Forensic Photography for the Crime Scene Technician

Steven Staggs

NOTE: This is the student outline for the Crime Scene Photography course in the Crime Scene Investigation Certificate Program at the University of California at Riverside. Instructor: Steven Staggs.

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     A.   Basic equipment for crime scene photography
          1.   Camera(s)
          2.   Normal lens
          3.   Wide angle lens
          4.   Close-up lenses or accessories
          5.   Filters
          6.   Electronic flash(s)
          7.   Remote or sync cord for electronic flash(s)
          8.   Extra camera and flash batteries
          9.   Locking cable release
          10.  Tripod
          11.  Film
          12.  Owner's manuals for camera and flash
          13.  Notebook and pen
          14.  Ruler
          15.  Gray card
          16.  Index cards and felt pen
          17.  Flashlight
     B.   Lenses
          1.   Normal lens
          2.   Wide angle lens
          3.   Other lenses
     C.   Care and maintenance of crime scene photography equipment
          1.   Cleaning lens and camera
          2.   Camera repair
          3.   Protection from extreme heat and cold
          4.   Protection from rain
          1.   Color vs. black and white
          2.   Print film vs. slide film
          3.   Film speed
          4.   Matching film to the light source

     A.   Photographs must be correctly exposed, have maximum depth
          of field, be free from distortion and be in sharp focus
          1.   Correctly exposed
               a.   Exposure is controlled by the shutter speed and
                    lens aperture
               b.   Automated camera exposure systems and automatic
                    flash units can be fooled and give incorrect
               c.   Front, side and back lighting
               d.   Light meters
               e.   Flair
               f.   Using gray card
               g.   Bracketing exposures
          2.   Maximum depth of field
               a.   Depth of field is the area in a photograph in
                    which objects are in sharp focus
               b.   How to control depth of field
               c.   Zone focusing
                    (1)  Preview depth of field
          3.   Free from distortion (must have good perspective)
               a.   Use a normal focal length lens when ever
               b.   Keep the camera as level as possible
               c.   Photograph with the camera at eye level when
                    ever possible 
          4.   Sharp focus
               a.   Keep the camera steady
               b.   Focus carefully and use maximum depth of field
               c.   Look at the frame of your scene

     A.   Types of flash illumination
          1.   Manual flash
               a.   Set f/stop for the flash-to-subject distance
          2.   Automatic flash
               a.   Uses distance ranges
               b.   A change to a new range requires a change in
               c.   Never work an automatic flash at its maximum
                    range, especially in less than ideal conditions
               d.   When in automatic flash, make sure the shutter
                    speed dial is set to the flash synchronization
               e.   When photographing a high key scene (light or
                    reflective background) bracket <197> opening up
                    one or two f/stops
          3.   Dedicated flash
               a.   Sets correct flash synchronization speed when
                    the flash is in operation.  Still uses
                    automatic sensor and ranges.  The photographer
                    must set the appropriate f/stop for the
                    distance range
               b.   Sets the correct flash synchronization speed
                    and f/stop for the automatic range selected
          4.   Dedicated TTL (Through-the-lens)
               a.   Uses a sensor inside the camera
               b.   Use smaller f/stops for short distances and
                    larger f/stops for long distances
               c.   For compensation or bracketing use the exposure
                    compensation dial
     B.   Problems with electronic flash
          1.   Flash synchronization
          2.   Coverage
               a.   Distances -- inverse square law of light
               b.   Long distances when outdoors at night or at
                    arson scenes
          3.   Reflective surfaces
               a.   Automatic flash units can shut off too soon due
                    to reflected light
          4.   Rain
     C.   Lighting techniques
          1.   Electronic flash (NOTE:Disregard the light meter in
               the camera when using electronic flash)
               a.   Flash mounted on camera
               b.   Flash off camera
               c.   Bounce flash
                    (1)  Bounce off a white or light colored
                    (2)  Manual flash: add the distance up and down
                         for  the flash-to-subject  distance then
                         figure in the absorbance loss (one to
                         three f/stops)
                    (3)  Automatic flash with sensor facing the
                         subject: use a range for two times or more
                         times the actual flash-to-subject distance
               d.   Multiple flash
                    (1)  Distance the flash units to provide the
                         same f/stop for each flash
          2.   Available light (no electronic flash)
          3.   Painting with light
               a.   The shutter is left open while the light source
                    is moved around until all of the scene is
                    properly illuminated
               b.   Procedure
                    (1)  Mount the camera on a sturdy tripod
                    (2)  Equip the camera with a lens shade (if
                    (3)  Screw a locking cable release into the
                         camera shutter release
                    (4)  Set the shutter speed dial to B (bulb)
                    (5)  Determine the f/stop based on the flash to
                         subject distance (not the camera to
                         subject distance)
                    (6)  Focus carefully
                    (7)  Depress the cable release and lock it to
                         hold the  shutter open 
                    (8)  Fire the electronic flash to light areas
                         of the scene.  The number of flashes and
                         angle of the flashes will depend on the
                         size and character of the scene.  Do not
                         point the flash directly at the camera and
                         keep yourself out of the view of the
                    (9)  Unlock the cable release and allow the
                          shutter to close 
                    (10) Advance the film

