Crime Scene Videography Revisited


Kevin Parmelee PhD
Northeast Crime Scene Institute
Piscataway, New Jersey

In simplest terms, forensic photography provides a means of recording visual information and details about how a crime scene and evidence appeared. Whether it is a homicide scene or a single fingerprint, photography offers the crime scene investigator, or technician, the opportunity to capture a visual representation to later show to others that were not at the scene.1,2,3 Digital imaging, in particular, has been a reliable and acceptable practice in forensic science, law enforcement, and the courts.4 The admissibility of the images rests firmly upon their relevance and authentication of accurately portraying a crime scene or object.1,3

The visual documentation of crime scenes and evidence is commonly accomplished utilizing the latest photographic technology. As technology transitioned from film-based photography to digital imaging it has become common to see law enforcement agencies using digital cameras for capturing and documenting crime scenes and physical evidence.2 In addition to capturing still photographs, video cameras have been used to augment the limiting factors associated with still photographs.1 Although video cameras may have had various recording formats, such as film and analog tape, digital-based technology has also become more common.

Although capturing video may not be mandatory at all crime scenes, it allows an opportunity to provide additional context of the scene that is not available with still images. More importantly, crime scene videography augments still-photography by providing a judge and jury with the sensation of being at the crime scene.4 As the technology of digital cameras progressed, the added option of capturing video became available and the quality of the images and footage advanced as well.5 The advancing technology for digital single lens reflex (DSLR) and digital mirrorless cameras now allow for the capture of still images and video, and the opportunity has been made available to capture them sequentially at a crime scene using a single device.

Using one digital camera, the Crime Scene Investigator may now have the capability to capture still images and video in sequence, which will reduce the time associated with operating two devices; allow for a more convenient methodology for capturing both still and video images; reduce issues of contention that image quality may have been compromised; and promote the opportunity to capture video at a greater array of crime scenes.

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Capturing photographs and videos at crime scenes is a well-established practice for the documentation of crime scenes.1,2,3 As a result, best practices and guidelines have been developed to promote the integrity of the images used for criminal justice purposes. Three such guidelines that have been developed include The Scientific Working Group Imaging Technology (SWGIT), The Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence (SWGDE), and the National Forensic Science Technology Center's (NFSTC) Crime Scene Investigation: A guide for law enforcement. Although the development of more current guidelines and standards are taking place with the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC's) for Forensic Science at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), these three documents represent the current accepted guidelines at the time of this article.

The task of crime scene photography is accomplished most effectively using a methodology that can convey the information in the images in a manner that is much like telling a story.1,2,3 The perspective, series, and sequencing of the images become an integral part of how the information will flow. As Edward Robinson states, there are "three standard methods used to document the photographs at a crime scene." These three methods include overall photographs, midrange photographs, and close-up photographs.1,2,3,6 Unlike randomly walking around a scene capturing images, the use of patterns aid in this process. For instance, an indoor crime scene may involve a pattern of capturing images from the four corners of a square or rectangular room. These images can be captured in sequence, such as multiple images from each corner that overlap to provide panoramic coverage of the scene (Fig. 1). Moving from corner to corner can involve a clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation around the room, and similar pattern movements can be used for external scenes that involve moving around a building or an automobile.


Figure 1

The overall photographs provide general information about the surroundings of the scene and are usually captured from a normal perspective in which the photographer viewed the scene. The content of the images usually have a wide view that encompasses many aspects of the scene and provides the overall depiction of the scene.1,2,3,6

The midrange photographs provide a more narrow view compared to the overall photographs, and are used to distinguish various objects within the scene and their relationship to other objects. These images are useful for establishing the relationship, orientation, and spatial positioning of items in the scene with other objects.1,2,3,6 These images are especially useful in conjunction with close-up photographs that fill the frame with an object. The close-up images provide useful information about a certain object, but alone they do not aid in positioning the object within the crime scene as well as midrange photographs.1,2,3,6

