Home: Macro Photography Careers: Forensic Photography

Forensic Photography:
The Eyes of the Law

Forensic photography is crime-scene, or accident-scene photography. It is all about making an accurate, photographic record of an event, after-the-fact, for the benefit of a court case or other legal proceeding.

Forensic photographers have to be very good at making photographs that tell the full story of a scene. That includes detail images as well as those that provide overall context. A good series of forensic photographs would record as much as can be seen in a scene as possible, to the satisfaction of all parties whose job it is to accurately dispense justice.

Insurance companies use forensic photographs to document crime scenes in which they are expected to pay a claim. The images are used for in-house documentation, and to help root out cases of fraud. The Armed Services are also heavy users of forensic imaging.

This is not one of those photography jobs to be taken lightly: forensic photographs can make or break a criminal case, and the subject matter is often disturbing.

It's a safe bet that the real world of forensic photography is considerably less glamorous than the one depicted on TV shows like "CSI"!

Before we move ahead on this subject, here's a list of the other pages in this Macro Photography Careers section:

What does a Forensic Photographer do?

Forensic photography is, at its most basic, crime-scene photography. It is the job of the forensic photographer to produce accurate, detailed photographs that record crime-scene evidence clearly and without sensationalism. 

Forensic photography serves the greater good by helping to keep criminals off the street, and to assure that innocent people go free. Criminal justice in democratic societies means a continual quest for the truth. Clear, objective photography of a crime or accident scene aids all parties involved in the quest to understand what really happened, and to hold people accountable for their actions.

A list of what is photographed at crime scenes would include blood-stains, bullet holes, evidence of struggles or break-ins: the list goes on and is as varied as crime itself. Special light sources, such as infrared or ultraviolet, are used to reveal evidence not visible to the unaided eye.

Forensic photographers will also be called upon to summarize their reports into presentations, to be presented to judges or juries. With sophisticated forensic tools such as DNA analysis coming into increasing use, these presentations will pull together data from a variety of crime lab sources. A forensic photographer with a flair for visual communications is a valuable member of the team!

Most forensic photography jobs are in-house, working within the criminal justice system, rather than freelance.

What qualities make a good forensic photographer?

Most forensic photography careers start with individuals who are trained as crime scene investigators (CSI) or police officers who then add photography to their job skills. This makes sense, since forensic photographers need to perform their duties without contaminating or disturbing evidence. An understanding of criminal justice, including how to conduct oneself at a crime scene, is therefore essential.

In addition, he or she must be (no surprise!) an excellent photographer! Photographs must be technically perfect: in focus, well-exposed, and well-illuminated. Images of marginal technical quality could be ruled inadmissable as evidence.

A forensic photographer must have a reporter's eye for telling a story with images. He or she must also have mastered digital photography, including presentation software and digital archiving.

forensic photography upside down car
My first forensic photograph, made when I was 13. That's our car lying on its back in front of our neighbor's house. The car had been struck by a drunk driver while parked in front of our house late at night. No one was hurt, but the crash woke the neighborhood!

Forensic photographs must have a reference to location or sense of scale. When shooting close-up photography, a ruler, coin, or other familiar object is routinely placed into the frame as a size comparison. Shooting conditions will rarely be optimal: darkness, bad weather, and hard-to-access locations must all be overcome.

Since forensic images are used as evidence in trials, strict ethical standards must be followed to assure the integrity of the photographic data. While digital image enhancement can clarify the subject matter of a photographic, it is important to not cross the line into image manipulation or falsification.

Forensic photography, Hollywood Style: In the movie comedy "My Cousin Vinny", Marisa Tomei's character takes the witness stand in an Alabama murder case. Using a photograph of tire tracks from the crime scene, she testifies that the car leaving the crime scene could not have been the one the defendants were driving, thus blowing apart the case for the prosecution. It's a hilarious scene, and Marisa picked up an Academy Award for her performance.

Forensic Photography and the Macro Photographer

Many pieces of evidence found at crime or accident scenes are small.  Forensic photographers must have mastered the basic principles of close-up photography and macro photography. They will use appropriate macro lenses, macro accessories, and lighting accessories, such as ring flash .

Any institution that employs forensic photographers should recognize the importance of high-quality equipment, and outfit its photographers accordingly.

Photography equipment in this field must be rugged and able to withstand heavy use: insist on the best professional equipment available. Beware of the high cost of cheap equipment! Break-downs are expensive!

Where can I learn forensic photography?

In the United States, two university-level programs offer training for forensic photography jobs:

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) has a Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program that includes courses in imaging and photography.

West Virginia University offers an online course in forensic imaging.

The International Association for Identification offers forensic photography training courses; look for their offerings under "Evidence Photography and Digital Imaging". They also administer a certification program for forensic photographers.

Photographers should be life-long learners. No matter where or how you got your training, there is always more to learn. Keep practicing, learning new techniques, and researching new developments in this fast-changing field!

The future of Forensic Photography

It is difficult to find official data that projects the future of a specialty area such as forensic imaging. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has data on forensic science professions here, some of which could be expected to overlap with forensic photography careers.

Technology has left its mark on all aspects of forensic science, including forensic imaging. As the tools have gotten more sophisticated, there will be a greater need for technically proficient individuals to make the most of them.

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