     A.   Purpose of Crime Scene Photography
          1.   To record the original scene and related areas
          2.   To record the initial appearance of physical
          3.   It will provide investigators and others with this
               permanent visual record of the scene for later use
          4.   Photographs are also used in court trials and
     B.   Admissibility of photographic evidence
          1.   Three major points of qualification of a photograph
               in court
               a.   Object pictured must be material or relevant to
                    the point in issue
               b.   The photograph must not appeal to the emotions
                    or tend to prejudice the court or jury
               c.   The photograph must be free from distortion and
                    not misrepresent the scene or the object it
                    purports to reproduce
          2.   You do not need to be an expert in photography to
               take crime scene photographs or testify about them

     A.   Photographs are one way to record a crime scene
          1.   Field notes
          2.   Photographs
          3.   Sketches
     B.   Photographs
          1.   What photographs can show
          2.   What photographs do not show
     C.   Five steps in recording the crime scene
          1.   Secure the scene
          2.   Take preliminary notes
          3.   Take overview photographs
          4.   Make a basic sketch
          5.   Record each item of evidence
     D.   Taking overview photographs
          1.   Purpose
               a.   To show the scene exactly as it was when you
                    first saw it
                    (1)  If something was moved before you arrived,
                         don't try to reconstruct the scene as it
                         was.  The photographs should show the
                         scene as you found it
          2.   Major crime photography
               a.   First discuss the crime, evidence and
                    photographs needed with other investigators at
                    the scene
               b.   Be careful not to destroy any evidence while
                    taking the photographs
               c.   Outside the scene
                    (1)  Exterior of the building where the crime
                         occurred and in some cases the whole
                    (2)  Aerial photographs of the scene and the
                         surrounding area can be useful in some
                         types of cases 
                    (3)  Original series of photographs should also
                         show all doors, windows and other means of
                         entrance or exit
               d.   Inside the scene 
                    (1)  Begin with a view of the entrance
                    (2)  Then photograph the scene as it appears
                         when you first step into the room
                    (3)  Next, move around the room to get
                         photographs of all the walls
                         (a)  These photographs should also show
                              the positions of any potential items
                              of evidence
                    (4)  Include photographs of other rooms
                         connected with the actual crime scene
          3.   Using video to record the crime scene
               a.   Frequently valuable to show an overview of the
     E.   Photographs to record items of evidence
          1.   Take two photographs of each item of evidence
               a.   One should be an orientation (midrange) shot to
                    show how the item is related to its
               b.   The second photograph should be a close-up to
                    bring out the details of the object itself
          2.   Measuring and marking devices
               a.   Take two photographs if a marking or measuring 
                    device is used
                    (1)  One photograph without the device, the
                         other with the device
                    (2)  So the defence can't claim that the scene
                         was altered or that the device was
                         concealing anything important