Photographing the scene, as it was found using a methodology of overall, midrange, and close-up photographs, and an established pattern, has become a common practice in documenting crime scenes. During the photography process it may be determined that the scene should also be video recorded. Since videography would need to be completed early on in the process, it is important that a video recorder device and related equipment is available and ready to be used. The videography process would involve a similar pattern and methodology as the photography, but involve variations distinct for the capture of video, as opposed to capturing still images.1,2 After the video has been captured, the photography would then be repeated as evidence placards are entered into the scene to identify objects of importance. According to SWGIT, crime scene photography is directed towards documenting evidence and other details of a crime scene in a fair and accurate manner.4 Crime scene photography generally requires advanced photography with the ability to:

  • Accurately represent the details and colors in a scene;

  • Capture overall, intermediate, close-up, and examination images with accurate spatial relationships;

  • Deal with varying lighting and physical conditions;

  • And, crime scene photography is usually a time-sensitive activity with only one opportunity to correctly complete the task.4

According to SWGDE, the following tasks for videography are recommended.

  • Clearing the scene of personnel;

  • Scene should be captured in the exact condition the videographer found it upon his/her arrival;

  • Use of a case identifying card prior to recording;

  • No audio;

  • Pans, tilts and zooms should be conducted in a slow, smooth, and deliberate manner;

  • Recording may be paused and restarted;

  • Documentation of the scene should begin with a slow 360 degree pan of the exterior and surrounding area from a fixed position to document landmarks, lighting, traffic, and other investigative factors;

  • Record video throughout the scene showing the location and proximity of important images, proceeding to medium range images and conclude with close-ups.7

In Crime Scene Investigation: A guide for law enforcement, the recommended photography equipment includes a digital single-lens reflex camera that is 12 megapixels or greater, but the recommendations for videography only indicate the use of a video camera and various other accessories, such as a tripod.8. Furthermore, the recommended use of the photography and videography equipment was in general agreement with SWGIT and SWGDE.

Materials and Methods

In order to assess current camera technology for combing video and still capture capabilities, an experiment was conducted using an older model DSLR camera with video capture capabilities, a Nikon ® D90, and a newer model DSLR with video capture capabilities, a Nikon ® D610. This experiment was conducted to determine whether common camera/video technology will meet the requirements of current guidelines, enhance the efficiency for capturing images and video at crime scenes, adapt to current general methodology for capturing images, and meet court admissibility requirements. For the purpose of this study the two Nikon ® brand DSLR cameras used, models D90 and D610, were selected to provide a comparative analysis of a newer and older model that both provide the capture of still and video images. These two cameras also represent the two common sensor sizes offered by Nikon ®, DX and FX respectfully.5,9,10,11

Considering there will likely be a large variation in the types and combinations of equipment, this experiment was designed with the expectation that the photographer will have the necessary training, skills, and equipment to capture images that meet at least the minimum requirements for admissibility of the images in the criminal justice system. As a result, this experiment focused on a methodology using equipment that is capable of both still and video image capture. This experiment does not focus on an exclusive methodology, the particular choices a photographer makes for optimal settings, the skills needed, or the training necessary to capture acceptable images.

The Nikon ® D90 and D610 specifications were assessed in conjunction with the guidelines established by SWGIT and other references to assist in determining if the cameras may be successfully utilized for integrated capture of still and video images sequentially at a crime scene. The choice of lens used on each camera was determined as a result of meeting the necessary requirements for capturing overall, midrange and close-up still images and video. Since the focus of this experiment was the still-image and video capabilities of the camera, and the methodology used, lens selection included zoom lenses that permitted the photographer to capture the required images without interchanging lenses, but obtaining optimal images for a fair and accurate depiction of the crime scene.

After review of the camera specifications, they were compared to the guidelines set forth with SWGIT, SWGDE, and NFSTC. As a result, it was determined that the video and still image capture capabilities of both cameras meet the equipment and technological recommendations. The basic guidelines used for camera specifications require a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera capable of manual override, interchangeable lenses, off-camera flash, at least 12 megapixels, and set to either uncompressed or lowest compression format. The video capture guidelines for camcorder specifications require a camcorder with removable media and separate media for each scene.4,7,8

While capturing overall photographic images of a room from the four corners the video capabilities of the DSLR were used after the still images were captured from each corner and a tripod was used to stabilize the camera. Prior to capturing the images the camera's settings for the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO were configured for optimal image quality that would meet the criteria for a fair and accurate representation of the subject viewed by the photographer. From corner "A" three still images were captured using a tripod for stabilization. The three images were captured in sequence from left to right in an overlapping manner using the same wide lens settings (Figure 1). After the three images were captured the settings on the camera were adjusted for video capture, but none of the other previous settings for still image capture were changed. The audio capabilities of the DSLR camera were disabled prior to video capture.

