames including those not exposed. If date and time modules are used they should be checked frequently for accuracy. (See Figure 1).


The photographer should be knowledgeable in the basics of photography and be able to account for his choice of focal length lenses (long, medium or wide angle) for various photographs to counteract charges that a certain lens was used purposely or otherwise to distort the appearance of evidence. Precautions are taken so as not to include any investigating personnel nor their equipment in crime scene photos. Photographs should truthfully depict the crime scene as it was found and before investigators have altered the crime scene in any way. Factors affecting admissibility of photographs are relevancy, faithful representation of evidence, and absence of unnecessarily emotionally charged images.

Some Special Techniques

Photographing blood stains is best done in both color and black and white. Filters are often used with black and white films to effectively increase the contrast between blood and the background. Spraying suspected or faint blood stains with a mist of Luminol solution produces a short-lived luminescence, which tentatively identifies it as blood that can be filmed in the dark. Trace evidence such as blood stains should be photographed with and without scales parallel to the evidence and film plane.

Fingerprint photography often requires use of special cameras and a lighting angle, which maximizes contrast in the ridges and valleys. Dusting or spraying surfaces with variously colored powders including magnetic, fluorescent and chemical substances is frequently used. Cyanoacrylate fumes, "crazy glue" or "super glue," hardens prints for additional treatment and transportation. The position of "lifted" prints should always be documented by photographs.

Some Special Forensic Cameras

Polaroid makes the Macro 5 SLR, a close-up camera having magnifications which range from 0.2X (20%) to 3X (300%). The Marco 5 SLR has built-in duo flash heads, optional date & time module, and a twin-light rangefinder for focusing. It uses the self-developing, instant, high-definition Spectra Type 990 color film and Grid Film with image size 3 5/8" x 2 7/8" on 4" x 4 1/8" format. The Polaroid MicroCam is a close-up camera that attaches to phototubes of light microscopes for making color or black and white photomicrographs. For more information go products/.

The Sirchie Group has specialized in the manufacture of forensic equipment for more than 50 years and produces a line of 1:1 magnification evidence cameras using medium format. Their EV-CAM III, EV-CAM IV, and EV-CAM use various types of 4" v 5" standard cut film or Polaroid pack or sheet film and have built-in variable brightness flash. Utilizing 1:1 magnification for fingerprints allows faster and more precise print comparison including overlays. For more information go

The Polaroid and Sirchie cameras described above have automatic controls, which make them useful for investigators lacking a background in photography. There are, however, numerous other optical devices and cameras used both in the field and in the forensic laboratory that require additional training and proficiency and shall be the subject of a future article.

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