     Note:Each crime scene has unique characteristics and the type
     of photographs needed will be determined at the scene by the 
     investigator familiar with the crime.
     A.   Homicide
          1.   Use color film
          2.   Photographs (example: homicide inside a residence)
               a.   Exterior of the building
               b.   Evidence outside the building
               c.   Entrance into the scene
               d.   Room in which the body was found
               e.   Adjoining rooms, hallways, stairwells
               f.   Body from five angles
               g.   Close-up of body wounds
               h.   Weapons
               i.   Trace evidence
               j.   Signs of activity prior to the homicide
               k.   Evidence of a struggle
               l.   View from positions witnesses had at time of
                    the crime
                    (1)  Use a normal lens
               m.   Autopsy
     B.   Suicide, other dead body calls
          1.   If there is any doubt, photograph the scene as a
     C.   Burglaries
          1.   Photographs (residential or commercial burglaries)
               a.   Exterior of building
               b.   Point of entry
               c.   Entrance into scene
               d.   Interior views
               e.   Area from which valuable articles were removed
               f.   Damage to locks, safe, doors, toolmarks
               g.   Articles or tools left at the scene by the
               h.   Trace evidence
               i.   Other physical evidence
     D.   Assaults, injuries
          1.   Photographing injuries
               a.   Face of victim in the photographs
               b.   Bruises
               c.   Bite marks
                    (1)  Orientation shot
                    (2)  Close-up at 90 degree angle to avoid
                    (3)  Ruler in same plane as bite mark
                    (4)  Focus carefully
                    (5)  Bracket exposures
          2.   Equipment
               a.   Always use color film and no filter
               b.   Use color charts and rulers
               c.   Flash unit with diffused lighting
     E.   Traffic Accidents and Hit and Run Cases
          1.   Photographs at the accident scene
               a.   Where the vehicles came to rest and in what
                    (1)  Photographs should show the relationship
                         of each vehicle with each other
               b.   Damage to vehicles
                    (1)  Technical photographs of damage to a
                         (a)  Do not take any oblique or corner
                              photographs to show damage for
                              reconstruction purposes because they
                              are not aligned with the axis of
                              the vehicle.  They tend to conceal
                              the amount and direction of the
                         (b)  Take six photographs.  Two from each
                              side in line with the axles.  Take
                              one of each end of the vehicle,
                              straight on.  If possible take one 
                              more from overhead
                         (c)  Use electronic flash to fill in
                              shadows within the damage
               c.   Debris or marks on the roadway
               d.   View each driver had approaching the key point
                    of the accident.
               e.   View from the point a witness observed the
                    accident, at witness' eye level
               f.   Evidence to identify hit and run vehicles
          2.   Night photography
               a.   Use multiple flash, paint with light or
                    available light for extra long skidmarks or to
                    show two vehicles some distance apart

     A.   Steps
          1.   Set the shutter speed to the camera's flash
               synchronization speed (usually 1/60 second)
          2.   Use the camera's light meter to determine the
               correct f/stop.  Set that f/stop on your lens.
          3.   With the flash on manual, find the flash to subject
               distance for the above f/stop.
          4.   Position the flash unit at that distance and take
               the photograph. 