The video was captured in a left to right panning motion that was slow and purposeful (Figure 2). The video recording was started prior to the panning motion, and upon completing the panning motion it continued for a brief time prior to stopping the recording. The same methods utilized for corner "A" were repeated for the remaining corners and then later reviewed and evaluated. Although the video capture process may also include a walk-through of the scene this technique was not necessary for this experiment, but may easily be utilized at crime scenes.


Figure 2

Images were captured in JPEG format with the least amount of compression for each camera. The first image captured is usually a case information placard, but for the purposes of this experiment this step was intentionally omitted and normally captured scene images were captured in a series.6 The first three still images (_DSC0001.JPG, _DSC0002.JPG, and _DSC0003.JPG) were from corner "A" of the mock scene in a left to right movement. After the images from this corner were captured the camera's settings were changed to capture video. The recording was captured with a left to right slow and continuous motion. The video file (DSC_0004.AVI), was recorded in sequence. The same process was repeated for each corner of the room resulting in the sequential recording of still and video images. It should be noted that after downloading the images to a computer the numerical sequence was maintained, but the computer's settings for alphabetization of the file names realigned the images. The file name variation consisting of a dash at the beginning of still images and the letter "D" at the beginning of the video images were viewed on camera playback in order, but after download, the files may be re-categorized. Alternatively, when the files were copied directly from the media card to a dedicated copying device there was no variation on the writing to the disk, but when the images were copied directly to a computer, and prior to copying to a disc, they were reorganized alphabetically due to the computer's settings for organizing files.

The images captured utilizing the Nikon D610 followed the same method as those captured with the Nikon D90. Unlike the reorganization of the files when they were copied to a computer using the D90, the files created by the D610 (_KJP0001.JPG, _KJP0002.JPG, _KJP0002.JPG,) maintained the same sequence numerically and alphabetically when copied to a computer or a dedicated copying device. The consistency of the underscore symbol at the beginning of the file name for both still images and the video prevented the files from being reorganized due to the computer settings.

Results and Discussion

The SWGIT and SWGDE guidelines for capturing still images and video were used in determining the practicality and effectiveness for Crime Scene Investigators. The equipment specifications for the digital cameras used were reviewed and found to conform or exceed the minimum recommended equipment necessary for still and video capture. Due to similar technology advancements among camera manufacturers, the capabilities and conformity of guidelines may be found in other digital camera brands, makes, and models and is in no way exclusive to the two camera models used in this study.

Ultimately, the main purpose of crime scene photography is to provide a visual representation of what was observed during the investigation to individuals that were not at the scene. In order for the photographic images to be accepted by a court of law the images must be accepted as a fair and accurate representation of the crime scene and evidence. More specifically, the accurate representation necessitates that the images are correctly exposed, sharp focus, have good depth of field, and are free from distortion.12 Provided the Crime Scene Investigator has the knowledge and skill to capture images that meet the fair and accurate test for admissibility of the images, the combined capture methodology provides a more comprehensive end product for viewing, as opposed to photography or videography alone.

As a result, it was demonstrated that current available digital imaging technology provide the capability for Crime Scene Investigators to sequentially capture still images and video recordings utilizing a single device. Furthermore the experiment demonstrated conformity to current guidelines, equipment, and technology. More importantly, this integrated methodology of still and video capture using existing patterns demonstrates an effective and efficient manner of documenting crime scenes that offer courts of law a more comprehensive visual product.

Limitations

The two cameras used in this experiment represent common technology used by Crime Scene Investigators, but the option of combined still and video capture may not be available to all makes and models of cameras. Alternatively, the option of utilizing the technology when it is available can prove to be useful for investigators. The option of combined still and video capture with DSLR cameras is not exclusive to a specific brand, and as a result, some variation in results may exist. Furthermore, as observed with this experiment, the reorganization of file names may present a problem for investigators, but with the implementation of effective standard operating procedures and a thorough knowledge of the camera's capabilities, potential pitfalls can be mitigated. Lastly, due to influences from advancing technology, such as scanning stations that photograph and map crime scenes, methodologies for documenting crime scenes will need to be routinely evaluated to meet the technological changes.

