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What do you need in a digital camera for law enforcement work?

By Steve Ashley

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Digital images are everywhere. From Web pages to billboards, digital photography is fast replacing film as a means for capturing, storing and printing images for two primary reasons: cost effectiveness and ease of use. For these same reasons, law enforcement agencies are jumping on board the digital express.

Packed with sophisticated electronics, these new cameras are essentially computers with attached lenses. They are generally self-contained, incorporating a flash unit and a wide-angle/zoom lens into a sturdy body that usually includes a built-in protection system for the lens. The new cameras are getting smaller and smaller; many are pocket sized. They're easy to handle, with multiple preconfigured settings geared to different types of shots, and are effectively "point-and-shoot," although most allow you to make some adjustments in order to produce better photos. They use easily rechargeable, durable batteries.

Digital cameras record image information into a digital file and save it into memory or onto a removable memory card. You can easily transfer these files to a computer for manipulation or storage; therefore, they take up very little storage space.

And here's the big advantage: You can view your pictures immediately after you take them. If they're not right or poor quality, you can delete them from the memory and take another shot.* You can take as many or as few shots as you like, without worrying about running out of film or wasting any. And you never have to worry about your photos not coming out again.

If your department wants to go digital, consider the following on digital camera design, zoom, flash, LCD, resolution and memory options before you complete a purchase order.

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Once upon a time, a significant disparity existed between the cameras patrol officers carried and used and the fancier ones investigators and evidence technicians used. Of course, that's still possible since you can (and many departments will) buy very sophisticated digital camera systems. In fact, there will always be a need for high-end photo equipment in law enforcement, and special needs for certain types of equipment, such as underwater cameras.

However, digital technology has advanced to the point that even the cameras the rank-and-file officers will use on the street can produce excellent photos. Smaller departments may not need anything fancier.
What should you look for when outfitting your officers with cameras? There are a few things that you should insist on, and a few others would be nice, if your budget allows.

First and foremost, look for a simple design and rugged construction. Avoid flimsy feeling cameras, or those with a lot of protruding levers and knobs or switches. Additionally, a digital camera will feature ports for connecting an AC-adapter and a cable to download your images to a computer. Choose a model with sturdy rubber covers or plugs for these ports in order to keep out lint, moisture and dirt. The rubber covers or plugs should attach to the camera; if they're separate pieces, you know they'll get lost quickly.

Choose a camera that has a zoom lens (most do). Ignore any specifications referring to a digital zoom. All a digital zoom does is enlarge the pixels in whatever image the camera sees, which will quickly make any zoomed image jaggedy and blurry. Focus instead on the specs of the optical zoom, which actually moves lens elements like a traditional zoom lens, enlarging the image before it's processed by the camera's electronics. Don't accept anything less than a 3x zoom, which is pretty standard. (By the way, if you're buying a digital video camera of any type, this same caveat applies. Ignore specs regarding "600x digital zoom" or the like, and opt for the best optical zoom specs you can afford.)

Many, but not all, digital cameras incorporate a design that retracts and covers the lens when the camera is off, thereby protecting it from damage and the elements. This is an absolute requirement for a patrol camera.

Your camera must include a built-in flash, and if you can afford a little higher-end camera, buy one with a hot-shoe or other means for connecting an external flash. The very nature of the small flashes built into digital cameras makes them useless for any serious photography, especially over longer distances.

All cameras, including digitals, feature some sort of viewfinder through which you view and compose your image. In addition to the traditional optical viewfinder found on all film cameras, digital cameras almost always include an LCD panel on the back that acts as a combination monitor for viewing the scene before the image is taken, viewer for examining the photos after they are taken and a means for viewing and manipulating any menus built into the camera for making settings adjustments. Two things about the LCD: Purchase the largest one you can afford (at least 2"), because a bigger LCD simplifies photo review; and select a camera with both an LCD panel and a traditional optical viewfinder. The LCD panel is very useful, but in bright sunlight it's almost impossible to see one. It can also prove awkward to use an LCD as a viewfinder, depending on the position an officer must assume to get the shot. And keep in mind, the more you use the LCD (which actually lights up like a computer monitor), the faster you'll run down your battery.