     A.   Fingerprints
          1.   When to photograph fingerprints
               a.   Before lifting on major cases or if the latent
                    may be destroyed when lifting
               b.   To bring out detail in a latent
          2.   Equipment
               a.   1:1 cameras and copy cameras
               b.   35mm cameras with macro or close-up lens
               c.   Gray card for available light exposures
          3.   Films
               a.   Well defined fingerprints can be photographed
                    with color film but black and white film
                    provides more contrast and is preferred for
                    latent print photography
                    (1)  Kodak T-MAX film.  Develop in T-MAX
                         developer while increasing the development
                         time by 25% for increased contrast.
                    (2)  Kodak TECHNICAL PAN 2415 film has a
                         variable contrast range between high and
                         low and a variable speed of ISO 25 to 320.
                         (a)  For high contrast expose at ISO 100
                              and develop in HC-110
                    (3)  Kodak KODALITH film for highest contrast
                         (a)  Packaged as Kodak Ektagraphic HC
                              Slide Film (HCS 135-36) and has an
                              approximate ISO of 8.
                         (b)  If developed in D-76 or HC-110 there
                              will be a limited gray scale.
                    (4)  Ilford XP-2 black and white film can be
                         processed in color processors
                         (a)  ISO 400, fine grain with good
                              sharpness & resolution can be
                              processed in C-41 color chemistry
          4.   Filters
               a.   Color filters, when used in black and white
                    photography, can be used to build contrast by
                    either lightening or darkening the subject
                    (latent print) or by lightening or darkening
                    the background (background drop-out)
                    (1)  To lighten a color, the color filter
                         closest to the color is used 
                    (2)  To darken a color, the opposite color
                         filter is used
                    (3)  See Filter Chart for examples
          5.   Procedures
               a.   Establish the location of the latent
               b.   Close-up to show detail
                    (1)  A 1:1 camera or device must be used, or
                    (2)  A scale must be included in the photograph
                         on the same plane as the latent
                    (3)  Photograph with the film plane parallel to
                         the latent surface
                    (4)  Get as much depth of field as possible,
                         especially for curved surfaces
               c.   Exposure
                    (1)  Available light exposures of latents with
                         normal contrast can be metered using a
                         gray card
                    (2)  Bracketing may reveal more detail in
                         "low contrast" latents.
                         (a)  Underexposing the film will separate
                              the steps on the white end of the
                              gray scale.  Overexposure will
                              separate the steps on the black end
                              of the gray scale.
                         (b)  The latitude for black and white film
                              is generally two stops underexposure
                              and six stops overexposure.
               d.   Specific types of fingerprint subjects
                    (1)  Normal, dusted prints
                         (a)  Usually can be photographed with no
                    (2)  Impressions in soft substances (wax,
                         putty, clay, adhesive tape,  grease, etc.)
                         or in dust
                         (a)  Use cross lighting at an oblique angle
                         (b)  Preview with flashlight lighting
                    (3)  Porous surfaces
                         (a)  May need to use close to a 90 degree
                              lighting angle
                         (b)  Preview with flashlight lighting
                    (4)  Glass and mirrors
                         (a)  Glass -- place white card or cloth
                              behind glass, use low oblique angle
                              of light
                    (5)  Perspiration prints on glass
                         (a)  Use back (transmitted) lighting and
                              diffusion screen
                    (6)  Ninhydrin fingerprint
                         (a)  Use normal black and white film
                              (T-MAX or PLUS-X) with a green filter
                              and increase development time 25%
     B.   Impressions
          1.   Footprints and tire tracks
               a.   Procedure
                    (1)  Take an orientation photograph to show
                         where in the scene the impression is
                    (2)  Take a close-up for detail
                         (a)  Use a scale on the same plane as the
                         (b)  Keep the film plane parallel to the
                              plane of the impression
                         (c)  Block out ambient light and use a
                              strong light source at different
                              angles to find the light angle(s)
                              that shows the best detail in the
                              impression -- then put the electronic
                              flash or light source at that angle
                              for the photograph
                    (3)  Photograph tire impressions in sections
                         showing one circumference of the tire
                         (a)  Use a tape measure for overlapping
     C.   Bloodstain photography
          1.   Use color film
          2.   Orientation photographs to show locations of
               bloodstain evidence at the scene
          3.   Close-up photographs to show detail
               a.   Use a scale on the same plane as the bloodstain
               b.   Keep the film parallel to the plane of the
               c.   Use a low oblique light angle
     D.   Toolmarks
     E.   Serial numbers
     F.   Small items, copying, etc.
          1.   Close-up lenses and devices
          2.   Lighting

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About the Author

For 34 years Steven Staggs was a forensic photography instructor and trained more than 4,000 crime scene technicians and investigators for police and sheriff departments, district attorney offices, and federal agencies. He was also a guest speaker for investigator associations, appeared as a crime scene investigation expert on Discovery Channel's Unsolved History, and provided consulting to law enforcement agencies.

Steve has extensive experience in crime scene photography and identification. He has testified in superior court concerning his crime scene, evidence, and autopsy photography and has handled high profile cases including a nationally publicized serial homicide case.

Steve is the author of two books on crime scene and evidence photography, the text book Crime Scene and Evidence Photography and the Crime Scene and Evidence Photographer's Guide. The guide is a field handbook for crime scene and evidence photography, which sold over 10,000 copies and has been in use by investigators in more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies.

Steve retired in 2004 after 32 years in law enforcement, but continued to teach forensic photography and crime scene investigations at a university in Southern California. He is the President of Crime Scene Resources and Webmaster of the Crime Scene Investigator Network, the world's most popular Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Science website (