Conclusion

This experiment demonstrated that the combination of two forms of crime scene documentation, photography and videography, could be captured in one methodical process. The method was used effectively for capturing still and video images at a moot crime scene using two digital cameras that represented older and newer models with video capture capability. The results suggest that this method is capable of being successfully utilized to more effectively document a wide array of crime scenes. The usefulness of this process can aid investigators who seek to provide a more comprehensive product for others to visualize while minimizing the time constraints and costs associated with past methods using two devices. Video recording of crime scenes, which once was dependent upon acquiring costly equipment and only being used for more significant crime scenes, can now be integrated into common still image capture and become a routine method for image capture at all crime scenes.

References

  1. Fisher B. Technique of Crime Scene Investigation, 8th ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2012.

  2. Saferstein R. Criminalistics: An introduction to forensic science, 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011.

  3. Miller LS, McEvoy RT. Police photography, 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Elsevier, 2011

  4. SWGIT. 4-10-2017. Field photography equipment and supporting infrastructure. https://www.swgit.org/pdf/Section%203%20Field%20Photography%20Equipment%20and%20Supporting%20Infrastructure?docID=47

  5. NIKON. D90 User's Manual. English version. Thailand: Nikon,

  6. Robinson EM. Crime Scene Photography, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Elsevier

  7. SWGDE. 4-10-2017. Photographic equipment and infrastructure recommendations. https://www.swgde.org/documents/Current%20Documents/SWGDE%20Photographic%20Equipment%20and%20Infrastructure%20Recommendations

  8. National Forensic Science Technology Center. Crime Scene Investigation: A guide for law enforcement. Largo, FL: 2013.

  9. http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d90.htm

  10. http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d610.htm

  11. NIKON. D610 User's Manual. English version. Thailand: Nikon, 2013.

  12. Staggs S. Crime Scene and Evidence Photographer's Guide. Temecula, CA: Staggs Publishing, 1997.


About the Author


    Kevin Parmelee PhD

    Dr. Parmelee is a Certified Crime Scene Analyst (IAI), Certified Forensic Photographer (IAI), and Certified Latent Print Examiner (IAI) with over 19 years of law enforcement experience. As an active detective Dr. Parmelee specializes in Crime Scene/Arson Investigations, Latent Print Analysis, Footwear Analysis, Forensic Photography, and Bloodstain Pattern Analysis. He is a Superior Court recognized topic expert for Crime Scene Investigation, Latent Print Development and Analysis as well as Origin and Cause determination for Arson Investigations. Dr. Parmelee routinely teaches college courses and has taught professional development courses on forensic science topics across the United States. As an active member of organizations such as IAI, AAFS, and IABPA he has lectured and made presentations on a variety of forensic related topics. Dr. Parmelee is currently President of the New Jersey Division of IAI, where he has also held positions as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Vice-President, Regional Representative, and Editor of the organization's newsletter. Dr. Parmelee has also been published in the Journal of Forensic Identification, The Criminalist, and has contributed a chapter titled Crime Scene Investigation, in Veterinary Forensics: Investigation, Evidence Collection, and Expert Testimony, CRC Press. He has also contributed to chapter 8 PKU Cards Retain Overlooked DNA, in Cold Case Research Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases, CRC Press. Dr. Parmelee is an active member of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's OSAC sub-committee for Crime Scene Investigation. He is also on the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Professional Advisory Board for the first forensic science undergraduate program in the state.


Creative Commons License Crime Scene Videography Revisited by Kevin Parmelee. Copyright for this article is retained by the author, with publication rights granted to the Crime Scene Investigation Network. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License which permits unrestricted noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction, provided the original work is properly cited and not changed in any way. Based on a work at https://www.crime-scene-investigator.net/crime-scene-videography-revisited.html.


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The Crime Scene Investigator Network gratefully acknowledges the author for allowing us to publish this article.

Article posted June 26, 2019