When selecting a digital camera for patrol (or any other use for that matter), make sure your camera can take photos at a high enough resolution so you can enlarge your prints to the size you need. Digital cameras are rated in megapixels (mp), which represents the number of pixels (in millions) in an image taken at maximum resolution. See "Size Matters" below to get an idea how megapixels correspond with maximum print sizes.

Most digital cameras can take photos at lower resolutions than they are rated for; e.g., a 3mp camera can usually take pictures at 2mp or even 1mp. And sometimes you can end up with a picture taken at too high of a resolution, such as a 4mp image intended for posting on a Web site. Such a large file will take viewers a relatively long time to download, and they won't see benefits from the high resolution anyway because they'll view the photo on a relatively small, low-resolution computer monitor.

Remember, more megapixels means a much larger picture and, therefore, a much larger computer file. So, if you shoot photos for the Internet, or plan to send them via e-mail, limit them to about 1mp. On the other hand, if you need a large print, use your camera's highest resolution setting. If in doubt, always use the camera's highest resolution setting.

For general patrol photography, accept nothing less than a 3mp camera. Anything less than this will limit your ability to provide usable enlargements and will prevent the detailed study of any specific items captured in the image.


Most currently manufactured digital cameras feature very limited internal memory; instead, images are stored on removable memory cards, sometimes referred to as "media." Many competing formats of these media exist, and most work equally well, although some are more expensive than others. Naturally, the more capacity a memory card offers, the more expensive it is.

Remember: The higher the mega-pixel rating of your images, the larger the individual picture files it will produce. Therefore, you will need more space to store your photos. If you purchase too small a card and shoot pictures at too high a resolution, you might only get two or three photos on your card. Once it's full, you can't take any more photos until you erase some, download them to your computer or replace your full card with a fresh one.

Number  Maximum Usable of Megapixels Enlargement for Printing
 1- 4" x 6"
 2- 5" x 7"
 3- 8" x 10"
 4- 11" x 14"
 5- 12" x 16"
 6- 16" x 20"

Memory card prices have decreased dramatically, so you shouldn't skimp here. Get at least 512MB cards for your officers, and get each officer two, or even three. That way, once they've taken a set of photos, they can turn them in for downloading to a computer in the station and still have two to take on the street. They need two, of course, because Murphy's Law dictates that if they only have one memory card, it will break or disappear, and then their camera will be worthless.

Some memory cards max out at certain storage capacities. Small point-and-shoot type digital cameras typically use Secure Digital (SD) cards, available in sizes up to 2GB (a gigabyte is a billion bytes, or 1,024 megabytes) for about $200. A cheaper and more manageable size-officers don't really need 2GB cards unless they're shooting a lot of high resolution shots-is 512MB, typically available for around $60-$80.

Some cameras use a newer type of card known as an xD picture card, which is about one half the physical size of an SD card. Until recently only available in sizes up to 512MB, Olympus, Fuji and others now make a 1GB model. Again, 512MB is probably more than adequate for patrol work, and you can expect to pay around $60-$70. However, the 1GB cards only cost $90-$100, so the extra outlay might be worth it, depending on your needs.

Of course, there are other formats, such as CompactFlash (CF), an older format that's fairly large physically and, therefore, typically found in larger cameras like Nikon's D-70 digital single-lens reflex camera. The CF card is known for its durability, primarily because its contacts are contained within the device. You can get CF in large capacities up to 4GB for around $400-$500. Another format: Memory-Stick, which comes in numerous iterations but remains exclusive to Sony cameras. If you want to know more about memory cards and the various formats available, check out www.steves-digicams.com/flash_memory.html#sd.

Final Numbers

All in all, a 3mp camera that meets these recommended specifications should cost less than $300, and often closer to $200. But remember, you'll need to factor in extra for memory cards and a case.

In part two, I'll address the storage issue, evidence preservation and image management, as well as suggested policy and procedure guidelines for managing digital images at your department.                                

*Check your department policy and/or with your district attorney. Some policies prohibit any deletion and require that all photos taken at a crime scene be considered evidence.

Steve Ashley is a retired police officer, and an active trainer and risk manager. Contact him at steve@sashley.com.


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